HISTORY IN
    
THE COUNTY OF
          SAN LUIS OBISPO
 
Site  by Lynne Landwehr © 2001
   

 

 

 

 

 

Features and Information:
First-Person Historical Narratives

  

From Morro Bay's Yesterdays,
by Dorothy L. Gates and Jane H. Bailey,
Morro Bay: El Moro Publications, 1982, 1993,
excerpt by Glen Bickford:
A Midwesterner reports
from the Pacific floor, 1936 

       [Note: This excerpt is re-printed here with the generous permission of Jane H. Bailey.   Morro Bay's Yesterdays is newly available in a third printing as of summer 2001.  
          Glen Bickford came out to the Pacific Coast from Adams County, Iowa, in 1935, and found himself diving for abalone off Morro Bay, following, literally, in the footsteps of the Chinese, who from the 1870s on harvested abalone in the inter-tidal zone, and then of the Japanese, who subsequently pioneered the use of diving suits in the quest for the red mollusk officially known as Haliotidae.  The following is excerpted from two letters which Mr. Bickford sent home to Iowa in 1936, and which appear on pp. 74-76 of Morro Bay's Yesterdays.  Mr. Bickford was so fresh to the Pacific scene that his analogies--to carnations, rabbit-hunting, swarms of bees, and dry creek beds--were still partially rooted in a Midwesterner's frame of reference.  
       Glen Bickford died October 9, 2001, in Morro Bay.   --Lynne Landwehr]

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           “I have been down on the bottom of the ocean twice since I started working on the boat.  The first time was about a month ago….We were anchored in about 30 feet of water.  Bill put the suit on me first and I climbed down the ladder and he put on the weights.  A diving dress is about as cumbersome a costume as anyone would ever hope to wear.  First the diver puts on about 6 suits of woolen underwear and four or five pair of woolen socks.  The diving dress itself is a heavy canvas and rubber suit, with a heavy rubber collar and rubber cuffs.  The cuffs fit tight around the wrists, leaving the hands bare.  

"A diving dress is about as cumbersome
a costume as anyone would ever hope to wear...."
  
Glen Bickford,
abalone diver and photo-historian
of Morro Bay since 1930s.
Photo courtesy of
Glen Bickford and Jane Bailey.

          "A brass breast-plate goes on the shoulders and clamps to the collar.  The helmet fits on the breast plate, screws tight, and locks with a pin.  The air hose leads into the back of the breast plate or the back of the helmet, depending on the type of outfit.  The life-line is tied to a leather belt around the waist.  The valve for regulating the inflowing air is also on the belt.  The valve that regulates the air going out is on the side of the helmet.  The diver wears shoes with lead soles weighing about 20 pounds each.  The helmet and breast plate weigh about 75 pounds.  

          "When everything but the helmet is on, the diver climbs out on the ladder and 15-pound lead weights are put on his back and chest.  Then you put on the helmet, screw in the face-plate, hang the abalone bar on his right wrist, put a basket in his hand and slap him twice on the top of the helmet.  He just steps backward off the ladder and you lower him to the bottom….

          “I gave the signal [that] I was down and then looked around and I could hardly believe my eyes.  I’ve seen some beautiful sights but I’ll take the bottom of the ocean over all of them.  There’s no use trying to describe it, because no one can have any idea unless he has seen it.

          “I was in a little gully about 8 feet wide, that looked just like a dry creek bed, with steep rocky sides and a sandy bottom.  The sides were covered with a heavy growth of seaweed, and it was every color of the rainbow.  Right in front of me was a bed of carnations [i.e. sea anemones], and I reached out and touched one with the abalone bar.  It disappeared before my eyes, so I investigated further.  Each one was growing out of a little tube about an inch long and as big around as a lead pencil.  When anything touched it, it drew back into the little tube so quickly it disappeared like a busted balloon.  I stayed there and poked every one of them, and then went looking for something else. 

          “The water was clear as crystal except when a swell came through, and I could see clearly for about 20 feet.  Once in a while a big swell would go by, and all the seaweed would lie down flat and then turn back and lie down the other way, and blow around like a feather in the breeze, and the air would be so full of dust and ashes that I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face for a few minutes.  All around me were star fish, and other animals that I don’t know the names of.  And fish—you wouldn’t believe it.  Schools of little fellows about 6 inches long went by, and floated all around and looked in the glass to see if they recognized me. Smaller ones, about an inch long, went by in swarms like bees, thousands of them.  I saw only a couple of large ones.  I saw a cod fish about 2 feet long and tried to catch him in the basket, but he ran in a hole just like a rabbit….

          “I looked and looked, and lay down and peeked under rocks and poked into every crevice, but there didn’t seem to be any abalones.  At last I saw one.  Everything is magnified down there, and he looked as big as a dishpan.  I hung over him and gloated over him for a while and then shoved the bar under him and snapped him off the rock, and as he lay there on the ground, belly up, I was as thrilled as the day I shot my first rabbit.  I measured him on the bar and he was nine inches long, an unusually large abalone, though nothing phenomenal.  I have seen them as large as thirteen inches.  There was a black mark on the rock where he had been, and I looked around and could see [the black marks] everywhere.  Someone had been there and had cleaned the place up.  I poked around in the cracks and finally found enough to fill the basket fairly well up, and sent them up.  Then I started out looking for some more and couldn’t find them. 

          “The pressure was beginning to tell on me and I was very tired and beginning to get sick.  The water holds the suit so tight to your legs and body that you feel as if you were in a vice.  At that depth, you can keep enough air in the suit to hold the upper part of it away from your chest, but at 60 or 70 feet, it clamps around your chest till every breath is an effort.  Nevertheless, I had had enough, but I was resolved not to take up an empty basket.  I climbed over rocks and poked into crevices and looked everywhere, but it seemed as though there were no more abalones in the world.  At last I looked down into a little hollow and saw four big fat ones and pried them off, put them in the basket, and signaled to go up.

          “I was very sick at my stomach by this time, and the bottom of the boat was one of the most welcome sights I ever laid eyes on.  I was afraid I would throw up before I got the helmet off, but I didn’t, and the fresh air soon cured me.  I was a very sick Indian for about 15 minutes, but in a little while I was as good as ever….

          “Diving is a tough way to make a living, and I don’t see how any man stands it to go down day after day and week after week, 6 or 8 hours a day under water.  I was only down a little over an hour, and I can understand something of what a man goes through working all day.  It gets the toughest of them down after a while.  They get punch drunk, just like prize fighters.  After a couple of weeks of good weather, working every day, the divers all get screwy as a bunch of pet coons.  They get so they don’t hear what is said to them and don’t remember the things they say and do.  They are just as apt as not to use tools and [to] toss them overboard under the impression that they put them back in the tool box.  Bill Pierce went into a restaurant here in town one night and ordered a steak dinner.  While it was being cooked, he put on his hat and went out and got in his car and drove to San Luis.  He never thought about his dinner again until he got back to Morro and the restaurant man jumped him and wanted to know what was the idea.”

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Abalone Mountain

Bill Pierce's abalone processing "gang" at the first "shop" in Morro Bay (today 580 Monterey Avenue).  Pierce began his abalone diving and processing career in the 1930s; he died in a diving accident in 1944.  Left to right, front row: Frank "Pepper" Herrera, Carl Pierce, Ed Pierce, Charlie Pierce, Bill Kester.  Back row: Walt Pierce, Tom Pierce, Carl Tonini, Les Pierce.  Far right: A.R. "Dutch" Pierce.  

With seven of  the ten men pictured named Pierce, this was clearly a family operation.  Photo courtesy of Glen Bickford and Jane Bailey.

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