A Prison Becomes a Home If You Have the Key

The first motor-powered mail stage in Big Sur, circa 1925

For centuries, residents living in the most inaccessible and remote American communities found the services of United States Postal Service essential to their way of life. Delivering the mail in Big Sur was no mean feat.

The first motor drawn mail stage wasn’t purchased until 1923. If the coast road was blocked by winter landslides and flooding and the stage couldn’t get through, the mail had to be delivered on horseback.

In the days before a local post office, whoever happened to be coming down the coast would bring the mail with them. Often weeks went by without anyone making the trip. Folks living on the southern part of the coast, in Pacific Valley and Gorda, had to go all the way to Jolon to pick up their mail, staying overnight at the Tidball Hotel.

In 1890, the first official post office in Gorda, California, was established in Byron Plaskett’s house and Billy Plaskett was the first postmaster.

Bill and Anselma Post’s home – the first post office in Big Sur, known as “Posts”

The first official US Post Office in Big Sur was established in 1882, at Posts – W. B. (Bill) and Anselma Post’s ranch.  Everybody called it “Posts.” But when the Presidio of Monterey became active, mail addressed to Posts was delivered to the Presidio, and vice versa. The mail stage only serviced Big Sur twice a week at that time, so sometimes weeks would go by before an incorrectly delivered letter arrived at the intended address.

Bill Post petitioned Washington DC to change the name of the post office. First, they tried Arbolado – literally “tree-covered,” but soon discovered that when written, it looked so much like Alvarado, the name of the Main Street in Monterey. Once again, postal workers were confused, and mail didn’t arrive in a timely manner. Finally, in 1915, the name Big Sur Post Office was assigned, and the mail delivery problems were abated. Florence Swetnam Pfeiffer became postmaster in 1905 – a position she held for three decades. Posts Post Office moved two miles north to John and Florence’s home (in present day Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park)

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In the early 1890s, the first US mail delivery route contract in the Big Sur area was awarded to a teamster from Salinas named Charles Kessler. He was killed when his horses went over a cliff on the old Coast Road.

At that time, one of the men who drove the mail stage was the son of old man Jones, a religious fanatic who lived on a bluff overlooking the sea, near Rocky Point, just north of Notley’s Landing.  The October 31, 1891, issue of Monterey Cypress newspaper printed an account of a tragedy that befell the Jones family:

“Tuesday morning last, constable Joe Wolter brought the intelligence than an unmarried lady named Florence Jones had committed suicide by precipitating herself from a cliff into the ocean, at Jones’s ranch about 13 miles south of the city.

“From a neighbor of the Joneses’ a Cypress reporter learned that the girl had been a devout Christian all her life, so much so that her mind became unsettled on the subject. Monday morning while her father was milking, the girl informed her mother that she had no more use for this world and that she was going to heaven to see her Maker. She then started for the cliff, and her mother realizing what she was about to do called her husband, who left the cows and started after the girl, calling her back. The daughter would not stop, whereon the father ran after her, when she ran also. Realizing that he could not catch her, he stopped and begin to argue the point with her.

“ ‘Your father is talking to you,’  he said.

“ ‘You are not my father, my father is in heaven,’ answered the girl.

“Mr. Jones then told her that her mother wished to speak to her before she went, whereupon the girl consented to return and finish her work. She went back to the house, but instead of the father securing her, he returned to his work milking. The girl seizing the opportunity again ran toward the cliff and threw herself overboard before the father could prevent it. The rock from when she jumped is about 100 feet high, and it is evident that the unfortunate girl was dead before she struck the water.

“The body could be seen floating near the shore, but owing to the rough nature of the surroundings it was found almost impossible to recover it. When her brother who drives the mail wagon between here and the Sur, arrived, he climb down the rocks and tried to rescue the body, but was unable to do so, and was himself washed overboard; he succeeded in grasping a cliff, however, and had hard work to save himself. Next morning at daylight, he again descended to the rocks below, where he found the remains of his sister lodged between two rocks, and fastening a rope to her succeeded with the help of neighbors in hauling her up. The neighbors stated that the entire family, except the brother, are supposed to be weak minded on the subject of religion, and that both of the girl’s parents looked upon their daughter’s death as a mere transition from earth to heaven.

“The deceased was about 35 years of age, and will be remembered by many as the person, who, a few years ago, visited all the houses in the city to ascertain the religious standing of the community.”

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Rocky Point

Doc Roberts, the first physician to practice in Big Sur, was a veritable fount of Monterey County folklore. Fifty-five years after the event, in 1946, he told Rosalind Sharpe Wall that Florence Jones’ body was badly crushed by the fall. He said that he helped carry her corpse up from the rocky beach and said that there was still seaweed in her auburn hair when they laid her out in the coffin. Old man Jones told him, “I saw her soul ascending into heaven like a little lamb.”

Richard and Helena Smith bought the Dexter ranch in 1888, and a few years later, after Florence Jones’ suicide, they purchased the adjoining Jones Ranch at Rocky Point. According to Doc Roberts, Richard Smith had to dig up Florence Jones’ grave to make way for a construction project and reinter her remains in another location. When they exhumed her coffin, they saw that, after death, her auburn hair had grown through the cracks in the casket. (Although hair does not continue to grow after death, our folklore is full of tales about hair growing on the scalps of dead bodies.)

Robinson Jeffers long poem, “Give Your Heart to the Hawks”, was published in 1933. In the poem, the character Fraser, the fanatically religious old man, sounds a lot like old man Jones, and Fraser’s redheaded daughter, Fayne, is reminiscent of Florence Jones.

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Suicides often make the front page of the newspaper, as they have for centuries.  Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip, published in 1973, contains photographs and newspaper clippings documenting the hardship of life in a rural midwestern region in the 1880s. Warren Sussman wrote, in his preface to this book:

“These writings transformed what were private acts into public events. In a time that was disjointed by a depression as epidemically fatal and grotesque as the most contagious disease, these articles created temporary but intimate bonds between creatures who had been separated and divided by a selfish culture of secular Calvinism. These accounts permitted people to share their misery by turning strangers into relatives. They attributed and articulated the motives of the most secret and private of undertakings, the act of suicide, and so permitted desperate people to be solaced by other’s despair. These accounts turned grief inside out; they turned murderous sorrow outward toward the eyes of a crowd that could not only comfort it, but by participating in it, could be immunized against it. Such weekly articles and notices served purposes similar to those of commercial photography: they were a symbolic way of dealing with an inhuman fate that made some men helpless by making them suddenly and inexplicably poor, and that drove some women mad with grief and remorse by quickly killing their children.”

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George Sterling

Some of Robinson Jeffers’ poems were, in fact, inspired by real-life events. Jeffers’ heard gossip about the residents of Big Sur, from his friend, the poet George Sterling. Boyd Pearson said of George Sterling, “As all good poets should be, he was a drunkard and a womanizer.”

Born in Sag Harbor, New York in 1869, Sterling is best known for his epic poems “The Testimony of the Suns” and “A Wine of Wizardry.” Sterling wrote about a number of the taboo subjects of the time, including incest and homosexuality. Jack London depicted his drinking buddy, George Sterling in two of his novels: as Russ Brissenden in the autobiographical Martin Eden and as Mark Hall in The Valley of the Moon.

At the turn of the century, there was still lots of abalone in Carmel Bay and the surrounding coastline. The Italian word lazzaroni refers the poorest of the lower class. In those days, the lazzaroni on the coast of Monterey County complained of having to eat red abalone every night, for it was one of the most readily available, plentiful, and cheap sources of protein.

Frank H. Powers was a successful lawyer from San Francisco who had a second home in Carmel. He liked to hang out with writers and had an obsessive interest in the California missions. In 1905, Powers persuaded his 36-year-old friend George Sterling to move to Carmel. Powers introduced Sterling to abalone, teaching him how to pluck them from the rocks at low tide and the technique for preparing the meat. Abalone has to be thoroughly pounded, for it to be edible.

Ernest “Pop” Doelter

It is said that Frank Powers elevated the abalone to the heights of refined dining. Soon Ernest “Pop” Doelter began serving abalone steaks at his restaurant – first in downtown Monterey, on Alvarado Street, and later, a few blocks away, on the pier near the old Monterey Custom House.

Shortly after his arrival in Carmel, Sterling made up a song to be sung while pounding abalone (and never at any other time) to relieve the monotony of the rhythmic and repetitive task. Additional verses were composed extemporaneously, by friends including James Hopper, Harry Lafler, Gelett Burgess, and Harry Leon Wilson, who sat around the campfire on Carmel beach, pounding the shellfish cutlets into a culinary delicacy.

Sterling’s song has since become a folksong and gained some notoriety outside of the Monterey Peninsula. Carl Sandburg included several verses in his groundbreaking American Songbag, the bestselling book of folksongs of the 1920s:

Oh! Some folks boast of quail on toast, because they think it’s tony;

But I’m content to owe my rent and live on abalone.


Oh! Mission Point’s a friendly joint, where every crab’s a crony,

And true and kind you’ll ever find the clinging abalone.


He wanders free beside the sea, where e’er the coast is stony;

He flaps his wings and madly sings – the plaintiff abalone.


By Carmel Bay, the people say, they feed the lazzaroni

On mussel shells and caramels and hunks at abalone.


Some live on hope, and some on dope, and some on alimony;
But my tomcat, he lives on fat and tender abalone.


Carl Sandburg

Oh! Some drink rain, and some champagne, or brandy by the pony;

But I will try a little rye, with a dash of abalone.


Oh! Some like jam and some like ham, and some like macaroni;

But bring me a pail of gin and a tub of abalone


He hides in caves beneath the waves – his ancient patrimony;

And so tis shown that faith alone reveals the abalone


The more we take, the more they make, in deep-sea matrimony;
Race suicide cannot betide the fertile abalone.


I telegraph my better half by Morse or by Marconi,

But if the need arise for speed, I send an abalone


Some folks say that pain is real, and some say that it’s phony

But as for me, when I can’t agree, I eat an abalone.


Our naval hero, best of all, his name was Pauley Joney;

He sailed the seas as he darn’ pleased, but ne’er ate abalone.


Nora May French

Sterling had a tragic self-image, was chronically alcoholic, and had more than a passing interest in narcotics. He was the son of a doctor, which allowed him access to whatever pharmaceuticals he desired. His wife, Carrie said that George had also,”…purloined a great quantity of opium from his brother Wickham.”

For many years, Sterling carried a vial of cyanide with him wherever he went. When asked about it, he replied, “A prison becomes a home if you have the key.”

Mrs. George (Carrie) Sterling

On November 14, 1907, the 26-year-old poet Nora May French committed suicide by taking cyanide in George Sterling’s Carmel home, creating a national scandal. The Washington Post newspaper reported that “an unhappy love affair [not with Sterling] caused her suicide.”

The wound of this scandal was reopened eleven years later when Sterling’s wife, Carrie, also killed herself with a lethal dose of cyanide, on August 18, 1918,

On November 17, 1926, George Sterling had an appointment with the American humorist H.L. Mencken. But Mencken, who abhorred junkies, stood him up. “A fool who, after plain warning, persists in dosing himself with dangerous drugs,” Mencken later wrote, “should be free to do so, for his death is a benefit to the race in general.”

Later that day, alone in his room at the fashionable Bohemian Club in San Francisco, George Sterling ended his life by consuming the contents of the vial of cyanide he carried with him at all times.

The California historian Kevin Starr wrote, “When George Sterling’s corpse was discovered in his room at the Bohemian Club … the golden age of San Francisco’s bohemia had definitely come to a miserable end.”

In 1956, H.L. Mencken wrote, “I have known a good many men and women who took their own lives, but I can’t think of one whose decision was illogical.”

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Dr. Benjamin Rush portrait by Charles Willson Peale, circa 1818

One hundred and forty years earlier, in 1786, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a prominent physician and a member of the Continental Congress, wrote a medical text called, The Influence of Physical Causes upon the Moral Faculty. In it, Rush claimed to have diagnosed a disease he called Micronomia, “the partial or weakened action of the moral faculty,” citing certain “physical causes” that affected residents in inaccessible communities, such as climate, hunger, silence, isolation, and loneliness.

Dr. Rush warned, “In order to preserve the vigor of the moral faculty, it is of the utmost consequence to keep young people as ignorant as possible of the crimes that are generally thought most disgraceful to human nature. Suicide, I believe, is often propagated by means of newspapers. For this reason, I should be glad to see the proceedings of our courts kept from the public eye when they expose or punish monstrous vices.”

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George Sterling managed to haunt some of the women in his life, even after his death. During one of the worst years of the Great Depression, the June 9, 1933, issue of the Oakland Tribune printed a story about a woman hermit who lived alone in a remote, practically inaccessible cabin in the Santa Lucia Mountains:

“Melissa, probably Americas only woman hermit, has been living virtually in isolation for the past 10 years in a small cabin on a high ridge in the remote Big Sur section…

“Free from the clamor of civilization, free from the streams of city life, the woman lives in a frontier age, hunting her own food, felling trees for her firewood and raising a small group of chickens.

“Her lone existence in her mountain cabin has been known to gold prospectors and trappers in that section who have kept secret for many years. She is said to be friendly with several trappers who once a year bring a carload of supplies, old magazines and books.

“Guards at the convict camp in the Big Sur section where they are working on the highway, claim they have had an occasional glance of the woman, but she has always fled before they could question her.

“In Carmel, old-timers say they don’t know of any former woman resident, who mysteriously disappeared. Herbert Heron, former poet-mayor of the village, recalls, however, that a former woman friend of George Sterling, poet, vanished from Carmel following a quarrel. This woman, Heron said, figured in several of Sterling’s poems.

“As she is vaguely known, is said to be between 40 and 50 years old and heavyset. She is well read and has many valuable books in her cabin – most of them given to her by friends.”

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In the early 20th-century, the horse drawn mail stage delivered mail to Big Sur by on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. It took all day to travel the route from Monterey to Big Sur. The mail stage driver would spend the night and return to town the following day.

“The parcel post is a convenient way to ship camping supplies,” the Californian reported in July 1914. “The mail stage brought over 800 pounds July 1 and 1,400 pounds July 3, practically all came through to Arbolado [Big Sur]. The cost is practically 1 cent per pound in fifty-pound packages.”

In 1914, the contract for mail delivery on the coast was held by Charles Howland, who’d worked as the assistant lighthouse keeper at Point Sur. Howland and William T. Mitchell ran the Idlewild Hotel in the Little Sur.

At this time, an Englishman named John Corbett Grimes had just started driving the 38-mile mail stage route from Monterey to Big Sur. In September 1915, Grimes was awarded the delivery route. This required the posting of a $1,200 bond. Two months later, he began running a display advertisement in the local newspapers announcing:

Big Sur Stage: Carries Passengers and Freight.

Leaves Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings.

Office – Monterey Hotel or Garner’s Livery Stables.

-Corbett Grimes, prop.

John Corbett “Corby” Grimes

In 1903, at the age of eighteen, Grimes had emigrated from the village of Wiveton, on the banks of the River Glaven, in the county of Norfolk, in England, to start a new life in Monterey County. His uncle Ed Grimes, who lived high on the trail above Big Sur, was married to Ellen B. Post, W. B. “Bill” and Anselma Post’s oldest daughter.

In 1915, an advertisement in a local Monterey County newspaper proclaimed, “Monterey Land Is Cheap”:

“This county has probably the wildest range of prices. It must be realized by prospective purchasers that an available water supply must be certain. This supply may be from subterranean channels that drain off the higher elevations, or it may come from rivers and ditches; in any event the development of water must be considered along with the fertility of the soil before an investment is made. The highest priced land is situated in the Pajaro Valley, where the most highly improved orchards are to be found. The lower prices of land are to be found in the southern end of the Salinas Valley, especially on the west side. In the vicinity of Salinas, on the northeast side, good land brings $60 to $100 an acre, unimproved. The bottom land is held at a higher figure. Mesa land near King City will bring from $10 up, with $75 being obtained in small tracts. Grazing land hereabouts may be purchased for $2.50 to $15 an acre, while first-class bottom land is to be had at $50 and $100 an acre.”

Grimes tried his hand at farming at the Laguna Seco Rancho, but he found the cost of rented farmland in Monterey County wasn’t cheap at all – it was just as expensive as it was in England. In the Salinas Valley, the rental of the land wound up costing the farmer about a full third of his crop, sacked and delivered to the warehouse. And taxes were higher in California, too. Where English farmers were plagued by floods, farmers in California were plagued by drought.

In the great San Joaquin Valley, there were large tracks of farmland that, in some years, in an entire season, received less than four inches of rain. In November, of 1914, Corbett Grimes lost his crop in a wildfire.

The three-story house in Palo Colorado Canyon where Corby and Electa Grimes lived. Ike Swetnam and Al Clark built it, in 1898.

“Corby” Grimes was “all agog” with the wonders of the south coast and steeped in local folklore. In 1919, he married Adelaide Electa Dani (the daughter of the late Mary Ellen Pfeiffer and Alvin Dani) and they lived on a cattle ranch at Palo Colorado Canyon, in the three-story house Ike Swetnam and Al Clark had built, in 1898. Grimes served as a Monterey County roadmaster for three decades, maintaining the county routes through the Big Sur area.

Folklore provides a socially sanctioned outlet for the discussion of the forbidden and tabooed. Grimes is remembered as one of the best storytellers of his generation. During the fourteen-hour mail stage journey from Carmel to Big Sur, he regaled his fascinated passengers with dramatic and tragic tales, pointing out landmarks where every misfortune, suicide, murder, supernatural phenomenon, shipwreck, or lynching had taken place.

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After the death of their first child, the poet Robinson Jeffers and his wife, Una moved from Santa Barbara to Carmel. The First World War had just begun. Before sunrise, on Sunday, December 20, 1914, they boarded Corbett Grimes’ horse-drawn mail stagecoach on Ocean Avenue in Carmel, with their English bulldog, Billy Road, and began their first trip down the coast for the Christmas holiday. They hoped to arrive at Pfeiffer’s Ranch Resort in time for dinner, that same day.

Grimes was hauling sacks of mail and a full load of supplies in the horse drawn stagecoach. The Little Sur grade was so steep that Robinson Jeffers and his dog, Billy Road, had to get out and walk, to lighten the load. Grimes pointed out a deserted cabin that had gone to ruin, where a man had died a few years earlier. The fellow had been shanghaied on an ocean-going voyage out of San Francisco. He was so delighted to be off the ship and back in his cabin in Big Sur, he died with a smile on his face.

Robinson Jeffers photo by Edward Weston, 1933

Years later, Robinson Jeffers remembered his first trip down the coast on that wintry day at Christmastime:

“The coast seems solitary; there was light rain. I would not have written the same kind of thing if it had been a different kind of landscape. My first impression of the coast: it was wintertime, darker and more sinister. I was shocked later when I saw the Big Sur in summer and the hills golden. Perhaps I shouldn’t have said sinister; rather inhospitable to its inhabitants.”

“The first time I went down Serra Hill,” Jeffers later recalled, “there were a lot of buckeye trees. Grimes marked the spot where a wagon load of corpses fell over the side. The corpses rolled down the hill. Corbett said he didn’t know if they retrieved all of them.”

Jeffers was probably referring to dead from the shipwreck of the steamer Los Angeles, in April of 1894. The story about the corpses rolling down the hill is indeed memorable; however, it is likely folklore. Only five people died in the wreck of the Los Angeles and their bodies were transported from Point Sur to Monterey by ship. (See: Point Sur – The Worst Possible Place for a Shipwreck.)

Grimes likely related another story that had been in all the local newspapers that year – in fact, Jeffers may well have already read it. In 1914, Esteban Apesteguia, a young Basque farm worker on the Cooper Ranch was arrested and charged with repeatedly raping a developmentally disabled 16-year-old girl – the daughter of the ranch foreman, Angel Ramos. Apesteguia pleaded guilty and even offered to marry his victim, which the girl’s mother would not permit. The Judge, however, consider the offer of marriage sufficient cause for a probationary sentence.

“Jeffers epic poems deserve the celebration they received in the early 20th century, just as they deserve reappraisal today.” wrote John Walton in his article, The Poet as Ethnographer: Robinson Jeffers in Big Sur, in California History magazine.

“Unique and stylistic elegance and indelible voice, Jeffers poetry also was true – to its subjects into the natural world in which they struggled. Read as ethnography, his poetry deepens, complements, and uniquely adds to our historical understanding … Put another way, Jeffers poetry exhibits a verisimilitude so striking that we may read it as an accurate description of local life, provided, of course, that we do so with interpretive caution and an eye to other sources of confirmation.”

Dr. John L. D. Roberts cabin “Cyclone.”

There was a broken-down cabin on the coast road, opposite Doc Robert’s cabin, Cyclone, at the confluence of the north and south forks of the Little Sur River.

Grimes pointed to this deserted cabin and told Jeffers that this was where a young mother hanged herself and her four children, after being abandoned by her lover, who worked on the crew leveling the old County Road.

The previous year, the Jeffers’ first child had died on the day after her birth.

Still tender from grief, Robinson Jeffers found himself at Pfeiffer’s Ranch Resort over the 1914 Christmas holiday, face-to-face with John and Florence Pfeiffer, about whom he had heard stories from his friend, the poet George Sterling. (See: Seeing the Elephant – The Pfeiffer’s of Big Sur.)

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Categories: California History.