Lawrence Thomas has seen a lot in his lifetime. From farming to fishing, to salvage diving, the long-time Morro Bay resident and Embarcadero merchant has led a rich life.
Last Friday family and friends gathered at Pacific Café to honor Thomas’ 90th birthday and remember the good old days and high seas adventures. Lifelong friends, Ernie Porter and Dean Tyler, both in their 80’s, were on hand as well.
Thomas was born in Sonoma County, he recalled in a soft whisper of a voice. When he was two, the family moved to Oklahoma where they farmed for about eight years, before returning to Sebastopol. He married his childhood sweetheart, Louise Bollinger, and eventually caught the fishing fever in 1934. He bought a small fishing boat, the Katherine, and took off in March of that year for Alaska. “We were told we would never make it” said Thomas. In those days Louise fished with him, he said. Both his children, a sons and a daughter, were born in Ketchikan. “Alaska was still a territory back then,” said Thomas, who fished for salmon. In 1944, he moved to Oregon after a trip there convinced him the sun still does shine somewhere in the world.
“It rained all the time up in Alaska,” said Thomas. In 1947, while shark fishing with a mile long drift net, Thomas said he ran into a squall. “It got so rough offshore I came into Morro Bay,” said Thomas. He spent a week in Morro Bay and was hooked. “After all that bad weather, and one week in Morro Bay it looked like a great place to live. I bought a house and a lot before I left town.”
“I called my wife and said we’re moving back to California,” said Thomas, who shared his discovery with other fishermen. “I’m the one who told all of those guys in Oregon about Morro Bay,” said Thomas, a sly grin on his face. “We used to fish sharks for the vitamin A and liver. Then they synthetically made vitamin A and that business came to a sudden end.”
Morro Bay was not too far south of the salmon grounds of Oregon or too north of the albacore grounds of Mexico, explained Thomas. He met Tyler soon after that. “I came here in 1948, a year after Lawrence did,” said Tyler, who with wife Bertha, owns the Morro Bay Aquarium and gift shop. The two began to work abalone and that’s where SLO County native Porter entered the picture. Born in Atascadero, Porter remembers driving over Highway 41 to go home. Porter said Thomas didn’t even know how to swim when they first started diving together. Soon, however, the two were diving partners and salvaged the famous area off Vandenberg where in 1923 seven navy destroyers became lost in the fog and ran aground, sinking all seven ships. They were the first civilians to salvage from the vessels, and many of their artifacts have been donated to museums.
The three-year salvage had some interesting aspects. “Vandenberg would fire off missiles every day and you’d have to get out of there,” said Thomas. “They’d tell you when they were going to start but not when they were going to end.”
Porter said they were lucky to get in six weeks of salvage work in a year. “The military wanted all the good weather to fire their missiles,” said Porter. Still the three of them managed to pull some 60 tons of brass from the doomed ships. Quite a feat considering they did it in a wooden hulled boat with a rigged up floating platform to carry all the heavy stuff.
The first time they dropped down onto the wrecks Porter said they sat him down right on top of about 300 pounds of solid brass. The navy had taken all the missiles and anything else it wanted, said Porter. A large salvage company took the next picking and by the time Porter, Tyler and Thomas arrived the common thinking was there wasn’t anything left to take.
Thomas fished shrimp for a time, having one of the first shrimp permit in California. Tyler was his deckhand. “At that time we had the deepest shrimp grounds in the world,” said Thomas. That was at 60-80 fathoms and today they catch shrimp several times that depth.
Thomas opened the first shell shop, just a shack really, in 1955. He also had a small wood business where sales were made on the honor system. For three years the wood shop was run well on the honor system, said Thomas. The fourth year it has about a ten percent loss, 25 percent loss the next year and that was the end of the wood business for Thomas. The Shell Shop has allowed Thomas to make two trips around the world buying for the store. “I had to fish to support the shop” said Thomas “when it got to where the shop was paying for itself, I sold the boat and worked the shop.”
Every year the shop’s business increased and now Thomas has to import his shells in 20-foot containers. And despite what some people think, all the shells Thomas sells are by products of different cultures. “Almost all the shells we sell in the shop are taken primarily for food. The shell is a byproduct,” said Thomas. Through he retired at 73, he still works occasionally. “As long as you keep working you’re going to be alive,” said Thomas. “I think what helped me out was eating so much fish.”
Farrell, Neil “Recalling the good Ol’ Days” Morro Bay The Sun Bulletin Print.