Posted by: Kath Usitalo | March 24, 2010

A Souvenir from Prison

The yellow sticker on this memento from the state prison gift shop reads Souvenir of Marquette

When we were kids our summer vacations were spent visiting relatives in the Upper Peninsula—Mom’s family in the farming town of Rock (north of Escanaba) and Dad’s in Copper Country, where he grew up. In between we went to jail. Sort of.

The route between the two familial hubs took us past the state prison in Marquette, which has housed wayward members of our society since 1889. The main building is an imposing Romanesque stone structure on the National Register of Historic Places, with beautiful flower gardens in front. (And maybe in back, too; fortunately we never had reason to venture beyond the front, public area of the grounds.)

After our peek at the “Castle” we’d stop at the prison gift shop outside of the penitentiary gates. Yes, the big bad boys on the other side of the picturesque walls spent their days in the slammer crafting souvenirs for sale at the roadside store.

I remember trying to visualize convicted murderers hand tooling flowers on leather belts and change purses, and building miniature models like the quaint logging vignette I unearthed from the Great Lakes Gazette Archives. My favorite souvenir from the joint was a tiny ball and chain on a block of wood; I imagined that inmate had a sense of humor about his situation.

Theoretically the men who made those mementos decades ago could still be locked up.

We last stopped at the shop when Graham and Paige were about 3 and 7, but we left empty-handed. The jailbirds had turned their talents to making T-shirts covered in dark, evil and vulgar designs and—I think I saw as we made a hasty retreat—leather belts hand tooled with four-letter words.

The prison gift shop is no longer open.

Note: I phoned the Marquette Branch Prison to see if it’s still okay for visitors to drive in to see the building and gardens; the gent laughed and said, as if he couldn’t believe anyone would voluntarily enter the grounds, “Not really. We might run you out of there.”



  1. Well, when “early release” hits the Great Lakes State I suppose those t-shirt designers will be selling their haute work in the major department stores and high fashion boutiques — in between visits from their parole agents and quick runs to the 7-11 stores for cash. Or making Ts for the VP?

  2. You’re right, Gary.
    I’m sure the shirts and messages that shocked me a decade ago are acceptable today in the highest office of the land—just ask Biden.

  3. haha, this could be our story, except it would be set just north of San Francisco and the prison would be St. Quentin, of course.
    They had a gift shop outside the “castle walls” there as well where the prisoners made wooden cable cars and other area landmarks. We stopped there only once, because you have to do everything once, right?

    • Funny. Wonder if their inventory took a turn, too?
      I do hope that ball and chain miniature surfaces in the basement.
      The question is, why do I hang onto these relics?

  4. I remember the gift shop, too – it was still in business when I was @ NMU. At that time it still sold the souvenir-type crafts and was a great place to pick up gifts for folks out-of-town.

    So you can’t drive in to see the gardens anymore? I think about going in every time I drive by there…..they’re beautimous!

    • I’m going to drive in there to check it out this summer, just to see what happens. If I end up in the slammer, please bring a cake with a file in it.

  5. “In between we went to jail”. Ha ha, I just laughed right out loud! Let us know what happens when you visit this summer. And bring our phone numbers with you. 🙂

  6. Rest assured…Kathy and I will ride to the rescue – it’ll take us about an hour and a half (if we don’t stop to take pictures) but we’ll bring a fiile tucked in fresh niisu!

    • Ha ha, Cindy Lou! Niisu to the rescue!

      • Love the nisu idea. Can fit a longer file in a loaf than a cake anyway.

  7. I had a basketball toy from there, and was just telling my kids about the store. I still recall the sticker on the wood court, and the long # on the sticker. I was told that was the # of the prisoner.

    • Isn’t that something? I’ve heard about the number from others. Interesting. Thanks for checking in at Great Lakes Gazette!

  8. In 1962 my mother bought a painting from the gift shop. An African setting done on black velvet I only have the painters nick name on the painting. Is there any record of Bazila ?.

    • Wow, that’s a treasure. I have no way of knowing about the artist. Have you tried contacting the prison directly?

  9. I have a picture frame lamp from the prison and was trying to find a cost for ins I’m 52 and the lamp is about as old

    • I wonder if one of the antiques stores in Marquette would have an idea?

  10. I remember the prison and gift shop in the late 50s and early 60s just as you described it. Then the gift shop was well stocked with many nice hand-crafted items. I chose a very well made birch bark canoe, about 10-12 inches long; I don’t know what happened to it but I wish I still had it. If I recall correctly, when you bought something you could write a note to the prisoner who made it. The prices for the crafts were very low.

    • Yes, it’s sad to see that empty shop just sitting there. I don’t remember the part about the chance to write a note to the prisoner who made the item.

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