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.”