Posted by: Kath Usitalo | June 3, 2010

Today Is National Repeat Day: I’m Going Back To Prison

Today is National Repeat Day. I’m assuming the person who declared it such did so after having a really, really good June 3rd.

In honor of this holiday I’m repeating the post from March 24, 2010 with the addition of a photo of the ball and chain souvenir I mentioned. It bubbled up from the Great Lakes Gazette Archives!

Vacancy Marquette Prison: A prisoner made this ball and chain souvenir many moons ago; wonder where he is today?

A Souvenir From Prison

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 (below). 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.”

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



  1. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting forgetful, old, or what, but I really appreciate things when they come around a second time. Thanks!

    • Maybe we should repeat Repeat Day more often 😉

  2. Last summer I read a book called “100 Years at Hard Labor” which was a centennial history of Marquette Prison. Fascinating book and amazing how much it’s changed in that time!

    I remember strolling through the gardens while @ Northern and the gift shop – was sad when they closed them.

    • I drove through the gates last time I breezed through Marquette; must have been a shift change because several guards were walking from the parking lot, eyeing me warily….thought they were going to nail me for suspicious behavior. Then I realized they were probably just trying to figure out the paint job on my Splattered Van!
      There were some flower beds in the little park-like area; too early in the year to tell if they will be blooming this season.

  3. Haha this is hilarious! I went to school at NMU and my friends and I would stop in to buy gag gifts for our friends. Remember each item for sale had the prisoner’s number on it?

    • I did not remember about the prisoner’s number…thanks. Glad someone else shopped there, too!

  4. I just bought a similar souvenir with the ball and chain, but it is attached to a skeleton-looking man in stripes. Don’t know why, but it “spoke” to me. Found this article in my search for info on the item.
    Despite my own straight and narrow conventional life, I am for some reason drawn to the art of the outsiders.

    • Isn’t that something? Have any idea whether yours is “vintage” as well, or a newer creation?

      • It is definitely not a new creation. When I first saw it, I thought of those Mexican “Day of the Dead” skeleton scenes.

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