Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey
A series of 13 structures made from colored bottles and other materials salvaged from the neighborhood dump, Bottle Village is located at 4595 Cochran Street, Simi Valley, California. Work on Bottle Village began in 1956 and continued until 1981. Since then, the site has weathered damage from the 1994 Northridge earthquake, been named a National Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
At the age of 60, Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey was doing a lot of stuff women her age don’t usually do. The year was 1956. The place was Simi Valley, California. She and her husband Al had just purchased a hilly one-third of an acre on Cochran Street with thoughts of settling down. There they leveled the land and parked their trailer. To make sure they would stay put, Prisbrey removed the trailer’s wheels and hid them. In “grounding” the trailer, Prisbrey also grounded herself. She was now able to put her mind—and hands—to her creative projects. Not even she could imagine they would lead her to the making of Bottle Village.
Tressa Prisbrey had not meant to become a cult icon. Nor had she intended to build what would become Simi Valley’s most popular tourist attraction. Her original idea was to build a wall to keep away the smell and dust of the adjacent turkey farm and to simply create a structure where she could store her commemorative pencils, all 17,000 of them. The problem was money. She had spent her last dollars on the Cochran Street property. Hoping to find a cheap way to build, she paid a visit to the local dump. There she found her solution in the form of thousands of colored bottles. These bottles would help her lay the foundation for her village.
Making Do and Making Things
Making do was something Prisbrey had become quite good at. Her life until this time had been far from easy. Born in 1896 in Easton, Minnesota, Prisbrey was the unexpected eighth child of parents with little means. Childhood limitations taught Prisbrey to do things her own way. At the age of 15, she married 52-year-old Theodore Grinolds, the ex-husband of her sister and a man of questionable character. By 1926, Prisbrey had given birth to seven children and had had her fill of Theodore Grinolds. She left him that year, taking a job waiting tables in Minot, North Dakota.
Waitressing was one of many “odd jobs” Prisbrey would have in her lifetime. She worked as an entertainer, singer and piano player, and participated in North Dakota politics. During World War II, she was employed as a parts assembler for Boeing Corporation in Seattle. She would build her own house from concrete blocks and later take on the task of master architect at 4595 Cochran Street.
One Woman’s Trash, Another Woman’s Treasure
In 1946, Prisbrey moved to California. Within a year she had met and married her second husband, Al Prisbrey. She began work on Bottle Village in 1956, using discarded bottles from her husband’s “bad habit.” The neighborhood dump was another good source of materials, as well as an inspiration. Prisbrey described the dump as a graveyard for lost articles and discarded treasures. With her touch, forgotten dolls became artistic installations (as seen with Dolls Head Shrine). Prisbrey turned salvaged car headlights into shimmering rose gardens.
Before long, Bottle Village had become a Southern California tourist attraction, preferred by some to popular theme parks like Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. Monuments within Bottle Village gained cult status. Her Dolls Head Shrine, for example, was reproduced on the cover of Wall of Voodoo’s chart-topping single “Mexican Radio” in 1982.
Tough Times, Tour Guides and National Recognition
The late 1960s was a tough time for the Bottle Village visionary. Within a five-year period, Prisbrey had lost her husband, Al, a daughter and three sons. Threatened by further loss—that of her son Hubert—she sold her property on Cochran Street and moved to Oregon. There, she cared for her son until his death two years later. Again loss sent her back to Bottle Village.
She returned to Cochran Street in 1974, this time as a caretaker. She resumed her colorful role as tour guide, telling stories about Bottle Village to anyone who would pay the 25-cent entrance fee. Her tours often ended at the piano, where she would sing and play risqué 1920s songs for her visitors. Prisbrey’s presence at Bottle Village marked a big shift in the site’s future and ensured her own place in outsider art history. With its architect again residing on the premises, Bottle Village attracted national attention and landmark status. In 1979, Bottle Village was named a Ventura County Cultural Landmark. That same year it became the official landmark of the City of Simi Valley. Grandma’s village of bottles was declared a California State Historical Landmark two years later, in 1981.
Even in her eighties, Prisbrey showed little sign of slowing down. Between 1974 and 1979, her work was featured in five major traveling exhibitions. Prisbrey’s talents were sought by the Simi Valley Library, who asked her to design a bottle mural for their new building.
Almost Evicted from her Village
Despite all this attention, Bottle Village was not safe from harm. Prisbrey’s state landmark sat on land she no longer owned. There were threats of destruction. To make matters worse, Prisbrey’s health was beginning to fail. Things took a turn for the worse in 1981 when she received an eviction notice. Ollie Phillips, the property owner at the time, wanted Grandma off his land. He fenced the property and threatened to destroy Bottle Village. Just as Bottle Village’s future began to look bleak, an odd twist of fate took Mr. Phillips out of the picture. Just after agreeing to sell the property for $87,500, Phillips was fatally wounded in what was later described as an “accidental shooting.”
For the moment Bottle Village was safe. Prisbrey’s health, however, continued to decline. In 1982, she moved to San Francisco to live with her one surviving daughter. Two years later, she passed away at the age of 92. Prisbrey’s death marked the end of an era. The story of Bottle Village, however, was far from over.
Bottle Village Sees a Shake Up
On January 17, 1994, a 6.7 magnitude earthquake hit Los Angeles. With its epicenter located eight miles from Bottle Village, the quake caused severe structural damage, again threatening the security of Bottle Village. Damaged was assessed and loans for repairs were approved. Once again, controversy ensued. Some felt it was a waste of federal funds to repair this national treasure made from clutter. The press cried out and again all eyes were on the village. Another several years would pass before money was secured and Prisbrey’s Village was rebuilt.
The creation of Bottle Village took one woman’s imagination. Its survival, however, has been a collective effort. The Preserve Bottle Village Committee, founded in 1979, spearheaded efforts to buy the property and continue to lead preservation efforts. Financial support has come from many sources; FEMA, Larry Janss of the School of the Pacific Islands Foundation, SPACES, the Rothschild Foundation and the Golden Rule Foundation, in addition to many generous individuals. Today, Bottle Village is open to the public by appointment.
Bottle Village was damaged by the 1994 Northridge earthquake. It has since been repaired but still needs additional maintenance and preservation work. In 1996, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Today Bottle Village is maintained by the Preserve Bottle Village Committee and is open to the public by appointment.
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"DOLLS, DOLLS, DOLLS - Grandma has dolls that people have given her from all over the United States and even from foreign countries. 'People give me dolls that they could sell to collectors but would rather see on display here,' said Grandma. She takes extreme pride in her original Shirley Temple doll."
—From Prisbrey’s self-published booklet, Grandma's Bottle Village
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