Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey


Prisbrey built from bottles the buildings known as Bottle Village, in San Fernando Valley, California. She spent her early childhood in rural Minnesota. In 1908 her family movedfrom her birthplace near the town of Wells to a homestead near Minot, North Dakota. Four years later, when she was fifteen, she married Theodore Grinolds, a man of questionable reputation. Many years later she said she was essentially “sold” to Grinolds by her father. She bore Grinolds seven children over the next fifteen to twentyyears, but in the late 1920s or early 1930s she left him, taking some of her children with her. Grinolds died soon afterward. In the years that followed she lost many of her siblings, and all but one of her children, to tragic circumstances.During the 1930s Prisbrey worked as a waitress at a restaurant in Minot, where she sometimes played piano for customers. She also became active in state politics.She began a lifelong habit of collecting pencils after two North Dakota governors gave her commemorative pencils. She spent the World War II years in Seattle,Washington, where she worked assembling parts for the Boeing Corporation. In 1950 she moved to a small community then known as Santa Susanna, in thenorthwestern part of California’s San Fernando Valley, and built a cement-block house where she briefly lived.In 1954, in Santa Susanna, she met and married Al Prisbrey, a construction worker. With the proceeds from the sale of her house, they bought a 45-by-275-footlot, and moved a trailer onto it. Soon afterward, she began making regular trips to a nearby garbage dump to collect the bottles that she came to be known for using asart materials. She used some of them to build a thirty-foot-high outdoor wall. Prisbrey next completed a small bottle-walled building where she housed her pencilcollection—which, in her estimation, numbered up to 17,000. The wall and the “Pencil House” were the first of thirteen buildings and nine additional structures sheeventually built on the site, including a 500-foot, bottle-and-concrete fence that surrounded it. Constructed between 1955 and 1963, these small buildings housed her additional collections of dolls, books, unusual bottles, and other artifacts. Prisbrey spent much of her time in her remaining years maintaining and embellishing the site,and it became a popular tourist attraction. Prisbrey delighted in entertaining visitors until the last few years of her life, when her health began to fail. She died in SanFrancisco in 1988.