Monthly Archives: July 2011

In Bloom: Dahlias

Some plants never go out of style and Dahlias have earned their space in gardens over the past two centuries. Dahlias were popular on Alcatraz during the 1940s and 1950s and are easily identified in photographs of Officers’ Row. Mrs. Casey, the medical officer’s wife, tended to her dahlias when she was not busy in her home.

The Medical Officer and his wife, Mrs. Casey, with their dahlias outside of their Officers' Row home. Photo courtesy of J. Babyak, 1961ca

Last year, dahlias were re-planted in Officers’ Row and this year’s display is even better. Heirloom varieties were chosen to give the ‘look and the feel’ of the historic photos with lots of red, orange and yellow blooms. Seven varieties of old-fashioned tubers were chosen that would had been available to the gardeners of Alcatraz:

‘Andries Orange’ (1936), ‘Clair de Lune’ (1946), ‘Old Gold’ (1947), ‘Kaiser Wilhelm’ (1881), ‘Thomas A. Edison’ (1929), ‘White Aster’ (1879), and ‘Yellow Gem’ (1914).

Dahlia 'Old Gold'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Dahlia 'Kaiser Wilhelm'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

 

Dahlias are fairly easy to care for; they prefer soil rich in full sun, organic matter, and regular water. The Officers’ Row gardens are protected from the harsh Pacific winds on the east side of the island and enjoy a full eight hours of sun during the summer. The organic matter is supplied by our own compost with supplements of sheep manure in the spring. The water is provided by a rainwater catchment from the restroom roof by the Warden’s House. The rain barrel captures 500 gallons and supplies enough water for the summer months. Last year, we began utilizing this rain catchment and so could justify the use of the water for growing dahlias again.

The average winter temperature on Alcatraz is rarely below 40?F (4.4?C) and so the tubers are left in over the winter. Regular removal of dead flowers over the summer ensures a steady bloom to the end of September, Dahlia ‘Yellow Gem’ bloomed until October.

Dahlia 'White Aster'. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Your best opportunity to see the dahlias are on Wednesdays when Officers’ Row gardens are open for our ‘Ask the Gardener’.

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Christmas in July

The plant life on Alcatraz is mostly made up from non-native plants. Plants were brought to the island by people who were found themselves on the island by duty or by punishment. Today, these surviving plants represent gardening trends from years past. Mr. Freddie Reichel, one of the first gardeners for the penitentiary prison made connections with key horticulturists who recommended plants that would do well on the island. These plants, then considered rare and novel, are more common in the Bay Area now, but they are part of the living history on Alcatraz.

Blooming right now, one of these novelties is the New Zealand Christmas tree, Metrosideros excelsa. Two specimens were planted in the inmate’s gardens likely during the late-1930s on the west side of the island and are flourishing. Wisely chosen, these magnificent trees thrive in coastal conditions – tolerating wind and salt spray, and preferring well drained soil with moderate water.

Visitors from New Zealand this week were surprised to recognize the tree and asked if it was the Pohutukawa tree, referring to the tree by the native Maori name. In New Zealand, the tree blooms around Christmas time during the southern hemisphere summer. Seeing a familiar tree bloom in July instead of December in a different country is like chancing upon an old friend while on vacation.

New Zealand visitors pose with their native tree. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The tree is highly regarded in native Maori culture for its strength and beauty. The Latin name Metrosideros comes from the Greek. Metra means

Metrosideros flowers. Photos by Shelagh Fritz

‘heartwood’ and sideron refers to its ‘iron’ strength. Excelsus is Greek for ‘highest’. What looks like bright crimson red flowers are actually clusters of stamens, the male reproductive part of the flower.

Both trees on the island are in excellent heath and have been shaped by the wind over the years. We have been successful at propagating from cuttings one of the trees and so we are working to conserve the genetic material of these historic trees.

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This Day in History

July 16, 1951 Albert E. Smith, Alcatraz inmate 669-AZ, had a Special Progress Report prepared on his behalf for consideration of restoration of good time. Smith had been working in the gardens and on the labor crew from September 1946 until on January 24, 1950, he was involved in a fist-fight with a fellow inmate in the dining hall during breakfast time. This fist fight would forfeit him 180 days of good time off his sentence.

Mug shot of Albert E. Smith. Courtesy of NARA

The Special Progress Report filed on this day in history would restore his good time.

Smith began a troubled life at age 18 with breaking and entering, leading up to more serious charges of robbery that sentenced him to serve 24 years in Atlanta Prison in 1939. In 1945 he was transferred to Alcatraz for attempted escape. Smith was considered a serious offender – serving a lengthy sentence and being an escape risk, he was perfect for Alcatraz, a place that took the worst of the worst.

Reading through inmate files at the National Archives and Records Administration in San Bruno, it is hard not to be sympathetic to the inmates that made a few poor choices that led them to imprisonment, especially when they had experienced a tough childhood. Smith’s mother had passed away early in his upbringing and later, at age 6, Smith fell out of a window onto a cobbled street. Prior to his fall, he was considered bright but after the fall, he showed little interest in anything and was easily swayed by others.

His transfer to Alcatraz may have been a blessing in disguise. After serving two years on the garbage crew, he was assigned to the garden crew. All of Smith’s Progress Reports tell of a steady and dependable worker, performing his gardening work on the west side of the island well. Reports tell that he kept his tools in order and chased handballs that came over the recreation fence on the weekends. Although, he did had a few complaints: the limited use of water, the weather, and the food. I can certainly appreciate the first two concerns. He was seen as being very friendly and talkative, and laughed like a little boy would.

Inmates were allowed to write notes to the Warden voicing their concerns and could expect a reply back. Smith wrote several notes

Handwritten note from Smith requesting ant killer for the greenhouse.

 

requesting permission to use more water, as well as requesting an insecticide, Black Leaf 40, to control ants in the greenhouse. The Warden “advised Smith that water is a very scarce item on the Island, and that it is difficult for us to permit the excessive use of water in any way…”. The Warden sought advice on the use of the insecticide, a tobacco based product, as he was not keen on the idea of inmates having access to a poison.

In January 1952, Smith was transferred to Leavenworth, Kansas and he would remain there until his release in September 1962. It is not known whether Smith continued with his interest in gardening but at least during his time on Alcatraz, his attention to the plants kept him out of trouble and gave him something to nurture.

The Prisoner Gardens on the west side of the island were restored in 2009 and again offer a respite from the bleakness of the prison, and just maybe you’ll see a handball that escaped Smith.

Prisoner gardens on the west side of the island. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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Building Blocks of History

 

The Discovery film that greets island visitors introduces the idea of Alcatraz being a layered cake of history with each era built upon the previous. Looking closely, an observant person can see where the layers meet.

 The military mainly used bricks in the early construction of the island fortifications. The bricks are like ingredients in the layered cake history, each adding to the flavor of history.

The bricks themselves are rich in history and have their own stories about where they were made and how they arrived on Alcatraz. Brick companies often stamped their name in the bricks and in the gardens, nine types of named bricks have been recorded. Many of these bricks were re-used in the construction of the 1940s era garden pathways mostly found in the Officers’ Row gardens.

 

One of the early bricks is stamped ‘COWEN’. This firebrick was manufactured by the Joseph Cowen & Company at Blaydon Burn in northeast England between 1816 and 1900. It is a mystery how a brick from northeast England ended up in a garden pathway on Alcatraz, perhaps the brick came as ballast in a ship and was then destined for building a growing San Francisco.

An interesting brick is stamped simply ‘CH’, standing for City Hall. Bricks for city hall were manufactured by several companies in Oakland and San Francisco in the 1870s. Usually, bricks are stamped with the manufacturer’s name, not the destination of the brick. City Hall was destroyed by the earthquake and fire in 1906 and the bricks were located to Alcatraz in an effort to clear up the rubble that littered the city.

‘CARNEGIE’ bricks date between 1902 and 1911 and were made at Carnegie, in San Joaquin County, California. Many companies had their beginnings related to the gold rush and the Carnegie Brick and Pottery Company is no different. Founded in 1902, railroad workers found a seam of coal and while mining for the coal, discovered clay. With a building boom in San Francisco, building materials were in high demand and by 1910, 110 000 bricks a day were being made and were distributed all over California. The factory supported a small town but sadly, the bank that held the mortgage failed and the plant soon closed. The site is now part of the Carnegie State Vehicular Recreation Area.

The Livermore Fire Brick Company also has bricks on Alcatraz and the beginnings of this company illustrate the entrepreneurial characteristic of California’s early business men. In 1908 a group of businessmen proposed to develop Livermore’s first non-agricultural industry. Their plan involved the donation of 5 acres of land with the condition that all workers would live in the town, thereby boosting the local economy. An additional ten acres was purchased by the businessmen for $2650. The town then decided to use the remaining money from their Earthquake Fund to purchase the community’s share in the plant. A clause was added to the purchase of the land that the plant was to revert to town property if the plant was to be used for anything other than manufacturing. The brick plant was in operation from 1910 to 1949. A source of clay was never found locally but the company was able to ship their bricks to Sacramento, Washington State, Mexico and Honolulu. The company began experimenting in 1914 using diatomaceous earth and replaced the use of cork in lining commercial refrigerators.

LINCOLN fire bricks were made between 1890 and 1943 by the Gladding McBean & Company in Lincoln, Placer County, California. Founder Charles Gladding came to Sacramento after serving in the Civil War. He had heard about clay being found and travelled to Lincoln to take samples. The clay was found to be of excellent quality and the supply was good. He enlisted the help of his friends from Chicago and in May of 1875, the company was started. The company started to make sewer pipes and soon located an office on Market Street in San Francisco. They decorated the building with terra cotta trim and soon became known for architectural terra cotta facades. The company expanded to produce fire bricks, roof tile, chimney pipes and garden pottery. Their roof tiles were used at Stanford University and they continue to supply tiles for any current work. The company is still going strong.

Other bricks on the island are SNOWBALL, from the Derwenthaugh Fire Bricks Works in England; M.T. & CO dated from the 1860s; DFC and WEMCO from the Denver Firebrick Company. More remains to be researched about these companies and their bricks. For brick collectors (yes, there is such a thing), a great resource is Dan Mosier’s website ‘California Bricks’. Randy, a long-time garden volunteer has taken a deep interest in the bricks and is constantly on the lookout for new bricks that that we have not seen yet.

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