Author Archives: Shelagh Fritz

A Busy Month of Volunteering

September has been a very productive month in the gardens with the annual cleaning up of dead vegetation in areas that have been off limits because of the nesting seabirds.

With the Garden Conservancy’s one full-time and one part-time gardener staffing the garden project, volunteers are a vital resource for tackling the large closed areas quickly. This month, seven corporate work groups got involved in garden work. Wells Fargo had five groups on the island and Government Services Association (GSA) and Zoomerang made up the other two work groups. For many of the participants, volunteering in the gardens is not only their first taste of gardening but also their first visit to Alcatraz.

Wells Fargo volunteer group cleaning up by the water tower. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The work groups are organized by team leaders within the companies and then employees can sign up to help out. Many organizations in the Bay Area strongly support community service and encourage giving back to the community through volunteerism. The United Way hosts a ‘Week of Caring’ mid-September that brings corporate groups and non-profit groups together. The coming together of these groups has great advantages. For the groups themselves, they have the opportunity to work in unique sites (you can’t get more unique than Alcatraz) and to develop their team skills by working with colleagues in an environment different from their office. The non-profits not only benefit from the additional labor but can raise general awareness of national treasures that need to be preserved.

Each group is provided free passage to the island and is given a quick history lesson upon arrival. How gardens came to be on a barren island is an intriguing story in itself and adds a layer of history to Alcatraz that most are not aware of.

Wells Fargo tending the garden on the East side of the cell house. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The groups are then provided with tools and head up to the work sites. This month’s groups assisted with a range of garden projects: cutting back ivy, sifting compost, propagating Persian carpet ice plant, cutting back dormant chasmanthe

The satisfaction of digging out a blackberry root is hard to beat. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

and removing invasive radish and grasses. The tasks are invigorating and varied enough to accommodate everyone’s physical abilities. A fair amount of planning does go into preparing for each group – thinking of work projects, setting up the tools at the work site, ensuring a safe work place and putting away the tools afterwards.

Thank you to everyone that supported the Gardens of Alcatraz this month.  In total, 95 people from 5 groups contributed 285 volunteer hours!

To get involved, contact the volunteer coordinators to arrange a group work party.

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Finding Beauty

Garden staff and volunteers have been busy this week cutting back plants that have entered their dormancy period. This time of year is much like the autumn for elsewhere in the country, except for crisp frosts that kill plants, our dormancy is brought on by our dry season. Many of our plants are from other Mediterranean climates and have adapted well to cope with our climate.


Still, it is easy to find beauty amongst the seemingly dead and dry plants. The seed heads left behind are sometimes more interesting to look at than the flowers.


One of the most common plant id questions I hear is ‘What are those trees by the Warden’s House?’ Resembling trees with their height, the Dr. Seuss looking trees are actually the flower spike of Agave americana.  Silhouetted against the skyline of the city or the evening light, the spikes are so dramatic that even non-plant people wonder what they are. Commonly called the century plant for how long it takes to flower, the plant sends up one spike of flowers after 8 to 10 years; the plant puts all of its energy into sending up the flower spike that it actually dies. The next generation of plants have already begun at the base of the flowering succulent to repeat the show in a decade.


Agave americana with San Francisco. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


Agave americana under a full moon. Photo by Shelagh Fritz













Aeonium arboreum planted en mass are another

Aeonium flower spikes. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

succulent that provides a show with their flower stalk. The succulents planted long ago under the water tower all bloomed at once this year. Located in a closed area that is enjoyed by visitors on the garden tour, the view is impressive.


The west side inmate gardens are a host to surviving plants from the penitentiary. With the cell house as a backdrop, Acanthus mollis, bear’s breeches, 4 to 5 foot flowers standing tall above its once glossy green leaves. The leaves are fading and we will be leaving the flower stalks to provide interest for another month.


Acanthus mollis flower spikes. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Many perennials in Officers’ Row are putting on a display of their own. Gaillardia, Agapanthus, Crocosmia, Foxgloves, Hebe and Artichokes are signifying the end of their growing season by setting seed. Many of these plants can be deadheaded to encourage the plant to keep blooming. The ‘deadheads’, as we call them, can make a curious dried bouquet. One of the best dried flowers on the island is Limonium perezii, sea lavender or statice, which holds the purple color well.


Elsewhere on the island, Shirley poppies and Crocosmia both have tiny seed pods that are appealing.


From the tall succulents to the more average size perennials, leaving flower stalks stand allows gardeners to enjoy their hard work longer into the year. Just like the gardens soften the harsh island, finding the surprising beauty in dead flowers will hopefully inspire people to appreciate all that surrounds them.

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Gardening by Trial and Error

Much of gardening is learned through experience – by working in the soil, getting your hands dirty and being open to make changes.

The inmate gardens on the west side had much to teach us about gardening on the Rock. Restoration of these gardens started in the fall of 2008 and by the spring of 2009, the overgrowth had been cleared, pathways rebuilt and new gravel added. The beds were amended and new plants were chosen. Plants were selected to give the look of the 1940s-1960s gardens that the prisoners created and tended. The original gardens resembled English cottage gardens and so we worked at finding plants that would fit, but that would also be drought tolerant.

The inmate gardens in early summer. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Plants such as Armeria maritima, Coreopsis, Dianthus, Oenethera, Cosmos, Gaillardia, Scabiosa, Linaria and Huechera sanguinea were some of the plants that we tried. The gardens looked gorgeous in the spring but by mid-summer, the unrelenting wind of the Pacific was taking a toll. Even the rainwater catchment that was installed was not enough to help all the plants through the dry summer.

We took this lesson to heart and looked for plants that could provide the historic look, be drought and wind tolerant and look really good well into October. A tall order, but not impossible.

Salvias seemed a likely candidate. While not known to have been on the island previously, they were likely to do well on the island and still give a cottage style look. This past January, we planted several different species of salvias and they are all doing well. Salvia clevelandii filled

Salvia clevelandii. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

an exposed corner of the garden. The very fragrant leaves and blossoms held on until this past week, when they were cut back to encourage new growth. Salvia leucantha, Mexican bush sage, is very common in San Francisco and it has done well on the island too. Salvia nemorosa ‘East Friesdland’ has done well at the front of the border and has bloomed twice this year with cutting off dead blossoms. Salvia chiapensis, Chiapas Sage, while from the cloud forests of Chiapas, Mexico has done surprisingly well under the fig tree in the shade. Salvia microphylla hybrid is continuing to bloom and has not needed any pruning at all; autumn is actually its peak bloom time. And lastly, we also chose Salvia ‘Waverly’ for the constant pale white blooms.

Salvia chiapensis. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


We also planted low growing evergreen perennials and shrubs at the front of walkways and tucked in annuals behind, to hide the annuals as they died back. We propagated a surviving white hebe to hide the calla lilies during the summer; and planted dwarf agapanthus and heliotrope to cover columbine, foxgloves and homeria leaves when they passed their prime.

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New this Fall

The fall and winter are the busiest times of the year to work on new garden projects. Mid-September to February 1st is the time when the seabirds are gone from the island and the closed nesting areas can once again be worked in; as well, the winter rains help water any new plantings.

With September here already, we are

Drosanthemum covering the entire slope in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Joseph Simpson

getting ready for this fun time of year. One big project that will be worked on is expanding the Drosanthemum floribundum planting on the cellhouse slope. Historically, this entire slope was planted with pink Persian carpet ice plant with the intention of it being visible from San Francisco.

Currently, half of the slope is planted with Persian carpet while the other half is overgrown with wild radish and grasses. Volunteers have been busy the past few months taking cuttings and propagating plugs of the tiny iceplant. The succulent is easy to propagate and rooting hormones are not needed to encourage new roots. We use our rich garden compost to start the plugs in; however the slope itself is well drained sandy soil.

Drosanthemum growing in the greenhouse. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


Volunteers propagating Drosanthemum cuttings. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


Overgrown slope. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The area of the slope is quite large, approximately, 6000 square feet. The plugs are planted about 8 inches apart so we will need PLENTY of plugs to cover the area. In other garden areas, we have been successful at rooting the cuttings by planting them directly in the ground and watering right after. We will likely need to rely on this method as well to cover the entire slope.

Once established, the drought tolerant plants will help control erosion while giving the look of the manicured prison gardens.

There are also several other garden areas that can only be maintained during the winter season. For these areas, we will be cutting back overgrowth, typically sweetpea, honeysuckle, brambles and ivy that grow to their hearts content all summer. For this annual cleanup, corporate volunteer groups trade their pencils for pitchforks and help out for the morning.

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From Normandy to Alcatraz

What do the WWII Normandy landing site, Point du Hoc, and Alcatraz Island have in common? The answer: aging reinforced concrete buildings, unrelenting coastal elements of buffeting wind and saltwater, and heavy traveler visitation to the site.

These environmental elements affected the picturesque Puppy Stairs which lead from the switchback behind Building 64 up to the historic gardens above. The concrete is cracked and chipped, the rebar

Cracked concrete and exposed rebar on the puppy stairs railing. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

rusting, and the stairs unusable to the majority of Alcatraz Island visitors. Built in the 1920s, during Alcatraz’ Military period, the steps are known as the Puppy Stairs because of their small rise. They were also known at one time as the Poodle Stairs, and other stairs in the same vicinity with a much larger rise were known as the Great Dane Stairs.

Dr. Tonya Komas, Director of the Chico State Concrete Industry Management program and a few students visited Point du Hoc in 2009 to do some noninvasive evaluations of the 20 World War II military bunkers. In 2009 Jason Hagin, Historical Architect for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, heard about this project at Chico State University exploring issues of environmental damage to structures similar to Alcatraz.

With Hagin’s connection to Komas, along with a grant from BASF, a concrete repair materials company, the rehabilitation of the Officers’ Row Stairs last summer and this year’s Puppy Stairs was a go. Students from Chico come to this project to fulfill an internship requirement which gives them credit toward their degree.

Students begin by learning how to work safely on the scaffolding. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Phil Peterson, Public Relations Director for the Concrete Industry Management Alcatraz Preservation Field School, answered some questions about the project:

What is involved in this project?

In 1966, the U.S. Department for the Interior established the National Historic Preservation Act, intended to preserve America’s historic and archeological sites. This legislation applies to our work in the areas of restoration, rehabilitation, and repair. To rehabilitate is to fix the historic site for use by the public, making every effort to maintain its historic nature.

What type of special materials will be used?

We are using a special concrete repair mortar called ZERO-C, a fresh-on-the-market repair mortar short for “zero-cracking” that has been developed over the past half-decade by BASF, a global chemical company. It’s basically construction Play-doh.

How long do you think the project will last?

We leave August 12 and return to school the week after, but we will be back many more summers. Chico State’s Concrete Industry Management program has a five-year agreement with the National Park Service to keep performing our restoration work, so we will keep coming back until at least 2015. As far as the Puppy Stairs is concerned, they should be finished next year, or the year after.

Who is working on this project?

The project is led by Professor and CIM Director Tanya Komas as well as Project Manager Andrew Billingsley. He is a

Students file down the railing edge for the final touch. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

student from last year’s pilot program who graduated and has been hired as faculty to oversee the project, as well as teach this year’s group of students. Students involved include Brandon Agles, Steven Aguilar, Kenneth Garcia, Greg Hollingshead, Brian O’Hair, Brian Peart, Phil Petermann and Sofia Salazar.

We have been provided with housing in the Marin Headlands for this project by the Parks Conservancy and NPS. Without housing, we wouldn’t able to do this project, and we’re eternally grateful for their help. On a personal note, this whole summer has just been unreal to me. Every once in a while I take a break from work and just look around and attempt to absorb the gravity of our work.

Contributed by Kristen Elford, Parks Conservancy

Thanks to Phillip Petermann, Dr. Tanya Komas and Jason Hagin. Bibliography: Thompson, Erwin N. “The Rock; A History of Alcatraz Island, 1847 to 1972”. Denver Service Center Historic Preservation Division National Parks Service. Denver Colorado.

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Gardener’s Ode

I like to think that everyone looks forward to going to their work, to a job that is their hobby, and to spend their work day with people they like. I am that fortunate, and this morning on the ferry ride to the island, my volunteers surprised me with a poem, homemade cookies and a token of their appreciation for me.

One of my volunteers, a talented song writer and singer, wrote a

Gardener’s Ode to Shelagh Fritz.

To Shelagh Fritz who always knows

Exactly how her garden grows

And thus imparts this sage advice

“Rid oxalis at any price!”                   

Doing time on the slope. Photo by Corny Foster

Thus we perch on cellhouse slope

With hori hori and the hope that

Wind will die and sun come out

That does not always come about.

More likely that a chilling rain

Trickles down my neck to drain

Inside the shirt that once was dry

A chill so deep my fingers cry,

A chilly winter day. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

“Enough, now to the ferry get

Before the toes know they are wet”

But oh this island has a knack

Of luring all the gardeners back.

“Why do we come?” Well, since you ask

The mundane nature of the task

Upon that rock, in the middle of that bay

Puts you in a soulful way.

What does all this have to do with Shelagh?

We’d like to tell her that she rocks!

Drying gloves. Photo by Sharlene Baker

But please, Ms. Fritz, we have one question,

Along with gloves can you get us some socks?

By Beth Marlin Lichter

I am constantly amazed by the people that come out to the island, rain or shine, to help in the gardens. Just today, I worked with a group of interns from Filoli, a family whose children were earning their Girl Scout and Boy Scout badges, and my regular dedicated volunteers. All the volunteers come for their own reasons – new in town, new to gardening, want to meet more people, stay active, or just to try something new – but the ones that keep coming back, I think all stay for the same reason; they are the one that have discovered that the Gardens of Alcatraz are a really special place, and once you put your hands in the soil and you start caring for the island, it become a part of you.

Thank you to all my volunteers and staff, you keep me coming back too.

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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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