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Category Archives: History
This past Friday, I had the pleasure of showing Russ Beatty the restored gardens. Beatty was one of the authors of the Gardens of Alcatraz book that was published in 1996, long before the Alcatraz Historic Gardens Project began in 2003.
Beatty is a Professor Emeritus of the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of California in Berkeley. His interest in historical landscapes is initially what got him interested in the Gardens of Alcatraz. In 1995, he was asked by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to write a chapter for an upcoming book (Gardens of Alcatraz) that the Parks Conservancy hoped would draw attention to the withering gardens on the island.
Beatty delved into researching the gardens – combing through National Park Service archives for letters and photos that would provide a glimpse of the people who created and tended the gardens. He also set about trying to find people to interview that could give a first-hand account of gardening on the Rock. The National Park Service hosts an annual Alumni Day on Alcatraz where past residents (guards and their families and inmates) come back to the Rock and share their stories. Ever hopeful, Beatty sent a questionnaire to the Alumni visiting the island that August day in 1995. Amazingly, he had one response – from Elliot Michener, inmate number AZ 578, who was there and sent Beatty a long letter after he returned to his home. The letter detailed his experiences gardening on the island. Many of his quotes are in the book as well as on interpretive signs in the gardens and are used throughout our website.
At the time, Elliot lived in Sierra Madre and Beatty travelled twice to his home to interview him. Beatty had a difficult time drawing Elliot out of himself but recalls that his home, a rented basement flat in a cottage, was sparsely decorated. He photographed Michener, age 89, under a bougainvillea growing outside in the yard. Elliot recounted one incident on the island shortly
after he started working as the houseboy for Warden Swope and his wife. It seemed that the previous inmate houseboy had built a still to make moonshine in the Warden’s attic. Fearing of being blamed for the still if it was discovered, and no doubt losing his new earned position and the perks it came with, he quickly disassembled the still and buried the pieces in the garden. The Warden’s garden is one of the remaining historic gardens on the island that has not been restored yet, perhaps if we do, we will turn up pieces of copper – at least we will have an explanation ready for the finds.
A year after the book was published, Beatty found himself along on a Garden Conservancy Fellows Tour of Napa Valley. Antonia Adezio, President of the Garden Conservancy, was also there. Beatty excitedly shared a copy of the book with her – planting the seed for the partnership project that would eventually save the gardens.
Beatty is now gathering research for an article for Site Lines, a journal of the Foundation for Landscape Studies, and he was on the island to interview myself and take a look at what has become of the gardens. After Beatty had asked all of his questions, I had a chance to ask him some of my own, after all, here is a gentleman who has actually spoken with Elliot Michener, the inmate that is talked about quite a lot on our docent led tours and whom we credit the development of the inmate gardens largely to.
Do you see any specialness in the story of the Gardens of Alcatraz?
The story ties together a great deal of California and US history — the fortress built as a result of the Civil War to protect the Bay; the reshaping of the land as a fort, but also recognizing the innate human need for beautification through gardens and gardening; the solace and relief gardeners from the military prison as well as the Federal penitentiary found in their creativity and work in making and tending gardens – - early unintentional horticultural therapy; the changes that these efforts made in the lives of hardened criminals; the gardens as expressions of beauty by both families and inmates in an effort to live in such an inhospitable environment, and the story the gardens bring to the visiting public whose main interest is rather macabre about the Federal period criminals such as Al Capone (the softer side of the story). Also the fact that such a rich palette of plants has been able to survive through long neglect in such a hostile place — a created ecology.
If you could interview Elliot Michener again, what three questions would you ask him?
• How were you treated by your fellow inmates when told of your gardening experiences?
• Tell me more about Capt. Weinhold; how else did he help you other than giving you gloves and seeds?
• What brought you to Los Angeles; tell me more about your lady friend and the gardening you did for her.
Perhaps one day, Beatty will be able to write another book about our chapter in history and how these once neglected historic gardens have found new life. Beatty sent me a quote from J.B Jackson that ‘there is a necessity of ruins. Places need to decay before they are well understood and their importance gives rise to discovery and restoration’. This quote really is the essence of the Gardens of Alcatraz. For so long they had been abandoned, but they are now revitalized and telling the softer side of Alcatraz’s history.
This past Friday the Garden Conservancy hosted a meeting for the Bay Area Gardens Network (Bagnet). Bagnet is represented by all the major public gardens in the Bay Area. Gardens from UC Botanical Gardens, Cornerstone in Sonoma, Filoli, Mendocino Botanical Gardens, Presidio Trust, and Merritt Lake in Oakland, just to name a few, attended. Looking around the room, it was impressive to see the wealth of knowledge that was gathered. We started the meeting by introducing ourselves by stating 1) where we worked, 2) what we liked most about our work, and 3) what we least liked about our work. Going around the room, the common answers were for most liked – seeing visitors enjoying the gardens; while the least liked typically involved budget cuts and wearing multiple hats to get the job done.
The idea of a Bay Area garden group started in 1996 and was the idea of Richard Turner, editor of Pacific Horticulture magazine. Turner saw a need for Bay Area gardens, of all sizes and types, to keep in touch with each other and discuss various issues that everyone faces among gardens; as well as providing an excellent network for staff of all the gardens. With many unique gardens around the Bay Area, it is worth promoting and helping each other, instead of feeling the need to compete for visitors and resources.
The day’s agenda had a few topics of great interest; one being creating a more comprehensive website that lists all the Bay Area gardens and activities scheduled. Currently, a website does exist, www.bayareagardens.org, led by Pacific Horticulture. Updates are being planned for this website so stay tuned!
I had the pleasure to update the group on the progress of the Gardens of Alcatraz for the past five years – in 10 minutes! I had a lot to cover but I managed to fit in the highlights – accomplishing five garden area rehabilitations, logging 40 000 volunteer hours to date, noting our sustainability achievements of the water catchment and composting sites; and describing our outreach efforts – 8 new waysides around the island, the self-guided brochure, free docent tours twice a week and the ‘Ask the Gardener’ open garden on Wednesdays; as well as providing our garden t-shirt for purchase in the bookstore and receiving a royalty on each one sold, and our ever-improving website, including this blog! Whew! A lot has been done.
Chatting with members afterwards, many people commented on some aspect of my presentation that they had experienced themselves or were considering undertaking. In the afternoon, the group was toured through the Presidio by Michael Boland. We were fortunate to have him for the afternoon as he showed us the natural areas that had been rehabilitated, the community involvement taking place, as well as the infrastructure of the Doyle Drive bridge construction project, going through the historic Presidio.
Through the course of the afternoon, I realized that Alcatraz is not really an island. Michael’s history of the military in the Presidio linked Alcatraz to that key time period when the military landscaped their bases, when much of Alcatraz was planted. Island residents were focused on gardening and improving their home. Even today, Alcatraz is connected by being part of the garden network in the Bay Area. This of course, made me realize that even though I work on an island, I’m not isolated in my challenges, and that any success achieved benefits all the area gardens with the sharing of knowledge.
The Rock is many things to many different people. For some visitors, it is a trip of a lifetime, something that they must see. For past residents, it can be a place of happy memories or of sad times (depending on which side of the bars you were on). For Bay Area residents, perhaps it is just a landmark in the middle of the Bay, a tourist trap that is best avoided. For others – volunteers and staff, the island holds a special place that we look forward to being each day.
For me, this week held a strange combination of people from all those categories.
On Tuesday, I was able to show the gardens to a couple from New Jersey whose daughter had raved about the gardens. The couple had put the gardens on the top of their list of things to see while they were in San Francisco.
My volunteers trooped onto the island on Wednesday and as always, enjoyed their morning. Late in the afternoon, as the last boat pulled away, I was left on the island with an interesting group of people:
A film crew from the Travel Channel that were highlighting secret places to visit,
Four guys who had backpacks,
Bob Luke, a past inmate, and his lovely wife,
A National Park Service ranger.
I could figure out how everyone related to the island, except for the guys with the backpacks. As it turned out, one of the guys, Jim Vetter, had entered the lottery system for an overnight on Alcatraz and had blogged about his stay. The volunteer group had waited five years before winning the chance to participate in volunteer work and then sleep overnight on the island. The Travel Channel picked up on his blog and contacted them to re-enact their night.
The Travel Channel was also able to
arrange an interview with Bob Luke, a former inmate sentenced for robbery. I had the chance to chat with Bob and his wife and never would I guess that he had a past on Alcatraz.
The gardens naturally fit with being a secret part of Alcatraz, one that catches people by surprise with the flourishing blooms.
As the week continued, on Thursday I hosted a group from the National Parks Conservation Association that were interested in seeing the gardens. An honor to have this group on the island, they work hard to educate decision makers and the public about the importance of preserving the parks.
And finally, Friday arrived; and a new volunteer joined our crew. As an introduction to the island, she joined a group of 30 visitors for the free docent led walk through the gardens to learn about the history. Ending the week with the volunteers and the docent tour really brings home why we are here on the island – to engage the community and to share the stories of gardens with visitors. As I reflect on my week, I realize that everyone has their own reasons for visiting National Parks, and Alcatraz especially, has something to offer to everyone.
Volunteers have been steadily working the past three weeks stabilizing the inmate built terraces on the west side of the island. The garden area referred to as the laundry terraces, was developed and tended by penitentiary inmates after the 1930s and was cared for until the maximum prison closed in 1963. The original terraces are still standing and survivor plants dot the terraced hillside. However, the terraces and the access stairs are in need of repair.
Working within the parameters of the West Side Treatment Plan that was developed and approved by the National Park Service in 2009, we have permission to stabilize these historic structures. Under the guidance of the National Park Service’s historic architect
and mason, all repairs done to the terraces must match the existing historic materials. Most significantly, the mortar that we use to cement the concrete blocks back together must be accurate. For this, we mix the mortar using a ratio of 8 parts sand to 2 parts Type 2 Portland cement to 1 part lime. The volunteers love this part of the Alcatraz experience. One of my long-time volunteers explains that to be a gardener out here, you are also a carpenter, a mason and a plumber.
These historic terraces are closed for public accessed and we are only able to work in this area from September to February. A large colony of Brandt’s cormorants call this area home the other months of the year and this vital nesting site would be disturbed. Still, it is important not to allow these terraces to further degrade and we will be working diligently over the next few years to make the necessary repairs.
Interestingly, a volunteer group, the Bay Area Whaleboat Association, weeded the terraces December 10 and uncovered never seen before inmate graffiti. They found numbers etched into cement that formed a basin underneath a spigot – perhaps the numbers correspond to inmates that did work in this garden area? The Federal inmate records held at the National Archives in San Bruno will hopefully yield some answers.
Carola Ashford, the garden’s first project manager, described the garden work as “garden archeology”. And, it certainly is. The garden restoration is about to enter its ninth year and we are still discovering the gardens.
Usually, the dead of winter is when gardeners haul out their stashes of seed catalogues and start planning for next year. On Alcatraz, we never receive any frost and are lucky to enjoy year round gardening, so we skip an obvious break and instead start planning for winter and early spring annuals during fall.
Planning for next year involves examining the past year;
noting which plants did well, which ones need to be served their notice, and plant combinations that were striking. Some of the best plant combinations were ones that were created by chance. Nasturtium, Tropaeolum majus, was introduced to the island in 1924 and self-sows where it pleases. The whimsical seeding finds itself amongst contrasting plants – purple trailing verbena, magenta Pelargonium ‘Prince Bismarck’ and bright pink Persian carpet (Drosanthemum floribundum) to mention a few.
The annuals in the Inmate Gardens on the west side of the island did very well this year, especially the calendula. The calendula were sown in the greenhouse last December, planted out at the end of January and bloomed continuously through the summer. We cut them back in late September and they are blooming again. The cheerful yellow blooms contrasted nicely with many of the other garden plants.
Expecting the calendulas to be replaced by summer annuals, we had sown many flats of snapdragons to be their replacements. But with the calendulas doing well, we had to find other homes for the snapdragons. Tucking them into pockets around perennials was easy. Interestingly, the snapdragons were slow to grow in the east side Officers’ Row gardens but flourished on the west side of the island.
A native, California fuchsia, Zauschneria californica, was planted last year and finally flowered this past summer. The plant has soft grey leaves and bright orange flowers that complement the other plants growing near – purple agapanthus, pink Salvia chiapensis, and the freely growing nasturtiums on the hillside above.
Another combination that did well was the purple annual flowering tobacco, Nicotiana alata growing with purple statice or sea lavender, Limonium perezii. The flowering tobacco self-seeds but not obnoxiously and the new plants are easy to transplant.
One of the new plants that was tried this year was butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa. The plant flowered but did not gain much height. We hope that monarch butterflies that pass through the area will stop in the gardens. Another new introduction to the island was lion’s tail, Leonotis leonurus to the west side lawn borders. Being a member of the mint family from South Africa, the evergreen shrub should have done very well on the island; but the plant was likely missed during hand-watering the borders and it did not make it. However, it will be worth trying again this coming year. Once established, it is very drought tolerant and the masses of orange flowers attract butterflies.
A plant that has had its final year on the island is the common purple cone flower, Echinacea purpurea. A row of these were planted in Officers’ Row in 2007 and every year I hope they do better. They start out blooming well with healthy leaves but then they decide they are finished and refuse to grow. Luckily, we had plenty of snapdragons to fill in around them.
Freddie Reichel, secretary to the warden from 1934 to 1939, wrote in a letter “I kept no records of my failures, for I had many – the main thing was to assure some success by trying many things and holding on to those plants which had learned that life is worth holding on to even at its bitterest”. These words are still true today, except that we keep better records of our successes and failures.
Harvest season is here and the chill in the air at night says winter is on its way. The fig tree, Ficus carica, growing in the inmate’s garden on the west side of the island has produced a bumper crop this year, at least for the songbirds who will benefit most from the abundance of fruit.
The fig tree, believed to be a black Mission Fig, was planted by inmate gardener Elliot Michener in the early 1940s. In an oral history interview with Elliot conducted in the late 1990s, he visited the island and walked around his gardens once again, showing the interviewer where he had spent nine years of his life working in the gardens. He saw the fig tree still growing in its original spot; and in a proud gardener’s voice with a hint of tour guide points out “and here are my old fig trees.” Elliot clearly remembered the fig tree growing on both sides of the fence with the guard tower in the background. In the interview, Elliot remarks “Yes, they have lasted a long time, just all these years.”
Where Elliot obtained the fig tree is not known. Perhaps one of the guards that traded seeds for bouquets of inmate grown flowers was the source; or maybe the inmates were treated to figs for dessert and the inmates grew the tree from seeds? Nevertheless, the fig tree continues to prosper.
The fig has done so well, that in fact, during the 40 years of the gardens being neglected, the fig took on a life of its own and colonized the western lawn. The thicket of fig provides prime summer nesting habitat for approximately 80 pairs of nesting snowy egrets.
Elliot also comments in his interview “I’ve eaten figs off of this tree”. I too, have eaten a few ripened figs off of the same tree and have tasted what he has tasted. Working the same soil and tending the same plants as gardeners past, reinforces the importance of preserving historic horticulture and the stories of the people that tended these gardens.
For island visitors, many of them pause at the tree and wonder what kind it is. For me, not only is it a chance to show them their first fig tree but to also tell them about Elliot and what the gardens meant to him.
The sky around the San Francisco Bay Area has been very active this week – from storm clouds to Fleet Week’s Blue Angels practice runs. Dramatic clouds and sudden rainfalls, while unexpected for this time of year, were
refreshing and washed the island clean after the end of bird nesting season. The plants soaked up this first substantial rainfall and were sparked back to life after the dry summer.
Surprisingly, spring bulbs have been emerging in Officers’ Row. Daffodil leaf tips are poking through the soil and grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum) have shot up over the last couple of days. Other bulbs such as Chasmanthe and Watsonia have been nudged into growing and their bright green leaves are a refreshing sight. Bear’s breech (Acanthus mollis) leaves are unfolding as well, each leaf being an exquisite living art unfurling from a knarled exposed root.
All of these plants have origins in other mediterranean climates similar to that of the Bay Area. They are adapted to dry summers; being baked in well drain soils and with the slightest moisture can be triggered into growing. Examining the survivor plant list for the island, it is no surprise that many on the list are from climates similar to ours.
Elsewhere on the island, the nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) continue to self-sow where
they please. The nasturtiums were introduced to the island in 1924 by the California Wildflower and Spring Blossom Society as part of a beautification effort by the military. Whether you consider them invasive or successful, they are a part of the island’s rich horticultural history. Seeing them sprout now is reassuring that another generation will continue to decorate the slopes with brilliant orange and yellow flowers.
While some visitors plan their vacations to not be in rain, a visit to the island during a storm is exciting and the island feels more alive with the elements. Watching a storm approach through the Golden Gate and sweep toward you is a vacation memory that you cannot put in a photo album.
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.
The tree is highly regarded in native Maori culture for its strength and beauty. The Latin name Metrosideros comes from the Greek. Metra means
‘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.
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.
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
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.
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.