Words and images by The Preserve Bottle Village Committee
Beginning construction in 1956 at age 60, and working until 1981, Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey transformed her one-third acre rural lot into Bottle Village, a fantasyland of shrines, wishing wells, walkways, fountains, follies, plus fifteen structures to house her collections – all made from found objects. The name “Bottle Village” comes from the structures themselves – made of tens of thousands of discarded bottles retrieved by Grandma on her daily excursions to the nearby dump.
Appearances aside, Bottle Village began as a practical need to build a structure to store Grandma Prisbrey’s pencil collection (which eventually numbered 17,000) and a bottle wall to keep away the smell and dust from the adjacent turkey farm. However, it was her ability to have fun and infuse wit and whimsy into what she made, which over time became the essence of Bottle Village. Practicality alone would not explain The Leaning Tower of Bottle Village, the Dolls Head Shrine, car-headlight-bird-baths, and the intravenous-feeding-tube-firescreen, a few examples of her delightfully idiosyncratic creations.
“Anyone can do anything with a million dollars. Look at Disney. But it takes more than money to make something out of nothing, and look at the fun I have doing it.”
Tressa Prisbrey died in 1988. In retrospect, another layer presents itself now that her person is no longer there. Her life was not easy. She married her first husband when she was 15 and he was 52 and had seven children by him. She left him and lived in various places in the country, raising their children on her own. In her lifetime, death struck six of her children, both of her husbands, a fiancée, and all but one of her siblings.
In her book “Making Do or Making Art,” Verni Greenfield discusses in depth what now seems obvious. That on one level, Bottle Village was, literally, a constructive approach to transforming discard and sorrow into something more. Bottle Village possesses many references to both maternity, and sympathetic magic (wishing wells, good luck symbols, religious structures, etc.).
Even the buildings themselves, scaled to children and made through such a compulsory process are a testimony. So Bottle Village is not only a one of a kind, quirky, fun, and brilliant approach to recycling and shed making, Bottle Village is also a bold and personal statement to the importance of the creative act in everyday life. At Bottle Village, art does not just reflect life. Art and life merge, in a 25 year fusion.
February 1 – Thresie (Tressa) Luella Schafer born in Easton, Minnesota, the youngest child (of eight) to Catherine and Matthew Schafer.
Family moves to a homestead near Minot, North Dakota.
Tressa, at fifteen, marries Theodore Grinolds who is 52 years old.
Over the next 13 years, the Grinolds have seven children: Earl (b.1913), Raymond (b.1914), Frank (b.1916), Velma (b.1918), Othea (b.1920), Florence (b.1925) and Hubert (b.1926).
Leaves Theodore, settles in Minot with her children. She works part-time as a waitress and entertains by playing piano and singing.
Theodore Grinolds dies (71).
Moves to Pacific Northwest
Moves to Santa Susana (now Simi Valley), California. Lives in a trailer parked on the property of her sister Hattie Hansen and works at Tapo Citrus Company.
Marries Albert Prisbrey.
Begins building a cement block house on Alamo Street. Al Prisbrey helps her complete the house.
Sells the house on Alamo to pay hospital bills and finance the purchase of a 1/3 acre lot on Cochran Street. Daughter, Velma Breen dies (36).
Tressa begins building Bottle Village on the lot at 4595 Cochran St. Most of the major construction completed by 1961. Eventually, 13 buildings and at least 22 sculptures will comprise Bottle Village.
Tressa Prisbrey, now known as “Grandma” Prisbrey writes and self-publishes her own story about the construction of Bottle Village. The book mentions 13 structures, as well as the gardens, walkways, and most of the shrines. At this point, six of her seven children are still alive.
Daughter, Florence “Mickey” Madison dies (39). Son, Raymond Grinolds dies (53). Husband, Albert “Al” Prisbrey (b.1905) dies in automobile accident. Son, Frank Grinolds dies (53). Son, Earl Grinolds dies (56).
Grandma Prisbrey sells the Bottle Village property & moves to Oregon to care for her ailing son Herbert. She would not own the property again.
Son, Hubert “Gene” Grinolds dies (48).
Tressa returns to Bottle Village to live as a caretaker. Resumes giving tours and begins to obtain a different kind of notoriety – the acceptance of her work by art scholars.
Work featured in five major exhibitions, two of which travel to Europe.
(see Resources page for exhibitions)
May – Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village made Ventura County Cultural Landmark No.52.
June – Bottle Village made official landmark of the City of Simi Valley.
July – Non profit organization, Preserve Bottle Village Committee (PBVC) is founded. Begins task of trying to raise money to secure property, as well as being a support group for the ailing artist. At 83 Tressa Prisbrey had begun to experience some small strokes.
June – Receives a grant for $4,300 from the National Endowment for the Arts, to design and supervise the construction of a Bottle Mural in the newly completed Simi Valley Library.
February – Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village declared California State Historical Landmark No.939
May – Friends and family report a rapid steady decline in Tressa Prisbrey’s health. “Grandma” leaves her Bottle Village for the last time. At the age of 86, She goes to live with her one surviving daughter, Othea “Babe” Krieger in San Francisco.
Dolls Head Shrine featured on the cover of LP single “Mexican Radio” by rock band Wall of Voodoo.
January – Sister, Hattie Hanson dies.
July – Preserve Bottle Village Committee become property owners as the result of a gift deed from the local
October 5 – At the age of 92, Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey dies in a nursing home outside of San Francisco.
Bottle Village overseen by a small but dedicated handful of people, who conduct educational events and other tours onsite and work with the City [of Simi Valley] to acquire various Use Permits to allow greater public access.
January 17th – A 6.7 magnitude earthquake strikes the area. The epicenter is 8 miles from Bottle Village and causes serious damage.
March – FEMA awards Bottle Village $18,900 to conduct an Architectural and Engineering report that studies the possibility of a large scale rebuilding. The stellar and experienced rebuilding team consists of:
Bud Goldstone – Watts Towers Structural Engineer
Zuleyma C. Aguirre – Watts Towers Conservationist
Al Okuma – Architect
Marvin Rand – Photographer
Mo Shannon – MOCA Collections Expert
October – Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village accepted onto the National Register of Historic Places.
November – After 2 & 1/ 2 years of working with FEMA, Preserve Bottle Village signs for the approved $485,000 in earthquake repair money.
January – Local Congressman Elton Gallegly writes Bill HR175 against Bottle Village receiving any Federal Money, calling this money a “waste”.
March – Even though this Bill is tabled, FEMA rescinds the grant. Citing the fact that Bottle Village had been “unopened” since 1984, and citing political concerns. During this time Bottle Village receives excellent National Press from NPR, New York Times (Brown, Patricia Leigh. “Reading the Message in the Bottles”. February 6, 1997 ppB1, B8) and People Magazine. (Zutell, Irene. “Bottle Battle”. June 23, 1997. p113).
May to December – Preserve Bottle Village files appeals to FEMA, successfully appealing $18,900 yet not overturning FEMA’s decision on the larger sum.
Preserve Bottle village continues preservation efforts, speaking with private foundations.
PBVC receives generous grants and donations from:
Larry Janss – School of the Pacific Islands Foundation ($21,000)
Rothschild Foundation ($15,000)
Gareth Evans – Golden Rule Foundation ($10,000 + $5,000)
For more information or to volunteer or donate, go to the Official Website for Grandma Prisbey’s Bottle Village or their Facebook Page.
Oh Claire, thanks for the memories. I discovered her either in a Scholastic Magazine or in my classroom biography collection. After reading about her, I would show the children some great YouTube videos. They were mesmerized, as was I. Not sure if I learned about her before I had your boys. xo
They must have loved that! I’ll ask Isaac if he remembers.
omg, I have to go there!
Thank you for sharing it, I had never heard of Grandma Prisbrey.
Thanks for this great post. I love your research. I may want to paraphrase for my website. OK?
I didn’t write it! It was written by the good people of the Preserve Bottle Village Committee. I just love the way it’s written, and grateful that they let me share it. I’m sure they’d be glad if you use it for your site, especially as you already link to them. Which is how I found out about BV in the first place! So thank you!
I lived in Santa Susana when I was a kid. A buddy and I helped replace most of the head lights in 1974 that had been broken and cleaned up broken glass. She was such a sweet lady. She gave me many fountain pens that I still have in my collection from the pencil room.
Wow! Thank you so much for your story! I’ve been thinking about her a lot. What a strange sad life she had, and how she brought this whimsy to so many people, from so little.