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An unusual tourist attraction

Quick, can you name an 1889 sandstone building in Marquette that is on the National Register of Historic Places and is still in use but is not in any tourist guides and is almost never seen by visitors?

If you guessed the Marquette Branch Prison, you are correct. Designing the prison was actually the job that brought architect D. Fredrick Charlton to Marquette, where he stayed and went on to design so many iconic Marquette buildings, including the much more famous Marquette County Courthouse.

It wasn’t always true that prison wasn’t a tourist attraction. It’s still possible to find plenty of old postcards featuring the beautiful sunken gardens that once drew tourists from all over the Midwest. And, like any proper tourist attraction, the prison once had a thriving gift shop.

The first gift shop at the prison was a log cabin which opened in 1936. By 1961, the program had gotten so popular that the log cabin was moved to the prison park to store playground equipment and a new gift shop, built by prisoners, opened in the same location.

A Mining Journal article from June 14, 1969, described how the program worked. It was up to the inmates to decide what to make and what prices to ask, but a committee could reject items that were sloppily made or in poor taste. Fifteen percent of the proceeds went to the inmate benefit fund, which helped to maintain the store, and 85% was deposited in the bank account of the prisoner who made the item.

There was a very unpopular $600 annual cap on earnings, designed to prevent any one inmate from completely dominating the sales. At that time, 400 of the 600 inmates in the prison participated in the program, including 29 who made the maximum yearly amount. One prisoner, Leo Broskey, once had 300 belts and 300 wallets for sale at the same time.

Leather goods, such as those Broskey made, were among the most popular items sold at the gift shop, but the range was enormous. Items for sale included hand tooled leather goods (belts, wallets, purses, holsters, knife sheaths, key chains), wooden-ware (bowls, cribbage boards, jewelry boxes, sewing baskets, lamp bases), black velvet paintings, ceramic chess sets, slippers, moccasins, log cabin banks where the money went down the chimney, barbecue sets, a miniature sawhorse and chopping block, children’s furniture and toys. One popular children’s toy was a hand-carved covered wagon, with brass stock used on the wheels and covers made from imitation zebra or leopard skin. Many of the items were labeled “Souvenir of Marquette.”

The prison gift shop closed in 2002, citing the cost of maintaining and staffing the building. But by that time only prisoners in the trusty division were allowed to participate and many of the tools once used to make crafts were no longer available to inmates. There was simply not enough inventory available to keep the gift shop viable.

The fate of the prison gift shop in Marquette was not unusual. Texas and Montana still have shops where people can purchase prisoner-made items (Montana features braided items made from horse hair; Texas will let you mail order a personalized key chain) but both are located within prison museums. Until 2016 you could still buy a model army tank made with popsicle sticks by prisoners in Florence, Arizona, but that too has now closed.

Perhaps the most successful prison gift shop still in existence is the Maine State Prison Showroom in Thomaston, Maine. There it’s possible to buy fine furniture, crafted by inmates in a program that teaches furniture making under standards set by the American Furniture Makers Institute. (New Hampshire has a similar program).

But the standards have not been set so high that the gifts are beyond the reach of the average tourist. It’s also possible to buy a lobster-themed cornhole game at the Maine prison gift shop, perhaps even with a “Souvenir of Maine” sticker attached.

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