Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village

Bottle Village

Grandma Prisbrey’s Bottle Village also known as Bottle Village is a folk art piece, located in Simi Valley, California.  The assemblage is one of California’s “20th Century Folk Art Environment”.  In 1956, Tressa Prisbrey, then 60 years old, started building a “village” of shrines, walkways, sculptures and buildings from recycled items and discards from the local landfill.  She worked for 25 years, creating one structure after another to house her collections.


BOTTLE VILLAGE is California Historical Landmark Number : 939.  It is also Ventura County Cultural Landmark and has historic designation from the City of Simi Valley.  It was listed in the National Register of Historical Places in 1996.  It was officially closed in 1984 and severely damaged during the 1994 Northridge Earthquake.  In 1996, 2 years after the earthquake, and still in ruin, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1946, Tressa Luella Schaefer moved into Santa Susana, California, now known as Simi Valley, California, where she met her husband, Al Prisbrey who bought one-third of an acre located on Cochran Street..  They then bought a trailer to live in and removed the tyres and hid them in an effort to stay grounded on the lot.

Bottle house

When Tressa first moved here, she had a large collection of 17,000 pencils, which had previously been her hobby.  In an effort to find a place to put them, she decided she wanted to make a house for her pencils to stay.  She began looking around to buy cinder-blocks to build with but came to discover the prices were out of her range.  She stumbled upon a dump where she realized that bottles would be perfect to build with.  When she came back home, there were 1,000,015 bottles with her.  She began going to her sister, Hattie’s house and made cement by hand and built her 1st “bottle house”.  This is when Bottle Village began to take form.  Grandma Prisbrey mentioned she did not build to gain attention, but as an outpost as well as a place to keep all of her things.  She was very much a “collector” as well as a “recycler”.  She was interested in the fact that everything has a purpose and is special and unique and that is exactly what she brings to Bottle Village, not just in the visuals but the overall feeling you receive from being present.
The Village was very much established by 1961, but Grandma kept adding structures and tweaking into the 1980s.  She moved away in 1972, but came back later to live in a trailer alongside the Village, where she continued adding sculptures and flower planters.  She again left the Village due to failing health in 1982 at the age of 86, and took residence with her sole-surviving child (0f the 7 she had had) in San Francisco.  In July 1986, the property was “gift-deeded” to the Preserve Bottle Village Committee.  Tressa Prisbrey passed away in 1988.

bottle village 063

Tressa’s original idea was to build a wall to keep away the smell and dust of the adjacent turkey farm and to simply create a structure where she could store her 17,000 commemorative pencils.  She and her husband had spent all their money paying for the property, so she resorted to visit a local dump where she found 1000s of coloured bottles.  She continued to build until she had constructed 16 buildings, and structures made of glass and other assorted materials, a mosaic sidewalk, the “Leaning Tower of Bottle Village”, the “Dolls’ Head Shrine”, Cleopatra’s Bedroom”, the “Round House” and more.  The Los Angeles Times described Bottle Village as an “eccentric folk art wonderland”.
Bottle Village is seen by art historians and folklorists as a complex work combining the desires of an elderly lady to provide simple shelter for her valued personal collections, memorialize family, friends and important life events, grieve over the loss of family members, entertain visitors and leave behind a testament to her personal vision, exuberance and inspiration.  To National History, Bottle Village is important because it is a significant “folk art environment”  created by an American folk artist of high acclaim and also because it is a “rarity” created out of actual mass consumer throwaways from everyday lives of Americans of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

bottle village 038

When building Bottle Village no help was given and everything was built manually and from recycled materials.  One of the shrines that can be seen at Bottle Village is called “The Headlight Garden”.  This garden was made for her then 35-year-old daughter who had been diagnosed with cancer.  Her daughter loved flowers, so Tressa decide to make a “rose garden’ out of headlights and recycled materials.  Before her daughter’s passing, she would love to wake up every morning and sit by the garden in silence.  According to Tressa, the day her daughter died, “the headlights stopped working”.
 On the walkway there are “hearts’, “diamonds” and “spade” stepping stones that symbolize that Tressa was in love with gambling.  She made the forms out of cement, but then filled them with random recycled things.  Bottle Village offers not just buildings made out of bottles but also has its own theme.  For example, a “doll house” was built to house Grandma Prisbrey’s doll collection of 600 dolls.

Built: 1956 - 1972 "I enjoyed it. I never thought of it as work. I was just having a good time." In 1956 at the age of 61, Tressa "Grandma" Prisbrey started building the Bottle Village as a place to display her pencil collection. When finished in 1965, the Village included 20 sculptures and 13 buildings. Grandma Prisbrey died in 1988.  In 1996, Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It's now run by Preserve Bottle Village (PBV), a private non-profit organization.  (excerpted from their website)

“Anyone can do something with a million dollars.  Look at Disney,” Tressa once said, “But it takes more than money to make “something out of nothing”, and look at the fun I had doing it.”  When visitors would come to Bottle Village, when Grandma Prisbrey was alive, she would first take them on a tour and end in her meditation room where she would allow them to meditate as well as listen to her sing different songs.  She would charge only “75 cents” a visit, but people would frequently give her more.
in 1994, the Northridge Earthquake struck 8 miles away and badly damaged Bottle Village.  Because of the severe damage, the Preserve Bottle Village Committee applied for FEMA funding, receiving almost US $500,000.  In 1997, the grant that had been awarded was lost after Councilwoman Sandi Webb and the Us Representative Elton Gallegly opposed it.  Gallegly called it a “waste of taxpayers’ money”.  Then Simi Valley Historical & Rancho Simi Recreation & Park District recently allocated about $150,000 to restore an apricot-pitting shed.  The City of Simi Valley also contributed at least $24,000 through Community Development Block Grant Funds to restore the 1920s wood shed with concrete pillars, a remnant of the area’s apricot industry.

Grandma Prisbrey's Bottle Village
Bottle Village is seen as “unique to the community”, a “treasure worth saving” and with the right amount of funds (estimated to be a few hundred thousand dollars)  and several months of dedicated restoration, it could happen.  The Bottle Village is in dire need of support and funding.  The late artist, Joanne Johnson, wrote, “The crumbling Bottle Village is an “ironic paradox” ——– built from castoffs, now cast aside”.
Preserve Bottle Village continues preservation efforts, speaking with private foundations.  It has received a few generous grants in the past 15 years from the Larry Janns — School of the Pacific Islands Foundation ($21,000), the Rothschild Foundation ($15,000) and the Gareth Evans —- Golden Rule Foundation ($15,000).  Bottle Village is undergoing huge repairs, and is not open to the public.  Preserve Bottle Village is a non-profit group that now owns and oversees the property.
The Bottle Village inspired a 32-page children’s book “Bottle Houses : The Creative World of Grandma Prisbrey” by Melissa Eskridge Slaymaker..  Tressa is commemorated every year during Halloween at the Simi Valley Strathearn Park Ghost Tour, which tells the History of Simi Valley in a very entertaining way.

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