Marin County - Growing up at San Quentin
Hosted by permission of Cathy Gowdy of the Marin County Genealogical Society.
Interviewers from the Marin County Genealogical Society were invited to come take oral histories of participants and chronicle their collective experiences. For most of the the interviewers, it was our first foray inside Prison walls even though several of us had lived most of our lives in Marin County and routinely passed the Prison as we went about our daily business.
The day went by in a heartbeat. Former residents never ran out of stories to tell. What you will read here is a compilation of answers to a given set of questions. The interviewers were among the very last to leave and we came nowhere close to interviewing everyone who was willing to share.
Life at the Prison, according to these folks, was pretty wonderful and they were treated as very special residents. As the interviewers joined the former residents on the bus for a tour of the grounds, we were struck with the enormous size of the grounds. Residents referred to areas of the grounds, the valley, the hill, the Warden's house and discussed how much time it took them to get around. They pretty much had full run of the area except for the Prison house itself, they knew prisoners personally and it was not unusual for lifelong relationships to be formed between the families. Click on any name to read their interview:
|Barbara Shadle Bates||Henry Cole||Marjorie Coughlin||Dorothy White Cowan|
|Beverly Arndt Dalquist||Timothy Hine||Martha Kalberg||Lois Duffy McCarthy|
|Dave McLeod||Mary Ann Murry McReynolds||Dick Mack||Ken & Tom Miller|
|Jim Price||Steve Price||Phil Zubler|
|San Quentin Prison Museum|
San Quentin was established in July 1852 at Point Quentin in Marin county as an answer to the rampant lawlessness in California at that time. During its construction, inmates slept on the prison ship, the Waban, at night and labored to build the new prison during the day. San Quentin housed both male and female inmates until 1933 when the women's prison at Tehachapi was built.
Barbara Shadle and her brother Sid were the children of Horace and Gladys Shadle. Horace was an Accountning Officer at San Quentin Prison. The family lived on prison grounds form September 1945 until 1962 (though Horace continued to work at the prison until the early 70s).
Mary Ann Murry and her brother Thomas were the children of Peter and Cleo Murry. Peter was a Records Officer and the family lived at the prison form 1948-1961.
Barbara recalls life at San Quentin including lots and lots of pets. She was known personally as the child who adopted all the strays. Her motto was, "If it was not on a door step, I though they were mine!" She and Mary Ann both remember Rocky the dog, who would chase Bunky the rabbit. The rabbit came to the family via the Silver Nail. Rocky would meet Barbara at school to skip her home.
Dave McLeod was born at San Quentin to Allen and Vera McLeod. His father came to work at the prison before 1945 and continued on until 1953. Dave and his family lived down at the Pump House.
These three childhood pals had a variety of memories of life at San Quentin including:
In their lives, it seemed there was an execution every Friday and they thought nothing of it. They did think it was "fun" when movie stars would show up to protest the death penalty, but they themselves were all in favor of the death penalty becasue they lived on the grounds.
They remembered Blackie Blackwell, the Finger Print Man, as a fellow worker. Where gray condos sit today used to be a Boarding House run by Walter Maehl who rented rooms with shared bathrooms to new families until on-site housing was available. The children would go down to play at the Point where they rode rafts built by Tom Murry. The guards kept a keen eye on them and if they got too far out, someone would go out and get them, put them in a prowl car and take them home after calling their parents.
So long as the light was green on the Main Building, the children were pretty free to roam and they could even play in the street until the lights came on in the summer. The Warden would turn the lights on at the Tennis Court that went with his house in the Summer so that the kids could paly tennis in the cool of the evening.
One year, Halloween was cancelled for all the children when the Prison count did not add up right.
Mary Ann's father had had Carl Chessman as his Office Boy as Folsom Prison. They all recalled that San Quentin had housed the Red Light Bandit. These were considered to be people who would "just as soon kill you as look at you." According to the trio, Carl Chessman fulfilled his life dreams and was proud of it. He had his story written, filed and inventoried and got terrific attention when it was published.
Barbara recalls feeling quite scared after she moved off the Prison grounds. Outside life was not nearly as simple. The difference was clear and she recalls feeling scared at night outside the grounds where the doors were never locked even at night. The feeling of "safe and secure" when the green light was on has never left her.
San Rafael High School friends would come to their houses and for community functions. They did not like having their trunks searched as they left the grounds. Though no alcohol was allowed on the grounds, Barbara, Mary Ann and Dave were all aware that plenty of cocktails were had even so.
Flowers form the Prison hothouse were donated to St. Rafael's Church for many years. The gardens were beautiful and the children could remember getting huge bouquets of flowers from inmates any time they asked. Every house was assigned an inmate gardener who was also available upon request to make swing sets and other items for outside living.
Dave put it this way, "Our waorld was San Quentin. We didn;t really go any other place. Our childhood had no worries, good times and lots of places to play. All the children recall learnig to ride their bikes at the end of the Main Gate. Mary Ann truly believed that the San Quentin swings went higher than the swings anywhere else! They recall gravel roads, ice boxes in their homes and going to the store for treats. In the summer they would follow the water truck to cool off.
All three recall the hullabaloo the time an earthquake struck and no one could find little Cindy Russell. Cindy was supposed to be staying with Mrs. Small. The earthquake struck and Cindy's mother went and picked her up and Mrs. Small didn't know it. Mrs. Small had all the police, parents and children scouring the grounds looking for Cindy, who was at home the whole time. It turned out that Mrs. Small had not received Mrs. Russell's call to her because she was in the bath tub when the phone rang and did not hear it. Still the fright of a missing child is a lasting memory.
Another time, a family that was known to allow its children to run free - the mother was a missionary and if she wasn't home the children had been known to be out all night - could not find one child. It turned out the child was at home hiding under the bed.
Christy Nordstrom was a San Quentin child who contracted Polio during the epidemic in the 50s when her parents were afraid of the vaccine. She became a Poster Child for the Easter Seal Society and everyone felt very proud.
All three had fond memories of Warden Duffy as a man who was kind to
all. At the Warden's house, the children could always count on cookies
and punch from the houseboy. One day Barbara's mother's car broke down.
Warden Duffy saw her plight and pushed her car down the hill for her. That
night the Warden died.
Henry’s parents were Henry Samuel Cole, born in Michigan, and Wilma Alta Fitzwater, born in California. Henrys’ father ran the motor pool at the prison, including all of the ranch equipment. His mother was a schoolteacher.
Henry was born at the Cottage Hospital in San Rafael. His sister, Betty Jo, now deceased, followed six years later.
At the time he was born, Henry's family lived outside the gates of the prison. At the age of about two they moved inside the gates. Their first house was No. 28, just opposite the school. Henry went directly into the First Grade (there was no Kindergarten).
Henry’s Grandmother (his mother’s mom) stayed with them when she would come down for the winter from her home in Dana near Fall River.
Henry’s sister had cats. Henry had dogs. First was a Collie called ‘Laddie’, then a hound, Airdales and Yellow Labs. The dogs ran free.
Kids living inside the walls of San Quentin played Kick-The-Can. Henry recalls that fishing was good! Henry would hike into San Rafael to get bait (sardines) and another favorite activity was Snipe hunting. Henry was in the Cub Scouts followed by the Boy Scouts, Troop 16, which included most of the boys living inside the San Quentin walls.
Henry did not believe he excelled in anything at school. He did win a reading contest in the Upper Section for reading the most books over the summer and won a book as prize. He remembers that he tied for the prize with Thelma Rais. His opinion is that he and his peers were not the most idyllic kids to have in a classroom – he recalls lots of hi-jinks. There were thirteen kids or so in his 8th Grade graduating class in 1938. Gladys had top four grades. Alma had lower four grades.
The school had two baseball diamonds, and a basketball court. In 1933 they redid the schoolyard – repaved the playground, and built a free-standing, wood handball court. Henry went on to San Rafael High School. He and the other high school students were driven to school in a Cadillac coach. Henry graduated from San Rafael High School in 1942. On Jan. 12, 1943 Henry went into Special Services.
‘Trustees’ worked in Henry's family home. ‘Fruity’ was the man who tuned the piano. They had a trustee as a gardener. He got his Model T painted in prison shop?
“Horse Post” was the name given to the West Gate. The prison dairy was just inside the West Gate. The Cemetery was near the eucalyptus trees above the shooting range. Cons could go out there.
The Hoolihan Incident was a big thing. Henry saw the gun butt wounds on the Warden’s head. However, Henry also thought there were “Some better guys inside than outside.”
After the war Henry attended College of Marin for three years where he took architectural courses. He wasn’t initially accepted at Cal, but Lou Turino convinced Henry to pursue landscape architecture – and he was accepted.
Today, Henry is retired but remains a lifelong Marin resident whose
life began at San Quentin Prison!
Little Marjorie Coughlin arrived at San Quentin at the age of two in the custody of her parents, Dan Coughlin and Kathleen May Walsh Coughlin. There she lived and played with the children of other prison employees until 1944 when she became 18, and moved to San Francisco to work for the government. Later she transferred to Washington DC where she worked for the Adjutant General’s Office before being selected for the stenographic pool for the Nuremberg Trials in Germany.
In this small, enclosed community, boys and girls of all ages enjoyed together tennis, roller skating and swimming in the reservoir. They spooked each other on Halloween night at the Boot Hill Cemetery. After lockup at 4 PM the girls could wear shorts or jeans, but not before.
The Coughlin family had many cats and from their home, they smelled the larger animals; pigs, sheep and horses being raised on the prison farm.
Once a week, Marjorie’s parents went to town to buy groceries. However, most of their needs were delivered by Miller’s Grocery (located in San Quentin Village). Vegetables were delivered from the San Quentin Ranch by inmates. Prisoners were carefully picked for household jobs, window washing and general cleaning, repairs, and newspaper delivery. Brown bread was delivered on Wednesday.
No liquor was kept in the home and doors were never locked. There were no phones in the homes. Prisoners were to be seen about the grounds gardening and keeping the prison site in order. Inmates collected flowers from hills abundant with foliage and blossoms. Marjorie calls it a “Tom Sawyer childhood in a Garden of Eden.”
The children had no chance to earn money and therefore had no money in their pockets. These were the days of the Great Depression and every family in the Prison was living in far better circumstances than the people in surrounding areas. Marjorie’s parent bought new cars, took trips and sent their children to private schools and universities. Rent was $6 per month.
The children could talk to the prisoners and did not look down on them. Sons didn’t mow lawns or rake leaves. The laundry was sent out the main gate so the girls’ only chores were bed making. The children learned little about keeping a home.
The children were schooled on site by the two teachers until completion of the eighth grade. Then they were transported by bus to San Rafael high where they completed their studies. Entrants from San Quentin Elementary had the highest grade point averages in their classes. They couldn’t participate in after school activities because they had to catch the bus. There was little socializing with classmates. Few girls dated because potential boyfriends didn’t enjoy coming through the Main Gate, have themselves scrutinized or their cars searched.
“The townspeople thought of this as a closed society. For sure one knew
all the San Quentin families. In fact, we were one big family.”
Jason D. White and Mary Frances Baltic White were Dorothy's paternal grandparents. Her grandfather had come to San Quentin from Folsom in 1899. Dorothy's father, Walter was born at San Quentin in a two story house next to teh old McGuirk Store that still stands today in the village. Additionally, Dorothy's mother's parents, Walter Scott Gillette and Ellen McKoewn (an Irish woman) came to live at San Quentin in 1907.
Dorothy's mother, Gertrude Ellen Gillette and her father, Charles Baltic White, married after growing up together on the Prison grounds. Charles had lived outside the gates as a young man and had gone to school with Gertruse. Once married, the newly weds first lived together at the Bay View Hotel during the 1920s and 30s. Charles worked at the Jute Mill initially, then as a guard up on the wall at Post #4.
Dorothy recalls going to McGuirk's store where Mr. McGuirk got barrels of beans down form way up high.
Phil Zubler, son of Ernest Zubler moved to San Quentin in 1913. His mother, Grace Jennie Duffy has moved to live on prison grounds in 1895. Ernest Zubler worked first as a guard then in 1915 as a sack inspector, then in 1919 as Supervisor at the Jute Mill.
Walter Gillette was the prison Distribution Officer who ran the clothing
factory in the days when inmates wore stripes.
Life included movies every Wednesday and Sunday. Father Galore (a prisoner) was the Catholic Priest and other inmate trustees held respectful positions within the community. Lois played the piano. Bev recalls feeling very safe knowing there were guards all around. These guards had the dubious reputation of not only protecting the children but yelling at them oidf they got out of line and the children knew it was not worth it to challenge their authority.
The San Quentin Elementary School teachers during Lois’ childhood were Alma Leathers Sheffelton and Gladys Carpenter Duffy – Lois' aunts. The Palmer Method was used to teach proper penmanship. Class size was about 6-8 per class.
San Quentin graduates rated the highest academic scores upon entering San Rafael High. While outside kids could be invited back to San Quentin for dances on the grounds, San Rafael parents wouldn’t allow their kids to spend overnight on the grounds of the Prison. Lois always found this mystifying, as it was well known that on the grounds of the Prison, life was so safe that no one ever locked their doors. San Quentin kids were, of course allowed to spend overnights outside the grounds with friends.
The best meats were delivered to the families from the Prison Ranch; and were dirt-cheap. Laundry service cost one penny per white shirt. Wednesday night, fresh brown and white bread was delivered to each house and on Saturday, a fresh loaf of French bread and fresh vegetables would arrive. Lois remembers that commonly the families feasted on steak and roasts – rarely hamburger.
Father Galore made spaghetti for the children and insisted they eat it without cutting it up; twisting the strands round and round. Sour French toast and hot chocolate was available for the children before school.
Lois recalls climbing Boot Hill, behind the back road to the cemetery where the kids would play and hide. The Prison grounds felt very safe. If ever there was a break out, the children did not learn of it until the next day in school. The children were raised in a true community. Babysitters were unnecessary as children were simply told to go over to someone’s house if the parents had to be otherwise occupied. Children of the grounds were all welcome in each other’s homes.
The children saw the trustee prisoners as friends who were included in the community. If a child was hurt, it was not unheard of for a trustee to be the one to take the child to the hospital. Shoes were shined and hair was cut by the trustees.
All in all, life was very good. At the very end of the interview, we
were joined by another good friend, Bernice Richardson Oliver. She had
come late to life at San Quentin and only got through grades K-1-2 &
3 in the last years of the school in the early 70s. She was the daughter
of Peter Elias Richardson a Lieutenant Guard. When asked if she wanted
to add anything to round our the interview of Lois and Bev, she said, "All
I can say is that Lois was known to be a little devil...." to which Lois
herself quickly added, "And I learned everything I knew from Bev!"
I got my hair cut here by a (berger??) and when he got out, he went up to Santa Rosa and worked in a barber shop.
It was a small school. Our teacher, Mrs. Hall, taught us French. There were about 40 kids in the school.
Q: Was there a high turnover rate; were people transferred often?
No, not really. But is was heartbreaking when you went to school with someone for 4 or 5 years and then their fathers were transferred and you were still here. I went there for the whole 8 years, and there were only a few of us who could say that.
In the earlier years, employees stayed longer, like my Dad - he was a corrections officer. He refused to take the Sergeant’s test because if he did, he knew he would be transferred.
We (kids) were a tight knit group. No one screwed up because we knew what would happen. You didn’t want to embarass your father. My Dad loved working here.
Q: You went to San Rafael High school?
Yes, and after I got out I married and had a couple of kids. We divorced and I married again. Been married for 27 years. Haven’t seen one kid for about 20 years. I saw the other about 5 years ago. I kept the oldest one out of San Quentin - I begged the judge. My Dad was still here working.
Martha Kahlberg was born in San Francisco and moved with her family to Residence #38 "in the valley" where she lived until she graduated from San Rafael High in 1962. Other families lived "up front" or outside the gate.
At the elementary school on the San Quentin grounds, Mrs. Molat, teacher of grades 1-4 taught the children the maypole dance. Mrs. Hall, 5-8 grade teacher helped Martha learn tennis. She also taught French in the 5th and 6th grades as well as math and history. They had little science instruction. It was necessary to pass the U.S. Constitution test in grade 7 or 8. Mrs. Holdt's glance could silence a class of rambunctious children. At most, there were 80 students uin all. Mrs. Katberg assisted the teachers and was President of the PTA. She drove the children on school field trips in her station wagon. Charlie Basset called square dances. Inmates provided janitorial and gardening services.
The family acquired a dog named Pal which had been thrown over the fence onto the San Quentin grounds. They renamed him Dosie because he was so docile. However, Captain Dosie didn't like that one bit. None of the dogs were licensed and they were always within th e grounds. Dosie died at age 14 of cancer, long after she bit the garbage man.
The prison exerted a strong influence on the community. No one got a speeding ticket or had an accident.Kids toed the line and didn't lie to their parents. Nevertheless, the children "had a ball, riding their bikes on the dirt roads after dinner."
Around 1956, the roads were paved and the bike riding became even more pleasurable. Tennis, baseball and watching American Bandstand on TV, kids played outside most of the time. Martha did dishes, ironed and washed the family car. Sometimes she helped Steve Price deliver newspapers.
Everyday seemed normal to the San Quentin children. In high school they observed that they were seen as different, from the wrong side of the tracks. Parents form San Rafael didn't want their children to visit friends at San Quentin.
Martha's prom date cancelled because he didn't want to come on the grounds. Officers would open trunks and search under the cars. There were no street signs, verbal directions weren't followed and dates got lost. Eventually, a guard suggested that the girls meet their date at the Main Gate.
Inmates worked on the grounds and were a regular sight to the children but there was no direct conversation. The bug sprayer told Martha's dog, Docie, "You keep Martha safe." When her house was painted inside, the family left the building. The beautiful San Quentin gardens were under the care of trustees. The hillsides bloomed.
Halloween treats were vividly remembered. The lady on the back end made trays and trays of candied apples. Another lady made popcorn balls 6 inches in diameter. Trick or treaters loved Martha's house becasue her mom gave them a big bag of candy. October 31 was the one time mischief could be attempted. Martha and two other girls soaped the windows of the "mean lady"... Big trouble!
The family used the San Quentin Ferry to travel to Kaiser in Oakland
for health care.
Dick Mack was the son of Richard D. Mack Senior and Florence E. Mack. His Father was Sergeant of the Guards. Richard D. Mack Senior was born 1891 and died 1956. Florence E. Mack was born 1900 and died 1982.
Where did you grow up on the grounds?
I was born at Ross Hospital and lived in cottage #23 on the grounds of San Quentin from 1937-1954. I went into the Air force in 1954 after High School as an airborne radio/radar repairman. I retired from Santa Rosa Junior College after 28 yrs. I was a computer repairman there.
He recalls being brought up in a "proper way" with tight old-fashioned values. Respect for others, do not judge someone until you know them and your word is your contract, are all values with which he was instilled.
What are the memories of your home? What color was it, how many rooms, what was the garden like?
I liked the kitchen because it had a little seating area looking out over the porch to the front of the house. The stove was a Wedgwood gas stove with a wood burner in it and it stood on legs. My dog would lie down under the stove when we ate since it was warm. You could burn wood in the stove to keep the kitchen warm.
I think our house was white. Our house had six rooms including the bathroom. The basement ran under the whole house and had a space for one automobile. The porch was the locked tool room. The garden had tiered back yard with vegetables and flowers in it.
Who were your pals? What did you do together?
Dick calls himself a prankster who was not afraid to cause commotion. For example, he admits responsibility in a prank where he and Sid Shaddle interrupted the singing with a battery and buzzer hooked up under his clothes. Sid knew I had this setup and started pressing the button and caused all hell to break lose! But the teacher knew who it was and sent Dick home! Augustine Hall was a very strict teacher for grads 1-8 while Dick lived at San Quentin. Our teacher was still the BEST though and I would not trade that experience for anything!
Dick drove a Powell motor scooter with a sidecar and delivered newspapers on the grounds then went to the ferry pier to sell papers. He loved to get Sid Shaddle and go down to the school grounds when it had rained beforehand and get the scooter to slide sideways in the mud. Gasoline cost about 25 cents a gallon then.
Dick had a dog named Abe who was born on Abraham Lincoln's birthday, February 12. Abe always came running when he heard Dick's scooter start up and jumped in for a ride. He was the king of the road when he rode with Dick. He had 4 white feet and Dick also called him boots.
Any interesting stories about anyone in your family?
Well, none of the kids of San Quentin could get away with anything do to the fact the guards were tested by the inmates every day and knew all the tricks ahead of time, darn! Sid and I would take my Dad's 1940 Ford to San Rafael while my dad was working and return it before he got off work. We thought we were smart, we disconnected the speedometer and put the same amount of gas back in and thought we could get away with it! But when he came home, boy oh boy, were we surprised that he knew all about it! You see, living in a small community does not help matters.
What do you recall about events or other special occasions?
The inmates had a special band, and on Sundays they would play music on the cement gazebo bandstand as visitors passed by. The music was great to listen to.
What years did you attend the school?
I attended San Quentin Grammar School from 1942-1950 and San Rafael from 1951-1954. The students at the high school were all curious about life at San Quentin and asked, was it dangerous to live there? I never had any problems with anyone about were I lived though. But, there was a time in the air force when they checked my records as to where I lived for top security reasons. It all worked out O.K. though. When asked were I lived, the person asking looked at me somewhat surprised when I answered I was at San Quentin for 17 years!
Did I befriend any inmates? There was an inmate when he left after serving his time gave my dad a round table roller costar type train track he made himself by hand for me to use with my Lionel train. I had more fun with this item and was very proud to have had it.
Were there any escapes while you lived there?
There was several times the red light and siren would come on and they would call the Golden Gate Bridge and the highway patrol to tell them there was someone missing. We were not afraid because the inmates wanted out. The people on the outside were in more danger then us! One time Alcatraz Prison had a big riot and they had San Quentin guards, highway patrol, and National guard there to stop the riot. My Dad went and that was the one time I was afraid for him.
How did growing up at the prison affect your life?
Growing up on the prison grounds brought me closer to people due to
a small community atmosphere. We had better values in those days in the
forty's and fifty's.
People respected each other more and helped others when they needed it. I miss the close knit family atmosphere and trustworthiness of people of days past.
What do you feel about the death penalty based upon your total experience living at San Quentin?
I feel if you break the law, you knew better before you broke the law and you should pay the piper. If you take a life, that life is gone forever from that family and can not be brought back. If you are a danger to society, then I certainly do not want you back on the streets to commit another crime.
What do you think of the Law and order in today's world?
I feel in today's world, no one thinks he is responsible for anything! This is crazy thinking! We need to be responsible for are own actions, and serve our time for what ever that turns out to be.
Living on the Grounds:
Children were not allowed to wear Levis as they were the dress of the Prisoners. No toy guns or liquor of any kind were allowed on the grounds.
At one time Trustees mowed the lawns and maintained the homes. Dick especially remembers the work of Al, the gardener at San Quentin Grammar School. The grounds were always kept beautifully and Al, commanded the respect of all the children. After he finished his time at San Quentin, Al went on to become a professional gardener.
Life in the village was very close knit, no one ever had to ask if they had problems, whatever was needed was simply provided.
My Dad came to work here about 1928 when prison life for prisoners was very tough and strict. Since then, prison officials started teaching prisoners career skills plus grammar and high school curriculum so they could get their diplomas for their new life outside the prison. The prison has changed a lot since 1928. The inmates had no life but to just hang out and do nothing in the old days. Today, they can make a go of it with their diplomas and new careers with help from employers on the outside willing to give them a chance.
I feel very fortunate to have had such a wonderful experience in my
life to have lived at San Quentin Prison. Not very many people get such
a chance as this.
Ken and Tom Miller are the sons of JKW Miller who was a guard and distribution officer at San Quentin from 1941 to 1948. During his tenure at the Prison, JKW Miller also worked as Fire Chief, then managed the West Gate of the Prison.
Ken was 11 and Tom was 14. Tom attended San Rafael High School then went off to Mare Island as a Merchant Marine and got his high school diploma there - "no ceremony," he said.
Shared memories of life on the grounds at San Quentin include: their only chores were to wash the family car, everything else was done by prisoners. The grounds were extremely dark at night in general - so dark that when the boys rode their bikes to Boy Scout Meetings, they had to be extremely careful not to run their bikes off the road in to any of the spiky cactus plants alongside the path. There was a horse post on the West Side of the grounds and the guards there used horses to patrol.
Tom came back to work at the Prison in 1946 after becoming a Journeyman Electrical Chief in the Navy. He worked Swing Shift as a guard for a few months at the Wall and in the Mess Hall. During high school, Ken drove the children to six different schools in the morning, then delivered papers along the wooden walkways. He vividly recalls being interrupted once to help get a cow out of a ditch.
The Miller brothers did not consider life at San Quentin to be much different than anywhere else. Since the community was relatively small, they did have to allow younger kids to play on their teams to have enough players. As a result, turn-about was fair play and they had to join in and play the little kids games as well. There was never a shortage of friends. They remember having a chameleon as a pet. All 8 grades learned together in one room, divided into groups. The boys recall 1 child in 5th grade, 2 in 6th grade, 1 in 7th grade and 2 in 8th grade while they lived there. At graduation Warden Duffy handed out the diplomas and everyone came to celebrate.
If the siren went off, the boys simply stopped whatever they were doing and waited. Usually the siren would stop and they would go on with whatever they had interrupted.... it was not a big deal.
Upon leaving San Quentin, Ken went to work for Chevron then joined the San Pablo Police Force. Stimulated by the execution of a man he had known, Ken spent 11 months doing the hardest job he ever knew, working in the Juvenile Division ending up as Sergeant of Detectives.
Both men remember fondly and are still in contact today with the man
- an inmate - who worked as houseboy for their family. The attitude held
by many families and the prisoners was that the prisoners knew why they
were at San Quentin and were there to pay a debt to society. Most of the
prisoners wanted to live a worthy life and once they finished their time,
the families just saw the men people like all other people. They were treated
very humanely and no grudges were held because the men were doing time.
It was just daily life within their community.
JIM PRICE (in his own words)
My mother was Dorothy Zubler and her parents were Frederick Zubler and Grace Duffy. They lived here at the prison in house 110. I came to live with them in 1945; I was 5 years old. My grandmother was Warden Duffy’s sister.
In 1946 my grandfather retired as superintendant of the jute mill and we moved outside the gates to a house up on McKenzie street which is the second house on the left as you go up the street. I lived here until I was 19 and went away to college in Fresno.
Memories! My first cat was a cat named Mokie. I found Mokie out by the back gate. I used to deliver papers and I picked up my papers at the gate. I guess someone had left her off there, thinking maybe the inmates would take care of her; I remember she was in the iceplant there by the back gate (west gate). She was a great pet for a lot of years. She used to follow us up on the hills when we would play with our kites. She would go everywhere that we went.
I started selling papers when I was 10 years old on the freight pier and because I was the low person on the totem pole, I started selling the Oakland Tribune, the least favorable of the papers to sell at the time. The Examiner and the Chronicle and the Call Bulletin were the most prized papers to sell, but I got the Oakland Tribune. I’d go down on Sunday mornings and catch the first and catch the first boat at 6 o’clock and go across to Richmond and pick up my papers, come back and then sell them on the pier on the San Quentin side. The next year I got an Independent Journal route in the Valley and a couple of years later I got the Journal in the Valley AND the front gate and later on I had the Examiner and Chronicle routes, so I had paper routes until I was 19. And that’s how I raised money to go to college and buy my first car.
I think my life was very special here, probably because because we were almost like an island. There were about 200 families here and it was like a big extended family. Because I delivered papers, I knew almost all the families, at least who they were.
We had lots of things to do here. We had the bay; we had the hills to do kite flying; we would fish down at the bay; we could ride on the ferry boats. We rode over to Richmond and back; we had to sneak around so we wouldn’t have to pay.
I think life was different here because we were somewhat isolated. One thing that was quite different was that we made our own fun. I can’t remember any of our activities other than the school Christmas pagent that were adult oriented. We played baseball, work-up, one fly up; we flew kites; we played with yo-yos, hopscotch, went fishing, all on our own. There was no adult supervision. We just went out and did these things, made our own fun. We made forts, underground forts up at Tim White’s house. We’d dig a big hole, put boards over it and grass and stuff like that. One year it was like a cave; we had candles under there.
Memories of the school....there are so many. When I came Mrs. Hall was our teacher and we had all the grades in one room. In second grade, Mrs. Moore came - that would have been in 1947 - and so we divided 4 grades to a room. I think I liked that fact that we sang every day. You know, they have found that singing is good for the self-esteem and Mrs. Hall knew that. We would sing songs like “Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean”, “American The Beautiful”; we sang songs about California, like “Caarmela”, but one song we sang every single day and that was “The Marine’s Hymn”. We were very proud of our country and we were very proud of California. People were moving to California. It was a very positive time, a very positive place to be, and our positive feeling was being reaffirmed because people were moving here. And we were very positive about ourselves.
My favorites subject there was probably science. I enjoyed that a lot. Although we didn’t have a lot of formal science training, we could read and do little projects and stuff like that. My worst subject probably was spelling.
One of the advantages of such a small school was that we could work ahead or behind because it was kind of blended.
One of the things about San Quentin kids here was that we were used to being disciplined and structured. Recently I have been taking a course and they were talking about law enforcement people and how they come from very structured backgrounds, having either parents or relatives in law enforcement.
We did have some very specific rules. There were certain places where you could not go, couldn’t wear jeans. We were used to discipline and I think that has affected me in my adult life.
But I must say that when I was 16 and old enough to get a car, the first thing I wanted to do was get out of here. We would go to San Rafael and meet more people - especially girls - then the ones we had out here. The girls here were more like family.
Being at San Rafael High School was a little intimidating at first because of the change of attending a very little school where we knew everybody and then going to a big school and not knowing anybody. I knew a few because I had spent a year living with an aunt and uncle in San Rafael. I was taking college prep courses so the kids that were also taking these classes became my friends.
I had some interaction with the prisoners. Because I was so capable, I used to deliver papers to the prisoners at the fire station which is right next to the recreation hall, or was then, and I noticed that they had a real good life - at least I thought so. They had rates (??); they even had television which was a little unusual. It kind of gave me the understanding that life is what you make it. You could be in prison and you could make the very best of it which was what they were doing. Because they were trustees,they had the very best life of the prisoners. And there were other trustees that worked out at the Ranch that worked around the guards’ houses and we would have some contact with them. I remember one guy named John who was so cool. We never asked people what they had done - that was not done - but I think in his case I did because I knew him fairly well and he said that he “had sold something he wasn’t supposed to sell.” I also had some contact with the cooks up at the Warden’s residence; they were all Chinese. They used to make kites. We would watch them fly kites all the time. One of the prisoners gave me a butterfly kite which was really kind of neat.
I do remember as a child when we lived inside the prison, we had a haircut prisoner who was a gardener and I have a copy of a letter that one of those prisoners sent to my grandmother and he was talking about how he missed being our cook and missed talking in the afternoons with Jimmy, me when I was 4 years old. We thought nothing of a 4 or 5 year old boy talking with a prisoner. Of course, now days people would be all upset about that.
I remember time with a prisoner, I asked him if he could get me a prisoner suit and he said yeah, I can get you a prisoner suit. This was when I was picking my papers up at the front gate. I was about 16. I thought it would be very cool to have the hat and shirt. He got it and laid it behind where I picked up the papers at the front gate and he said “I got your suit and all you have to do is go back and get it” but for some reason something clicked in my mind that “I don’t think I want to do this” and I don’t know why. But I thought maybe if I did this, I would be obligated or this might not be a good thing. It just didn’t seem right. Of course, now I know I would have been obligated to him; it was dishonest and he could have used that to get other things from me.
One thing I notice today is the lack of flowers. When I lived here, this whole place was a beautiful garden. There were tiers of gardens going up the hill, and flower beds all over - by the gate, by the school, greenhouses.
There was a jute mill here when I lived here. The prison bought the equipment and they made gunny sacks for the growers of rice and wheat which was grown in the central valley, thereby helping the economy of the state. All the prisoners went there to the mill upon arriving in San Quentin and it was here that it was determined if they were able to work and had the necessary discipline. When my grandfather made the determination that they were able to work, he would assign them to other jobs around the prison. Eventually they could become trustees, or go to out to the forestry conservation camp. A lot of the prisoners who came through were Indians, and since my grandfather knew a lot of the prisoners, he would be invited to come up to the reservation to go hunting. The Indians were expert hunters and they taught my grandfather all the fine points of hunting. We had a wall in our cabin on the Russian River full of antlers that he had gotten by going up to Mendocino county and up in Trinity county with the Indians.
More memories from Jim Price:
San Quentin House
The Sun Broke Through
Q: Your name and the name of your parents? When did you live here?
My mother was Dorothy and my father was Harvey Price. My mother grew up here at the prison; her maiden name was Zubler. My father grew up at Fairfax. I was born in 1944 and I came here in 1946, off and on in 1945 - I claim 18 years residence. My mother was born here. We lived right above the warden’s house and when my grandmother went into labor they brought her down and in through the gate and my mother was born in the hospital and then they took her to San Rafael. She claims (to be) the last civilian born in the prison hospital.* My other claim to fame is that I am a nephew of Warden Duffy; he was my grandmother’s youngest brother. My grandmother lived here at the prison for 65 years before she moved out.
Q: Tell me what a typical day was like here.
Depending on age, one thing which sticks in my mind, the last day of school when we had graduation, my first grade, I was given a gift at the graduation; it was a toy watch because I was late for school every single day as a first grader. I would leave the house and if I would just walk, I would do it. But it is something that sticks in my mind - that silly little watch that they gave me because I was late every day.
Just the school things and living here as (first, second, third grade) really young, this was “world”; there was no outside world. There were trips to San Rafael and occasionally a trip to San Francisco, but this was the universe for us because you couldn’t go anywhere; you couldn’t get away because it was so far to go to get anyplace.
In the end it became almost jail because you COULDN’T get away; you COULDN’T get out of here. To go to a show you had to get on your bike and ride all the way to San Rafael and then you got out of the show at 4 o’clock and you had to ride BACK .... if your bike was still there. Or you could stand at the gate and get a ride into San Rafael with an employee or a guard, but then coming back you had to hitch-hike. The good thing about it was it wasn’t scarey, because even if you hitch-hiked back people couldn’t go away with you because you had to stop for the ferry. We used to hitch-hike back and forth as kids all the time.
One of the things my brother and I do is was challenge each other who lived in what house because he and I did all of the paper routes. We did the Independent Journal and the Chronicle-Examiner paper routes. There was one other paper route that our friend Lane Becker did and that was what is now the Tribune; it used to be the Call Bulletin. So we knew every single person that lived in this town - what house they lived in, what paper they took, and whether or not we could throw it at the house or put it in the screen door.
Q: Is it pretty much the same as you look at the houses today?
Oh, yes. It’s timeless, the place itself is timeless; it never changes. Little small things have changed, but not much. The fun now is coming back and seeing the place and walking around and talking to people that I grew up with.
Q: When you were kids, did you have pets?
My grandfather did. He was a sportsman; he was into hunting and fishing and he always had hunting dogs. Other than that, we used to have when we were somewhat small ... Martha Katburg’s dad worked on the forest road crew up in the Honor Camps and he used to bring us chipmunks. We had 3 or 4 cages with the little running wheels in them. And we had fish too; we had an aquarium in the house. But we always had chipmunks because he used to get them for us. And we had cats. My grandmother said “You take care of these animals!”
Q: Did you have chores?
Chores! No, not many. We did dishes and that was about it.
Q: Did you rent your home?
No, my great grandfather built the house we lived in. Not inside! The ones inside were owned by the prison; the one right outside the gate, the first big gray one that’s up on the hill, is the one my great-grandfather built. He was the first Duffy to come to work and he started working at the prison in 1895 - and my grandfather and my uncle; my dad worked here for just a very short while, and went to the highway patrol, and that was it. No other relatives or family members worked here. I think one of my grandmother’s other brothers was a member of the California State Board or something like that.
Q: In a nutshell, how was life different?
It was just isolated. Jim made a comment the other day about getting his car when he was 16 years old - he said “Now the girls ask ME for rides to the football game.” And that was it. That car was FREEDOM. At 14 I got a motor scooter and that actually became my freedom although I wasn’t supposed to ride it off the prison area. I was always in San Rafael. I could get anywhere in Marin County and never touch a paved road. And then I got in big trouble. I had the thing for seven or eight months; I got into a really bad accident in San Rafael and broke my arms and knocked my teeth out and all kinds of stuff, so my Mom pulled the reins in on me a little bit and I went back to being isolated. But once you were 16 and had your car you were free to get away.
But being at the prison was always kind of fun. My Dad lived in Fresno and my brother and I used to go down to Fresno every summer and people would say “Where do you kids live?” and we’d say “San Quentin”. “Out on the island?” “No, no, San Quentin, not Alcatraz”, so my Dad’s friends referred to us as the “Prison kids”. We would go down there in June when school was out and stay for a month or so. When my Mom got pregnant they lived in Fresno and she did not want to go through pregnancy there so she told my Dad she wanted to come back to San Rafael or to San Quentin because my grandparents lived here and Dad said “Go ahead”, so they separated and she came here before I was born. Which made for an interesting life in itself because I lived in a prison, very isolated, and I had this really weird family.
I never realized until I came back to the prison for one of the anniversary celebrations a few years back and I went on a tour and it was the first time I had ever gone inside and I never realized ... I always felt kind of the prison depression of the crime and all of that but I didn’t realize until I walked inside that door. As soon as I walked inside that yard it was like “Oh my God! This is just horrible in here.” I never realized how bad it was.
Q: Your school?
It was two rooms, two teachers, eight grades. It was different because first grade was in this row, second grade was in this row, third grade was this row, fourth grade was that row, and then you went into the other room and you had fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth. You got to go to San Rafael after that. When you graduated this place, you really made a big step.
Q: Was it pretty much just Caucasian?
Yes, never had, that I can remember, any Oriental or Black. We used to have what we called “Play Day” when all of the small county schools would come here. The kids would come in busses for a day of games and dancing, and it was really interesting because we would see Oriental people because there were Orientals who went to those schools, and I can remember the first time a Black girl ever came to Play Day and I was just blown away because I had never been around or interacted with a Black girl before, and I thought “Wow! She’s really neat!” Though we did see a lot as inmates, but at school, not at all.
Q: Growing up here, do you think it has affected you as an adult?
Yeah, I think so. I think because of my younger years, the isolation made me extremely shy and it took a long long time for me to get over it. When I went to San Rafael High School I was just absolutely petrified. I mean, we were the largest graduating class and all that happy stuff, but I just couldn’t deal with all those PEOPLE!
I think being around the crime and knowing what the criminal part of it was, knowing what the punishments were, just being here - being here when there were executions. The executions were always at 10 o’clock and we’d be in class and when it got to be quarter to ten and we’d all say “Hey, Hey! Look at the clock! They’re taking him down the hallway now!” and at ten “They’re strapping him in! Hey man, they’re dropping the pill!” So we knew! And a couple of hours later this whole place would smell like cyanide. Unless there was a real good wind blowing, it would just lay over the prison for hours so you could smell cyanide for a long long time. So yes, all those things affected you as a kid. I was here when Barbara Graham and Caryl Chessman and others not so famous. Executions were routine. We didn’t have demonstators or any of that. They just executed them and they were out of here!
I look back on it now when people ask me that kind of question and I don’t think that any kid who lived here for more than 5 years, with the exception of one that I know of, EVER had a problem with the law or really got into heavy legal problems such as prison sentencing. I only know of one and that was a sexual rape case and he was doing time in Marysville. And one of the kids I went to school with was a guard there, Tony Lofton, and he bumped into the guy and goes “Oh, hi!”. So that was the only guy that I know of, so YES, the people that grew up here just were not in that crime frame of mind. ‘Cause you knew it - you knew what the consequences could be. Your grew up with it every day!
Q: You never interacted with the prisoners, did you?
Very little. We had a custodian at the school and we knew the trustees at the gates. The fire department used to come to the school once a week and show movies, and of course they would set up the projector and sound system so there were 2 inmates and a guard. We would talk to them and say “hi”, and of course there were the gardeners - we’d see them walking back and forth to school - they’d be out cutting grass and painting houses and all that and we would say “hi”.
Q: How many houses were here?
I couldn’t tell you the count. Trustees worked outside the gate and maintained the houses out there. In fact, the fire department would go out and assist San Rafael if they had a really big fire.
Q: So ell me what else I should be asking you....
I don’t know. My brain is about tapped out.
*The California Birth
Index says that Dorothy G. Zubler was born in Marin County Sept. 11, 1916;
her mother’s maiden name was Duffy.