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The Spirit of Tehachapi

The Spirit of Tehachapi

I was reading a portion of an old news article the other day that sounded like an advertisement for a great place to go, a good vacation spot or perhaps a girls' college with great dorms.

"Each cottage had a large living room with a fireplace and comfortable chairs where occupants could visit, read, play games and listen to the radio." A room called The Globe was for movies, parties and dancing. Further on it spoke of tennis and volleyball courts and a baseball diamond. Finally there was a picnic area called "The Retreat" for weekend groups and picnicking . Actually the article I was reading described the California Institution for Women that was once located in Cummings Valley.

The State of California was trying out a new rehabilitation program by which it was hoped would alter the inmates lives so they might pursue new fields of endeavor upon their release.

Each woman, unless physically unable was required to work at a regular job which included a clothing factory, laundry, gardening, hospital, office work and farming. The women were allowed to take a rest break during their shift. Time was allotted for the above mentioned activities. They could work their way up from a Probationary status to Standard and finally to Honor Status.

The State, to realize this giant endeavor, which would remove the women prisoners from San Quentin Prison to the Tehachapi area, first had to purchase 1,700 acres of prime farm land in Cummings Valley from Lucas "Gabe" Brite for $114,056.65. Four permanent buildings of French Norman architecture were built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). There were three two story buildings called cottages; Davis, Willard and Culver. Davis and Willard each had a complete living unit with kitchen, dining room, living room, bathrooms and supervisor's quarters. Culver Cottage, the larger of the other buildings had complete living units on both floors. A supervisor lived in the cottage and controlled all activities.

The fourth building was the Administration Building with offices and a fifth building was was erected and used for laundry and for receiving and storage. Space had to be made for a sewing room, clothing factory, maintenance shop and school rooms. Classes were held in the evenings and Tehachapi School District provided the teachers. The Matrons were mostly from out of town and from what tradition tells us, were not thrilled with the isolation of the facility. A few Tehachapi women were also finally hired.

In May of 1932 the five buildings were completed and ceremonies were held. Someone always finds a way to "toss a monkey wrench into the works." The Attorney General ruled that the women prisoners had been sentenced to San Quentin and had to serve their sentence there. Where there are laws, there is always a chance to find a "loop hole." The State Legislature passed a bill making the newly built, castle-like prison a branch of San Quentin Prison. It was known as the Women's Department at San Quentin at Tehachapi. The ties to San Quentin were dropped in 1937 and it became the California Institution for Women; the first women's prison in California.

The honor system must have worked for the citizens of Tehachapi often noticed a few women sitting in the last row, center of the BeeKay Theatre watching the movie. The Honor Women of the prison enjoying a trip to the movies. There was a gift shop near the gate of the prison with items made, to sell, by the women .

In 1938, a news article states: "Miss Florence Monahan, Superintendent of the Tehachapi Institution for Women, was hostess to a smartly appointed dinner for the Tehachapi Exchange Club and their wives. A program of finely rendered musical selections by the women (prisoners) trained by Miss Harriet Hegstad, consisted of choral and solo singing in Spanish costumes, made by the wearers....some fifty guests dined and report this as one of the most delightful affairs they had ever attended."

The prison became a tourist attraction to photograph the castle-like prison nestled in the Tehachapi Mountains.

The ears of this writer heard of two prisoners who had escaped from the "castle". One was never caught and the other just did it to prove she could do it and just stood outside the compound (minus her clothes) until she was brought back in.

Walter Johnson, for years the publisher of the Tehachapi News, was not on the best of terms with Alma Holschuh, the Head Matron. She was known for her acerbic tongue and Walter with his irascible nature was not one to pull any verbal punches. Word had gotten to Walter from friends who were prison employees, that a new inmate had arrived whose first name was Josephine. It would seem that the doctor, upon giving Josephine her physical, discovered that she was actually a man. The Tehachapi News caption on the article was, "Josephine Was No Lady!"

Some years ago, on Christmas Eve, my sister-in-law, Helen Davis, invited me and my fiancé, Doyle Gracey, to visit her aunt who was a matron at the prison. The inmates were having a Christmas party in the common room. Part of the entertainment of the evening was a game of Musical Chairs. We, being guests,were invited to play. I was eliminated early in the game but as fate would have it, the last two players ended up being my U.S. Marine, in uniform , and one woman inmate. As the music stopped he found himself in front of the empty chair. The "chivalry of the Corps" prevailed as he allowed her to take the chair for it was clear she'd have shared it with him on his lap; anyway my husband always said that the only time he ever played musical chairs was in prison.

Built for a population of 170 inmates, the prison continued to grow until it became apparent that the institution could not provide the quality of the program it had originally planned. Approval was given by the Legislature to build a new facility near the town of Corona. The July 21, 1952 earthquake found the buildings in such a state they could not be occupied although no serious injuries were suffered. With the help of the Marine Corps Base at Barstow, who delivered tents, cots, blankets, a field kitchen and food, a tent city arose on the grounds where the women lived for about a month until August 17, 1952 when the last bus-load of women were moved from Tehachapi to Frontera, California.

Thinking back, I'd say it was a nice place to visit but I woudn't want to live there!