Tales of Pioneers: Peter Britt
AN ENTERPRISING ARTIST.--Mr. Peter Britt, our resident daguerrean and photographic artist, has, within the past few months, completed the building and furnishing of one of the best arranged and most complete galleries to be found anywhere on the Pacific Coast. The edifice is situated on the rise of the hill between Jackson Creek and Rich Gulch, in the center of a beautiful garden. The site is a prominent one, and the form and general appearance of the building itself exhibits an artistic taste that cannot fail to strike the attention of strangers as they approach our town from the north or south.
Mr. Britt has now got his arrangements complete for taking the best of pictures in every style of the art. He is now kept quite busy in making, by the dozen, album photographs. Nature evidently designed Mr. Britt for an artist, for he never appears happier than when making chemical experiments or reading works devoted exclusively to his art. That he holds a high rank in his profession we have the evidence of a practicing artist, who has written to a person in this place that Mr. Britt's ambrotypes would grace the first galleries in Philadelphia. That Mr. Britt keeps himself thoroughly booked on the very latest improvements in the art is evidenced from the fact that he can produce the famous "spirit pictures," about which late Eastern correspondence tells us the spiritualists of Boston were "thrown into a furor of excitement." His skill and enterprise entitle him to the full confidence and liberal patronage of our community.
Oregon Sentinel, January 31, 1863, page 2
LAKE MAJESTY.--A party of gentlemen start tomorrow to make a thorough exploration of this wonderful lake. They are provided with the material for a boat, and will probably sound its depths. Last week Messrs. Cawley and Beall, of this valley, and Captain Sprague visited the lake and the two latter, with some difficulty, descended to the water. Mr. Cawley says that his two companies did not seem to be more than six inches in height when they reached the edge of the water, and some idea of the immense distance from the crest of the mountains surrounding the lake may be formed when it is known that it takes a rifle ball, fired from the edge of the basin, about seventeen seconds to reach the water. These gentlemen estimate the distance across the lake at nearly ten miles, and the distance to the water from the most accessible point at over one thousand feet. Britt accompanies the party to take photographic views, and we may soon expect Lake Majesty to be famous as one of the grandest natural scenes.
Oregon Sentinel, Jacksonville, September 12, 1868, page 2
A FINE GARDEN.--Mr. Peter Britt's garden, in this city, is certainly a fine place. It contains a great many rare and beautiful plants and flowers, showing the artistic taste and discernment of the proprietor, numerous varieties of grapes and other fruits, a small pond filled with beautiful goldfishes, and affords a splendid view of Rogue River Valley and the foothills and mountains surrounding it. It is, altogether, a place of which the owner may well be proud, and shows what may be done in this favored clime by perseverance and intelligent application. Many of the shrubs and plants to be found in this garden could only be grown in hothouses in the Atlantic States.
Oregon Sentinel, Jacksonville, October 15, 1870, page 3
The contractors who are digging the Britt ditch, extending from below town to the Britt farm on Rogue River, have their work nearly completed. This ditch will enable Mr. Britt to utilize a large tract of pumice land which is now useless, and also to irrigate a large part of his tillable land.
A. C. Howlett, "Eagle Point Eaglets," Medford Mail, March 22, 1901, page 5
Last Friday noon Professor A. B. Cordley and Professor E. R. Lake, of the State Agricultural College at Corvallis, arrived at Jacksonville to take part in the fruitgrowers convention that was held Saturday in this place . . . The professors were then taken to the Britt home by Emil Britt, where they spent some time in enjoying the beauties of the handsome park about the house, the rare collection of trees, shrubs and flowers being very interesting to them. Mr. P. Britt showed them his collection of photographs and daguerreotypes that without doubt contains more rare pictures than any other gallery in Oregon, for there are daguerreotypes taken by Mr. Britt in St. Louis, some as early as 1846, also the first pictures taken in Southern Oregon, being daguerreotypes taken by Mr. Britt soon after his arrival in Jacksonville in October, 1852. There can also be seen the first photograph ever taken in Southern Oregon which was made by Mr. Britt in 1857 [sic. Note that the previous sentence says he began in 1852. This must refer to the first paper photograph, taken in 1858.]. He has the first photograph ever taken of Crater Lake, which he took in August, 1874. As both of the professors are amateur photographers, they were greatly interested in Mr. Britt's collection of lenses, which number 26 and include the little daguerreotype lenses with which he learned the art in 1846 and a big photographic lens that cost him $250 in New York.
"Some Entertaining and Instructive Drives," Jacksonville Sentinel, September 11, 1903, page 5
PETER BRITT. To Peter Britt belongs the distinction of taking the first photograph in the state of Oregon, the much-valued print still being a prized possession of this master portrait painter and photographer. The date of this undertaking was February 26, 1858, and the subject was Judge Moser. [Britt began photography in Oregon in 1852. This must refer to the first paper photograph.] Probably no one living in the West has so large a collection of pioneer pictures as Mr. Britt, the majority of his subjects having long since passed over the great divide. All degrees and kinds of photographic development are represented, and probably most of the faces which had to do with the frontier days may be studied under the hospitable roof of this earnest and high-minded lover of art. His gallery also contains many examples of his portrait work in oils, and upon his canvases are perpetuated many of the ideal landscapes for which Oregon is noted far and wide. Many of these paintings represent great value, and as a collection they rank with the landmarks which illustrate western development up to the present time. The Britt house and gallery commands a view over the entire city and Rogue River Valley, the horizon being banked by the Cascade Mountains. Surrounding it are flowers, shrubs and trees in profusion, the trees including ornamental palms, magnolias, chestnut, lemon and orange trees, as well as cherry, plum, apple, peach and others which bear their burden of fruit each season, an ideal home, occupied by an artist who has gone through life with seeing eyes, and one who has observed and thought with extreme intelligence. It is not surprising that his eighty-five years are crowned with the honor of all, the love and affection of many and the supreme consciousness of having performed well whatever he set out to do.
Mr. Britt was born in Glarus, Switzerland, March 19, 1819, his ancestors having settled in the Alps country many hundreds of years ago, emigrating from their home in England. Jacob Britt, the father of Peter, was born near Glarus, and married Dorothy Britt, a native of the same locality, and daughter of Kasper Britt. Jacob Britt brought his family, consisting of two sons, his wife having died some years before, to America in 1845, locating in Highland, Ill., where he lived to be seventy-three years old. In his native land, and also in the country of his adoption, he engaged in the wood business, importing the finest of woods for cabinet and other ornamental work.
Peter Britt was twenty-six years old when he came to America with his father in 1845, bringing with him a practical common-school education and a mastery of portrait painting. Seven years later, in 1852, he joined a party of three in a trip across the plains, having one wagon and six yoke of sturdy oxen. They were eight months on the way, and though they had much to do with the Indians, invariably received kind treatment from the denizens of the plains. It is one of the pleasantest recollections of Mr. Britt that they were always thoughtful and considerate of the red men, and that they often gave them food and otherwise purchased their good will. Locating in Jacksonville, he plied his art, which he had perfected in Illinois and St. Louis, Mo., in which latter city he had also taken up daguerreotyping, as possibly better understood and appreciated in this country. At the same time he took up a half section of land adjoining the town of Jacksonville, to which he later added eighty acres, combining its management with portrait painting and daguerreotyping. In the spring of 1853 he started a pack train to Crescent City, a distance of one hundred miles, and continued the freighting business until 1856. He then sold out his train and went to San Francisco, where he purchased a larger and more complete photographic outfit, and soon afterward took the first photograph before referred to. His life in the meantime has been a busy one, and here he married Amalia Grob, who for years watched his growing success, but died in 1871. Two children were born of the union, Emile and Amalia D. Aside from his beautiful home, Mr. Britt owns several farms in the Rogue River Valley, upon one of which is a vineyard yielding delicious grapes and fruit for wine production. The balance of the land is in orchard and pasture. Formerly Mr. Britt voted the Democratic ticket, but owing to the currency attitude of his party he has espoused the cause of Republicanism. Too much cannot be said in eulogy of the life and work of this disciple of nature. In a groove in which comparatively few excel, he has tenaciously maintained a high standard, and at the same time has made a practical success of his life work. It is the unusual artist who has the financial part of his makeup well developed, and especially one who has not sacrificed the dignity or simplicity of his calling.
Portrait and Biographical Record of Western Oregon, Chapman Publishing Co., Chicago, 1904, pages 966-967
Emil Britt was born in Jacksonville [in] 1862, and has been a member of the city council for ten consecutive years, including several terms [as] mayor, which position he now holds. He is a prominent member of the Masonic fraternity, being now Master of Warren Lodge No. 10 for the fifth year in succession.
Mr. Britt is among the best "boosters" of the county capital and takes much interest in questions of public moment.
Medford Mail, April 26, 1907, page 2
BRINGS IN FIRST GRAPES
PETER BRITT, JACKSONVILLE, ORIGINATES INDUSTRY.
Grew Grapes in Rogue River Valley in 1854--Also Introduced Photography to Oregon.
JACKSONVILLE, Or., Sept. 39.--(Special.)--The question as to who is the father of the grape industry in Rogue River Valley has been raised as the outcome of a banquet recently given by a real estate firm at Grants Pass in honor of A. H. Carson, a grape grower of that section of the valley, who is credited with being the originator of the grape industry in Southern Oregon. As this banquet got considerable publicity in the Oregonian and as it is an unearned and unfair honor to credit Mr. Carson, or any of the other present vineyardists of Jackson or Josephine County, with being the father of the Rogue River Valley grape industry, the true facts are herewith given:
To the late Peter Britt, of Jacksonville, belongs the honor of introducing tame grapes into Rogue River Valley, and of having the first commercial vineyard. This vineyard consists of 15 acres and is one of several in this vicinity that have demonstrated that Rogue River Valley can produce a grape and a wine equal to the best of the famous grape districts of Europe. Mr. Britt was reared in the grape district of Switzerland, and, having traveled in France, he thoroughly understood the growing of grapes and the making of wine. He arrived in Jacksonville in the fall of 1852, being one of the pioneers of this old mining town, and noted the vigor of the wild grapevines about here, and he determined to give tame grapes a trial. He got his first vines from California in 1854 or 1855. These were the old Mission grapes, and they grew so well that he later got in other varieties and for the 50 years to the time of his death in October 1905, Mr. Britt carried on the work of demonstrating what were the best grapes for this soil and climate, and in that period he grew over 200 varieties of American and European grapes. Vines were had from Mr. Britt for every vineyard in Rogue River Valley, including Mr. Carson's, that were planted prior to the last ten years.
Starts Famous Park.The Britt grapes and the Britt wine were famous while yet Mr. Carson was a struggling lawyer in Arkansas, and the fine quality of both were known to all pioneers of the Pacific Coast who had occasion to pass through Jacksonville on the stage line in early days or the railroad in recent time.
Mr. Britt was a lover of nature as well as a scientific horticulturist, and the park about his residence in this place has been for years one of the leading attractions of Southern Oregon. A picture of it has appeared in all the railroad advertising of this section for 20 years past. In this park is a sequoia gigantia (California big tree) which Mr. Britt planted 46 years ago, getting the seed from the famous grove of big trees in Yosemite Valley. This tree is now fully 100 feet high and 152 inches in circumference three feet above the ground. A palm tree 28 feet high, growing out of doors all seasons of the year, is another interesting feature of this park. Mr. Britt originated a walnut tree that has proven to be superior in many respects to the imported varieties. For 26 years the original tree has never failed to bear a crop of nuts, and trees of the second and third generation have borne nuts quite equal in size and fine quality to those of the parent tree.
First Crater Lake Picture.Mr. Britt took the first photograph of Crater Lake. This was in August 1874, long before the present simple and easy method of taking photographs was invented, and the outfit that he had to take to the lake on pack horses over a rough mountain trail weighed 600 pounds. He had to fit up a darkroom and prepare the plates at the lake, yet with all these difficulties to overcome he got a view of the famous mountain wonder that has not been excelled in clearness by the photographers of today, with their splendid equipment. Mr. Britt was one of the first in the United States to take pictures by the daguerreotype process, and he was also one of the first to use photography. He had one of the first galleries opened in Oregon, doing his first photography at Jacksonville in the fall of 1852. His gallery, which is kept just as the old gentleman left it by his son, Mayor E. Britt, of this place, is one of the most interesting places in all Oregon to the lover of pioneer relics and history. The collection of cameras embraces every design, from the first crude photographic instrument to the perfect one of today. A complete daguerreotyping outfit is also one of the interesting curios. There are also to be seen hundreds of photographs of pioneers, many of them persons of note in the history of Oregon and of the Pacific Coast. The famous picture of Governor Pennoyer, with the high collar so familiar to newspaper readers of years ago, was taken by Mr. Britt, and the old Governor was so well pleased with it that he would send to Mr. Britt for additional photos whenever his supply ran short.
Oregonian, Portland, September 30, 1907, page 2
Some years ago I met Peter Britt, one of the pioneers of Oregon and one of the first settlers at Jacksonville. During my visit to Mr. Britt he showed me a wonderfully interesting collection of photographs that he had taken in the early fifties of men who later became famous in Oregon's history. Desiring to look over these photographs again, I visited Jacksonville recently.
Mr. Britt's son and daughter live in the old home place. When I told Emil Britt what I wanted he said: "The gallery is just as Father left it. We have not disturbed it since his death. I will be glad to show you through. My father, Peter Britt, was born in Switzerland, and when a young man was a portrait painter. This was before the days of photography, in the late thirties and early forties."
On the walls of the reception room and the studio were a number of excellent portrait studies in oil. Upon my admiring them Mr. Britt showed me a score or more canvases of landscapes and portraits.
First Camera in Oregon.
The latest date shown on the paintings was 1843. As we entered the next room Mr. Britt pointed to an old-fashioned camera and said: "That was probably the first camera that ever came to Oregon. It is one of the old daguerreotype style. My father brought it across the plains with him, and when he came to Jacksonville he brought this old camera with several hundred pounds of photographic equipment in a two-wheeled cart. Here is the next camera he used. As you will see, it is the 'wet plate' type. I remember in the early seventies we went to Crater Lake to take what I believe were the first pictures taken of Crater Lake. We had, of course, to take in all of our plates, plate holders, cameras and other equipment on pack horses. We took in several hundred pounds of equipment--a very different thing than nowadays when one can go in with a kodak and a few rolls of films in the coat pocket."
Hanging on the wall was a picture of a small cabin, the sign on which read "P. Britt, Photograph and Daguerreotype Room." "That is a picture of my father's photograph gallery in 1854," said Mr. Britt; "people used to come from all over Southern Oregon to have their photographs taken in that little gallery." Scores of daguerreotypes were to be seen about the room either in cabinets or in their old-fashioned plush and brass frames. It was like stepping back through the years into the past to look at some of the fresh and smiling faces of these old daguerreotypes and realize that the babies looking at you with solemn stare have long since been grandfathers and grandmothers. Here, standing primly and formally by a chair, was a little girl with tightly curled ringlets hanging down her shoulders and stiffly starched pantalets showing beneath her plaid skirt. More than 50 years have passed, and yet, changeless and unchanging, this demure little maid looks down from her frame upon the visitor of today.
Some Well-Known Oregonians.
As we looked over the pictures, I noticed many familiar faces. Here was a picture of Judge Colvig when he was a young man; here was one of Sylvester Pennoyer, taken long before he became Governor. Pictures of Binger Hermann, Judge Deady, D. P. Thompson, ex-Governor Woods and dozens of other men who have made their mark in Oregon's history were here. "Whose picture is this?" I inquired. "That is a picture of David Linn. His son Fletcher Linn lives in Portland now. The picture next to that is one of Rev. Flynn taken about 50 years ago." I picked up a photograph of a round-faced, smiling boy and wondered if perhaps it might not be a picture of Bill Hanley or Colonel Robert A. Miller or of some other of the well-known men who first saw the light of day in Jacksonville.
"My father came to Jacksonville on November 8, 1852. He camped with his cart on the site of our present home. When he came, the hills and gulches for miles around were staked, and men were making big wages with rocker and long tom. My father went in with several others equally inexperienced in mining and took a claim on Ashland Creek. They built sluice boxes and for two weeks worked hard. In the evening they discussed what they would do with their money when they made a cleanup. They finally decided upon going to South America, where they heard there were good opportunities to be found. When the cleanup was finally made, it netted them 75 cents each, so they did not go to South America, and that was the last mining my father ever did. I don't know whether they didn't have their riffles properly arranged or whether the ground they mined held no gold or what was the trouble, but in any event it cured my father for all time of the mining fever. Thereafter he was content to make a slower but more certain living in his gallery.
"Come on out and I will show you over our place." Mr. Britt, having Swiss industry and love of fixing up his home, has made it a perfect bower of beauty. Bay trees, fig trees, almonds, persimmons, bamboo, walnut [and] grapes are to be seen on every side. I stopped under a "celestial" fig tree and ate several handfuls of sweet, ripe figs. A wide-spreading English walnut in the front yard had scattered the lawn with its fruit. I stopped to fill my pockets with English walnuts. Going back of the house toward the 60-acre park, we came to a sturdy sequoia. "My father had lots of sentiment," said Mr. Britt. "He planted that sequoia the year I was born--50 years ago. It is four feet through at the base and, as you know, the California sequoias live to be more than 1000 years old."
Fred Lockley, "A Town That Lives in the Past," Oregon Journal, Portland, November 24, 1912, page 63
Peter Britt, a Leading Figure Among Pioneers.
First Photographer in this Section of the State
And 'Father of the Grape Industry in Southern Oregon.'
Peter Britt, one of the earliest pioneers and Southern Oregon's first photographer, arrived in Jacksonville on November 8th, 1852 and camped on the site of the present Britt residence. At that time mining excitement was at its height, and the hills and gulches for miles around were staked, and men were making good wages with rocker and "long tom." Mr. Britt, with several others equally inexperienced in mining, took a claim on Ashland Creek. They built sluice boxes and for two weeks worked hard. In the evenings they discussed what they would do with their money when they make a cleanup. They finally decided upon going to South America, where they heard there were good opportunities to be found. When the cleanup was made it netted them 75 cents each, and the South American trip was indefinitely postponed.
This cured Mr. Britt of the mining fever and, equipped with the first camera ever brought to Oregon, he opened "P. Britt's Photograph and Daguerreotype Room," where people came from all parts of Southern Oregon to have their photographs taken; and at the Britt home today there is a wonderful collection of photographs taken in the early 'fifties of men who later became famous in Oregon's history. Among them are pictures of Binger Hermann, Judge Deady, D. P. Thompson, ex-Governor Woods and dozens of other men who have made their mark in state history. In the early 'seventies Mr. Britt, accompanied by his son, Emil, journeyed to Crater Lake and secured probably the first photograph ever taken of Southern Oregon's famous resort. To accomplish this they had to take in all their cameras, plates, plate-holders and other equipment amounting to several hundred pounds on pack horses--a very different thing than nowadays when one can go in with a Kodak and a few rolls of film in his pocket.
With an intermission of some years when he was engaged in freighting by pack train from Crescent City to Jacksonville, Mr. Britt followed the occupation of portrait painter and photographer for 50 years and had in his studio at the time of his death the most complete line of pioneer portraits, historical scenes and scenic views in the state. To him belonged the distinction of having taken the first photograph on paper ever taken in Oregon, and for many years he had the most complete photographic apparatus south of Portland.
Mr. Britt was an ardent horticulturist and surrounded his home in this city with a collection of rare plants, shrubs and trees, including palms, lemon and orange trees, giving it the appearance of a tropical park. He was known as the "father of the grape industry in Southern Oregon" and owned the first commercial vineyard, consisting of 15 acres, which was one of several that demonstrated that Rogue River Valley could produce a grape equal to the best of the famous grape districts of Europe. Mr. Britt was reared in the grape districts of Switzerland and, having traveled much in France, he gained much knowledge of the grape industry. Noting the vigor of the wild grape vines about here, he determined to give tame grapes a trial and got his first vines from California in 1854 or 1855. These were the old Mission grapes, and they grew so well that he later got in other varieties and for 50 years, up to the time of his death in October 1905, he carried on the work of demonstrating what were the best grapes for this soil and climate, and in that period he grew over 200 varieties of American and European grapes. Mr. Britt furnished vines for every vineyard in Rogue River Valley.
Peter Britt was also the first to plant peach trees in Southern Oregon. In 1857 he planted a little peach tree in the yard of his home here. Two years later it bore fruit, and for over fifty years it produced peaches for members of the family. On Thanksgiving morning, November 24, 1910, weighted down by clinging snow, our first peach tree bowed its head and went the way all things which have life must go.
Realizing that a section adapted to so many varieties of choice fruits and blessed with so fine and equable a climate was destined to be thickly peopled in the future, Mr. Britt acquired title to a large amount of choice land, and at the time of his death was one of the leading landholders of the valley. He was a leading figure among Southern Oregon's pioneers and was well known and highly respected in all parts of the state. The following is an extract from a biographical sketch printed in a Portland paper at the time of his death.
Among all the early settlers it is doubtful if any were more closely identified with the early life of the southern part of the state than Mr. Britt. Born in the historic town of Obstalden, Canton Glarus, Switzerland, March 11, 1819, he came with his father to Highland, Illinois in 1845, where he followed the occupation of portrait painter for five years, taking up daguerreotyping in 1847. In 1852 the returning "forty-niners" determined him to remove to the Pacific Coast, and after an eight months' trip by ox team via the Fort Hall route and Portland, he arrived at Jacksonville in the fall of that year, where he made his home.
Jacksonville Post, July 31, 1920, page 1
Jacksonville also had the first photograph gallery established in Oregon. The photographer was Peter Britt, who used to bluntly tell the ladies, when they were displeased with their likeness and prone to lay the fault onto the photographer, "If you want a pretty picture, you must bring a pretty face."
Helen Colvig Cook, "Mrs. Floyd Cook's Article on Removal of County Seat," Medford Mail Tribune, November 28, 1926, page 10
Peter Britt: Pioneer PhotographerIn Jacksonville, the graceful old Victorian house once occupied by "Picture Pioneer" Peter Britt, and now lovingly cared for by son Emil and daughter Mollie, has become a mecca for modern-day pilgrims who revere the late painter, photographer, horticulturist and landscape architect.
BY THEODOSIA GOODMAN
Eugene Free-Lance Writer
Students of photography gravitate to the museum, once Britt's studio, maintained in the home. Gardeners come to browse among the spacious grounds filled with palms, oleanders and one stately old cedar of Lebanon, and to peer through the glass porch where oranges ripen in the winter sunshine. Journalists, seeking human interest yarns, come there frequently.
Thanks to Hollywood's absorption in educational films, the fame of the man has spread beyond the confines of Oregon. A short subject, entitled "Picture Pioneer," filmed at the Jacksonville pilgrim's mecca, was shown throughout the country. [The film is available for viewing at the Southern Oregon Historical Society's Research Library in Medford.]
Actually, what has given Britt his enduring fame among Oregonians is not the enormous popularity he enjoyed among his contemporaries, his excellent photographs, nor his artistic flair, but his work in introducing new plants to the locale and working out the problems of their culture. He was the first man to begin grape-growing on any considerable scale in the state, and the first to experiment successfully with a legion [of] other fruits and shrubs, some of them hardy semi-tropicals adaptable to the marginal Mediterranean climate of Southern Oregon.
On the house itself, a neat black semicircular plaque, with gilt letters proclaiming "Photo Gallery, P. Britt," still hangs. Inside, the high-ceilinged old rooms have succumbed to oil heat and other modern innovations, but in the upper story time stands still in the rooms which once were the studios of the pioneer who brought graciousness and culture into one of the most remote parts of the then barbaric West and for 40 years faithfully recorded the daily scene and passing show at Jacksonville.
Britts, daughter and son, have taken on the task of preserving this colossal monument to their famous father. Emil, now retired, has the upkeep of the extensive landscape garden. Mollie acts as chatelaine of the old house, and both are working at restoring the gallery as it was during Peter Britt's lifetime in Jacksonville's halcyon days.
Intriguing to modern shutter-clickers is the collection of practically all types of 19th century cameras, including stereoptic, a small primitive-looking affair unexpectedly boasting a fine precision-ground Voightlander lens, and many others whose growing complexity trace the evolution of photographic equipment through four decades.
There are huge scenery backdrops of painted canvas, rolled and waiting, props of fine furniture and silk shawls, and a number of Peter Britt's oil paintings of Jacksonville and its inhabitants, with some particularly fine portraits among them. The landscapes record the infancy and booming early years of the town, and the portraits immortalize its once-famous citizens.
Britt, descended from English separatists who had emigrated to Switzerland, was born in Wallenstadt in the Canton Glarus, in 1830. His father, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, was a portrait painter of considerable renown, and son Peter decided to follow in his footsteps. He had his sights set on Munich when his father and uncles decided to emigrate to the United States. The boy chose the challenge of America's pioneer region to the slow, tedious apprenticeship of Munich.
Seven years were spent in Illinois, where the man who was to become one of Jacksonville's characters studied daguerreotyping with the great Fitzgibbon. In the spring of 1852, armed with a camera and equipment purchased from his teacher, he joined two other young men for the journey west. His photographic equipment alone, bulky in those days, weighed several hundred pounds and took considerable space in the men's one wagon. The trio was eight months on the way, managed to get along well with Indians encountered en route, and reached colorful Jacksonville camp in the fall of 1852.
After a brief and unsuccessful mining exploit on Ashland Creek, Britt set up shop as a daguerreotyper. The impressive residence still standing had its beginnings in a small white building, recorded in Robert Taft's book, "Photography and the American Scene," and additions through the years added up to the present architecture.
Though Peter Britt's work, viewed from present standards, is "old-fashioned," it does have a certain quality of timelessness. Britt was never guilty of the then-prevalent sin of overdramatizing. His gallery includes the faces of practically all the once-prominent element in Jacksonville, and many from beyond the region. Pioneer Judge Hanna, Captain O. C. Applegate, Judge Mosher, Sheriff Kennedy, Senator Mitchell, Rev. Mr. York, Paine Page Prim, Kaspar Kubli are some of the names which live on in daguerreotypes to thrill students of Oregon history.
Color is there, too. There are suave young Cantonese in tailored silks, patriarchal Chinese of venerable age, hoop skirts, portraits of white men's wives with obviously Indian faces, and one curled and crinolined mulatto girl, her transient beauty caught on porcelain in a tortoiseshell case, whose identity is long forgotten.
There is comedy in the gallery, too. A big mustached gentleman incongruously fondles a kitten, a young butcher sleeps under a hedge, embracing a keg, and a country editor sits with wry smile peeling spuds. Touring photographers have dubbed the little museum as holding one of the best collections of portraits on porcelain in the West.
In striving to possess the best photographic equipment and the most luxurious and tasteful of home furnishings, Britt made frequent,trips to San Francisco, and to enlarge his field for photographic clients he assembled a portable outfit, including camping equipment, in a light wagon with a trim canvas cover. It was called upon frequently for photographic recordings of claims, equipment, buildings, etc., and for Britt's own "busman's holidays."
Taking a camera on field trips was no simple task in Britt's day. Upon one occasion he was asked to photograph a party of men making a trip to Crater Lake, an already famous natural wonder but as yet unrecorded on film because of the hazards involved in taking wet-plate paraphernalia into the hinterlands. Among the men of the party, all seasoned campers, was one tenderfoot, an Easterner, and a rather important personage to boot, whose coughing, sneezing and conspicuous discomfort after three days of drenching rain persuaded the balance of the party to prepare to leave the following morning, rain or shine, pictures or no pictures. Providentially, the sun broke through at the eleventh hour and Britt got his pictures.
Oregonian, Portland, June 20, 1948, page 78
NOTED BRITT FAMILY LEAVES MANY EARLY-DAY MEMENTOESWith the death of Miss Amalia (Molly) Britt of Jacksonville last Oct. 13, the history of one of Southern Oregon's most famous families was closed.
Priceless Historic Items To Remain As Remembrances
Records of Family Found Interesting
By HARRY NORDWICK
Mail Tribune Staff Writer
However, the benevolence of her will, involving a $250,000 estate, will leave many material and incorporeal remembrances to Southern Oregon residents in the form of priceless historic items and scholarships for worthy students.
One of the first provisions of the will was the bequest of what is probably the most famous residence in the area, the Britt home and gardens, to the Southern Oregon Historical Society, Inc., of which she was a member.
Will Has Proviso
The bequest was made with the proviso that the place be maintained by the historical society as a museum and historical monument in honor of the memory of Peter Britt. The will also provided that if the society accepted the terms and conditions, the sum of $25,000 was to be placed in a trust fund to be used by the society for care and display of the property. However, only $1,000 could be use annually for such purpose, and an equal sum was to be provided by the society.
In event the society was unable to maintain the home as a museum, the will stipulated that the $25,000 should go toward making up a $50,000 trust fund to provide scholarships for graduates of Jacksonville High School.
After numerous other gifts, including $25,000 to the Shriners' Hospital for crippled children, and smaller amounts to various relatives and friends, the will leaves the remainder of the considerable estate to the Oregon state Board of Higher Education to be used exclusively at Southern Oregon College of Education, in Ashland.
After an extensive investigation, the historical society found it could not maintain the Britt home as a public museum on the money available, even though some charge be made for admission. Instead, the SOHS suggested to Herman L. Lind, Portland, executor of the estate, that a special display of Britt items be placed in the Jacksonville Museum. He agreed, and a selection of relics will be made by a committee of SOHS members to be named by the society's president, Miss Claire Hanley, the executor and representatives of the state Board of Higher Education. The balance of the items will be sold.
Also, under interpretation of the will, it was felt that the real property could go to the city as a memorial park. No action has been taken yet on this matter. If such a park were to be dedicated, the historic residence would probably be removed.
The real property involved is Lot 5, Block 28. The "lot," however, is not of the common city variety. In fact, the county assessor's office says there's nothing quite like it in all of Jackson County. Its measurements are, on the east side (fence), 346.5 feet; south side (barn), 325 feet; west side (old Britt ditch), 376 feet, and north side, 357 feet.
On the land are many rare trees and many first plantings in Southern Oregon. On June 23, 1947, the Oregon Federation of Garden Clubs gave a posthumous award to the heirs of Peter Britt for planting the first garden in Southern Oregon and for his lifelong interest in promoting horticulture in the early days. Many of the plants and shrubs in his garden are the parents of those that beautify Jacksonville today. The plot also provided seasoning and fruits for the pioneer settlers.
Of notable interest are several plantings. A sequoia tree was planted in 1862 by Peter Britt, the day his son Emil was born. Today it is 93 years old and is 16 feet 8 inches in circumference two feet above the ground.
Earlier plantings include a pear tree in 1858, which is said to be "granddaddy" of the Rogue Valley's fruit industry. The tree still produces a heavy crop at the age of 96 years. A willow peach tree, planted in 1856, bloomed and bore fruit for 56 years, before being felled by a heavy snow storm.
Others include a dwarf Japanese maple five feet high, a dwarf maple 4½ feet high and a ginkgo tree 25 feet high.
Seeds from Washington
The esteem of Peter Britt as a horticulturist is shown by a letter from Senator Binger Hermann in 1881. It stated that he had sent Peter a package of choice seeds selected by the superintendent of the U.S. Botanical Gardens in Washington, D.C.
The local history of the Britt family begins with the story of a pioneer of the old tradition, Peter Britt, who arrived in the new mining camp of Jacksonville in November, 1852, according to information compiled by Mrs. Myrtle P. Lee, curator of the Jacksonville Museum and friend of the family since she was a small child.
Starts with $5
He had only $5 when he arrived, after a wagon and oxen trip across the plains to Oregon, accompanied by three others as far as Portland. His first sight of the valley and Mt. McLoughlin is said to have reminded him of his native Switzerland. He left there and came to America in 1845 when 26 years old, with his father and brother. They settled in Illinois. In 1847, Peter took up daguerreotyping, after instruction from J. H. Fitzgibbons, St. Louis, a leading daguerreotypist. The process involved use of a silver plate.
When Peter arrived in Jacksonville, it was a frontier city of tents and log cabins. He took up a donation land claim adjoining Jacksonville, later adding 80 acres.
Thus began a career that eventually was to include the occupations of photographer, gold miner, painter, freighter, money lender, horticulturalist, weather observer, wine maker and wholesaler, and probably some others.
Had Gold Claim
Like many early pioneers, he was successful at almost everything he turned a hand to. A claim on the south fork of Jackson Creek produced for him and two others about $500 a day while working a pocket, according to information from Mrs. Lee.
To meet a growing supply problem caused by the influx into the mining camp, he went into the freighting business to serve the area in 1853. His pack train traveled to Crescent City, via the Applegate, until 1856 when he sold out. Two of the pack saddles are now at the museum.
The first log cabin built by him served as a home and studio until 1854, when he built a separate studio from lumber, with a skylight for illumination. Living quarters had been added to the studio by 1856. The studio had an outdoor sign stating "daguerrean artist," and did a prosperous business, according to his son, Emil.
In 1856, Peter went to San Francisco, where he purchased a larger and more complete photographic outfit. Among the equipment was a Harrison lens, weighing 30 pounds. From then on, he was actively engaged in photography in a big way until 1900, when he retired.
Some of his early photographs included landscape scenes of the region and hundreds of pictures of early-day figures such as Judge P. P. Prim and Orange Jacobs, who later became governor of the Washington Territory (they were opposing lawyers in the first regular trial at Jacksonville in 1853); Judge Deady, Capt. W. W. Fowler, "A" company, volunteers, 1853 (who also built [the] first log cabin there); Henry Klippel, who surveyed the first township in 1852; U. S. Hayden, first alcalde (judge); Mathew G. Kennedy, first sheriff; B. F. Dowell, lawyer, and many other important personalities of the Oregon Territory.
His historic pictures and paintings of the time, including many types of photographs, daguerreotypes, melanotypes, tintypes and others, are among the richest items in historical value left with the estate. A large collection of old-time photographic equipment, including several cameras, many lenses, five large studio backdrops and other items, is still intact. Peter's first camera, a heavy wooden box used for making daguerreotypes, is included.
The main part of the present Britt residence was erected in 1860. A rear portion, including another large studio room on the second floor, was added in the early 1880s. The house as it stands now has 14 rooms, three stories, with a large wine cellar. There are three bedrooms on the first floor, a dining room, waiting room for the upstairs studio, hothouse, personal living room, parlor and kitchen. A small bedroom over the kitchen was also included for extra help. The hothouse was heated from the personal living room. Oranges and lemons were grown there, as well as a number of cactus and rare potted plants.
The second floor was devoted entirely to a studio with two large skylighted rooms and two printing and developing rooms. The studio room walls were covered by photographs and paintings, with some 3,500 small pictures which have been catalogued by Mrs. Lee, acting for the executor.
The third story was used for storage of photographic plates and painting material.
Still in the cellar are 15 wine casks of the 200-gallon capacity each, plus 13 glass jugs in wooden cases and smaller jugs.
These remnants tell [of] another successful enterprise of Peter Britt, the Valley View winery. Britt, who was reared in the grape district of Switzerland, is credited with bringing in the first tame grape plant to the area and starting a vineyard of 15 acres.
Mrs. Lee reported that his motive for setting out a vineyard was to prove that where wild grapes grew so prolifically, the tame grape plant would do as well. He obtained his first vines from California in 1854-55, which were of the mission variety.
Notations in his records showed that he gathered about four tons to the acre, with a ton of grapes producing 135 gallons of wine. Entries showed many types of wine on hand. One noted in 1893 that he had sold a blend of claret, which was "very clear and fine, but very sweet." The cellar also contained muscat, zinfandel and cabernet wines.
He dealt in wholesale trade, and it was said that the grapes produced in the valley gave as fine a wine as any in Europe.
One prominent customer was Father Francis X. Blanchet, former Jacksonville priest, who purchased wine for religious purposes for his Catholic parish after he had moved to St. Paul, Ore. Other leading persons of the day were on his customer lists.
Another contribution to the history of the area was weather reporting by both Peter and his son, Emil. Peter kept private weather records in a diary from 1852 until January, 1891, when Emil took the task over. The latter began work as a cooperative observer for the U.S. Weather Bureau on Aug. 1, 1891 and served for 58½ years. He died six months before being awarded a medal by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Random items from their weather reports show that February, 1894, was the year of a big snow, with 14 inches falling. The city's highest recorded temperature was 106 in August, 1901, and lowest was 5 degrees above on Feb. 4, 1899. The average number of days each year that the temperature rose above 90 was 20, and average for under 32 degrees was 75 days a year. Average annual precipitation was 27.74 inches.
One of the most consistent weather beacons was the croaking of frogs in the lily pond before each storm, a common weather report entry.
Besides the bustle of activity during the '50s and '60s, Peter found time to marry Amalia Grob in 1861 at the old Henry Kubli home on the Applegate. His wife was a former childhood sweetheart whose first husband had died, leaving her with one child, Jacob. She arrived here by stage after a steamer trip from San Francisco to Crescent City. The Kubli home where they were married was a night stop on the stage line.
Children born to Peter and Amalia were Emil, 1862 (died January, 1950); Arnold, 1863 (died August, 1864), and Amalia D. (Molly), 1865 (died October, 1954). Jacob, son of Mrs. Britt from her first marriage, died in July, 1898. Mrs. Britt died in 1871 and Peter died in 1905.
The Britts were active in community affairs. Peter served in various capacities throughout his life, and Emil served on the city council for 15 years and was mayor for six years. Amalia (Molly) was worthy matron of Adarel Chapter, Eastern Star, 1903-5, 1913-14 and in 1922. She held office in the chapter for 50 years straight, a record equaled by few.
Medford Mail Tribune, January 16, 1955, page 12
Last revised May 30, 2019