Peter Britt: The Man Beyond the Camera

SOHS 11049 Peter Britt


Peter Britt was one of Jacksonville's best known and most respected pioneers. He is remembered today for the pictures he took and painted, the plants he grew and the music festival that bears his name. Southern  Oregon University Britt PHoto Exhibit

Selected SOU/SOHS Britt Artifacts

Selected Peter Britt Materials in the Archives

Britt portrait of Jennie, an Indian woman

Peter Britt, namesake of the Britt Festivals summer concert series, was an extraordinary man of vision and accomplishment. His curiosity, motivation and experimental nature matched with a keen business sense allowed him to merge broad-ranging interests into a wide assortment of successful endeavors.
Britt is best known as a pioneer photographer. For nearly half a century, from the early 1850s to 1900, he took remarkably expressive photographs of the people, activities, and landscapes in Southern Oregon. With his camera lens, he captured the diversity and detail of everyday life as the region grew from rugged mining district to prosperous commercial center. He left for future generations a rich pictorial history of a very real frontier community.

SOHS B3301.3 Jacksonville 1856

It was early November 1852 when Britt arrived in Jacksonville pushing a two-wheeled cart full of photographic equipment. According to local lore, he had $5 in his pocket. He selected a site on a hill with a magnificent view, now the site of the Britt Festivals, where he built a small log cabin for shelter. Presumably, he "made some pictures" early on, although the oldest known image of Jacksonville wasn't taken until 1854. Like almost everyone else, Britt was stricken with gold fever and took his turn in the diggings, but soon recognized that mule skinning was more of a sure thing and potentially quite profitable. Britt purchased a string of pack mules and for several years made the rigorous ten-day trek hauling foodstuff and mining tools from the California seaport of Crescent City. By 1856 Britt had made a sizeable grubstake and gave up this arduous occupation. He bought a new, state-of-the-art camera in San Francisco and turned his energy back to his photographic trade.
Peter Britt also found time to paint landscapes and portraits. The Southern Oregon Historical Society maintains a collection of his paintings, which belong to the University of Oregon System.

To be a proper photographer, Britt needed a decent studio and a better home. With improved finances, he converted his log cabin into a storage shed and built a simple structure that served as house and studio. It started as a plain, one-story building similar to other early Jacksonville houses. However, Britt's house differed with the innovation of a north-facing skylight that illuminated his studio. During an early remodel, Britt added decorative "gingerbread" trim, introducing the fashionably new "cottage gothic" architectural style to the still primitive frontier setting. A few years later he added more living space by building a second story and moving his studio to the top floor. Years later, in 1883, another two-story wing was added. By then, Britt's opulent home boasted spacious living quarters, a wine cellar, solarium and two sky-lit studios on the second floor.

SOHS 1641 Peter Britt and banana tree

An avid gardener, Britt surrounded his home with ornamental shrubs and exotic trees, which he started planting in the 1850s. Among Britt's most unusual botanical specimens was an Abyssinian banana tree, which reportedly had to be dug up and taken indoors each winter. Rhododendrons, palms, cypress, and wisteria also graced the grounds. In 1862 Britt planted a giant sequoia redwood to honor the birth of his son Emil. Fieldstone steps and terrace walls, a bubbling fountain and goldfish-filled lily pond added a touch of romance to the park-like grounds. To keep his garden watered, Britt installed an innovative irrigation system fed by a mile-long ditch that ended in a system of underground pipes. Several out-buildings, including a carriage shed, water tower, dog house and winery, were located close by. In addition to the botanical gardens near his house, Britt encouraged the growth of a timber stand of Douglas fir that by 1894 was valued at nearly $5,000. This forest can be enjoyed today by strolling the Jacksonville Woodland Trails that meander through Britt's former estate.

SOHS 763 Wine drinking at the Britt home

According to an old family story, in 1854 an Italian peddler from California sold Britt his first fruit tree and When he planted these in his garden he laid the earliest foundation for Southern Oregon’s wine and orchard industries. As Britt acquired more property, he developed a twenty-acre commercial orchard and expansive grape vineyards on a ranch about a mile outside of Jacksonville. Britt was acquainted with knowledgeable horticulturalists throughout the country and stayed well informed in the latest cultivation methods. In his orchards he used smudging techniques to protect his trees from frost and raised bees to improve pollination. Not one to miss a single entrepreneurial opportunity, he sold the honey from his bees as a sideline.
Notations in his diary indicate Britt planted a lot of grapes in 1861. By the 1870s he had experimented with over 200 varieties and was marketing wine under his Valley View Vineyard label. Because of his vast experience, agriculturists frequently sought his advice as they established their own commercial fruit crops.

Britt Thermometer and sample diary entries

It is fitting that Britt, so keenly interested in plant life, would pay close attention to climate and weather conditions. He was already in the habit of recording weather observations in his personal diary when, after an official weather service was established within the Army Signal Core in 1870, Britt agreed to be a volunteer civilian observer. The core provided him with sophisticated instruments that were kept in a regulation weather shelter near the house. Britt made regular weather reports to the service until he turned this duty over to his son Emil in 1891.

SOHS 763 Wine drinking at the Britt home

Photography, horticulture and meteorology weren't Britt's only pursuits. He made personal loans and invested in real estate. He had a number of rental properties and ranches that were run by tenant farmers or hired hands. Britt was more willing to do business with the Chinese in Jacksonville than were many residents. He had a number of Chinese tenants and made loans to Chinese miners. In the late 1850s he allowed a group of Chinese to mine gold on his property for a percentage of the profits.

B324 Amalia Britt portrait by Peter Britt


Jacob Grobb, Britt's stepson Emil Britt, Britt's son Mollie Britt, Britt's daughter

In 1861, Peter Britt married Amalia Grob, a recent widow Britt had courted years earlier in Switzerland. Amalia had a seven-year-old son, Jacob, whom Britt took on as his own. The couple had three more children, Emil, born in 1862, Arnold, who died in infancy and Mollie, born in 1865. Amalia died in 1871. As adults, Mollie took over the household management, Jacob tended to many of his father's agricultural affairs and Emil joined his father in the photography business. The family was close knit. None of the children married and all spent their entire lives in the Britt house on the hill. The family portraits shown here were painted by Peter Britt and are included in the University of Oregon collection maintained by Southern Oregon Historical Society.

SOHS 1289 Mollie Britt at her piano

Art and music had a place in the Britt household. Britt had trained as an itinerant artist in Switzerland and while in Southern Oregon painted landscapes and portraits for his own pleasure. Little is known about Britt's musical abilities, but he did encourage the musical talents of his children. His sons sang with a singing group on summer evenings when they were boys, and Mollie played the beautifully carved Steinway piano that her father bought for her when she was twelve. A 1916 newspaper article reminisced about garden concerts Britt once enjoyed from his veranda. “The porch is a large one, and, of Sunday afternoons years ago, the city band would play and friends of old Peter Britt would sit out under the trees and enjoy the music and the cool winds that stole in from the sea to greet the magnolias and the jasmine that bloomed in the yard."

Britt Gardens Children's Festival 1991, Eugene Bennett photo

Britt's children continued to live in the ornate Victorian house after his death. Ultimately the bulk of the estate went to the Oregon University System. The house was destroyed by fire in 1960 and the grounds became a county park. On summer evenings Britt Festival concertgoers continue to enjoy the view as they listen to music under the stars. More than 150 years after a nearly broke Swiss immigrant arrived in a muddy mining camp, his legacy lives through the pictures he took, his paintings, the gardens he planted, and a vital agricultural heritage he helped foster.