Peter Britt is still known and celebrated in Southern Oregon as the pioneer photographer who left a rich heritage of local 19th-century portraits and landscapes. During his 50 years in Jacksonville, Oregon, he was also known as a painter, gardener, orchardist and vintner. Although Britt's home no longer exists, his former property has become the home of the Britt Festival and Britt Gardens.
When Peter Britt was born in Obstalden in the Swiss canton of Glarus, his family farmed land that had been in the family for centuries. Earning a living there as an itinerant portrait artist was difficult, but Peter pursued this until 1845, when he immigrated to the United States with his father Jacob Kaspar Britt, his brother Kaspar, and Kaspar's family. They settled with other Swiss emigres in Highland, Illinois. Portrait artists of the time were faced with competition from daguerreotype photographers, so Britt studied this new technology with John H. Fitzgibbon in St. Louis. Although Britt apparently opened his own studio in Highland in 1847 and operated it for five years, Miller could find no records to support that claim.
Perhaps gold fever, perhaps just wanderlust, took Peter Britt from Illinois to Oregon in 1852, following the completion of his naturalization process. Britt left Illinois with John Hug and two other Swiss men. Britt was the captain of the group, John was the wagon master, and the group made it to Grande Ronde Valley before the men insisted on no longer dealing with Britt's 300 pounds of photographic equipment. John Hug split the wagon into two halves. At The Dalles, Oregon, John Hug and Britt chose an overland route to Portland, while the other two men chose the Columbia River route and arrived in Portland, Oregon, just 24 hours later. Finally, Britt, hearing news of the gold mining strike in Table Rock City (now Jacksonville, Oregon), left Portland alone for southern Oregon. According to Miller he arrived with the two-wheeled cart, a yoke of oxen, a mule, and five dollars.
Britt built a log cabin in Jacksonville in November 1852, on land where he lived for the rest of his life. This log cabin no longer exists, but Southern Oregon University archeologists have recently determined the site of the cabin.
Although Peter Britt brought his photographic equipment all the way from Illinois to Oregon, and immediately opened a Daguerreian Gallery in his log cabin, he also tried gold mining and mule packing in order to earn money. Altogether, Britt was successful enough to send money back to his brother Kaspar in Illinois, build a frame house in 1854, give up the dangerous mule packing business in 1856 to concentrate on his photography business, and expand his home in 1859.
According to Miller, Britt knew his future wife, Amalia Grob, in Switzerland, but her father would not allow them to marry because Peter Britt's occupation as an itinerant artist was too tenuous. Instead, Amalia married a relative, Kaspar Grob. Britt's brother Kaspar did marry Amalia's sister, though. When Mr. Grob died in 1861, Kaspar Britt contacted Peter. Miller states that Peter immediately sent Amalia funds to return to Switzerland if she wished, or to travel to Oregon and marry him. With her young son Jacob, Amalia traveled to New Orleans and around Cape Horn to San Francisco, then by steamer to Crescent City and finally by stage to the Applegate stop. Peter Britt met her there and they were married.
Prior to Amalia's death in 1871, she and Peter had three children of their own, Emil, Arnold (who died as an infant) and Amalia Dorothea, known as Mollie. Emil, who also became a photographer, and Mollie remained in the Britt home their entire lives.
Until 1858 Britt could take only daguerreotypes or ambrotypes, processes that provided only the photo, no negatives or extra prints. About 200 of his daguerreotypes survive. Britt's first wet plate negative was taken of a trapper who agreed to sit for Britt's experiment.
In the 1860s Britt purchased a stereo camera, which led to his development as an outdoor photographer as well as a gallery photographer. At this point he set up the traveling studio he called "The Pain". Although Britt traveled only within 100 miles (160 km) of Jacksonville, this provided opportunities to photograph the Oregon Coast, the Redwood Empire, the Siskiyou Mountains, the Rogue and Klamath rivers, and the deserts and lava beds east of the Cascades.
Peter Britt is often remembered as the person who took the first successful photograph of Crater Lake. He did so in 1874, after his attempts in 1868 and 1869 had failed. His photos helped William Gladstone Steel persuade Congress to create Crater Lake National Park in 1902. Britt also painted Crater Lake.
Many of Peter Britt's dry plate negatives, and those of his son Emil, are archived at the Southern Oregon Historical Society History Center in Medford, Oregon. They are owned by Southern Oregon University. Images of many Britt prints may be viewed on their website.
Peter Britt began his career as an artist in Switzerland. Although he may have been primarily interested in painting nature studies and landscapes, he earned an income by painting portraits in Switzerland, Germany and possibly France. Once in the United States, Britt also painted portraits on commission, including one of Col. George Davenport completed just before Davenport was murdered by river pirates on July 4, 1845. This portrait, considered "the foremost example of Peter Britt's portrait skill", now belongs to the Figge Art Museum.
Since paints and canvases were difficult to obtain, Britt apparently ground his own minerals to mix with oil and pigments, and wove his own canvases from flax grown on the family farm. Britt returned to painting in his later years. He painted remembered views of Switzerland, portraits of Britt family members and Oregon scenes such as Crater Lake and Mill Creek Falls.
Britt's other accomplishments:
Long before he established Oregon's first winery, Valley View Vineyard, Peter Britt grew grapes and sold wine in Jacksonville. By 1880 he produced 1,000 to 3,000 US gallons (3.8 to 11.4 kl) of wine per year, and eventually filled orders from as far away as Wyoming. Britt also produced and sold honey, peaches, apples and pears.
Britt is known as the father of the southern Oregon fruit industry. He irrigated his property as early as 1855 and used smudging to fight frost. As an avid horticulturalist, Britt imported plants from "most of the civilized world." He particularly enjoyed growing semi-tropical plants, including palm trees, an Abyssinian banana tree, Smyrna figs and Japanese persimmons. The plants, unsuited to southern Oregon's climate, required exceptional care and in some cases a solarium.
In addition to obtaining land for his orchards, gardens and vineyard, Britt invested in land farmed by tenant farmers, and held deeds to over 2,000 acres (8.1 km). Britt also made money by making loans secured by land, and unsecured personal loans. Miller indicates Britt was a reasonable, perhaps even generous, landlord and lender. Britt also dealt fairly with Chinese miners, lending them grubstakes until he hung a sign saying "No More Money to Loan.", and providing shacks on his property in which some Chinese lived.
Britt and later his son Emil devoted significant time to at least one endeavor, weather reporting, that netted no income. Notes in Britt's diary began in 1859, when he used a pocket sun dial and a homemade rain gauge. From 1870 to 1891, Britt reported weather to the Signal Corp Weather Service, using their equipment. Emil Britt reported to the Weather Bureau for another 58 years.
Finally, Peter Britt was a leader in his community. He served on the Jacksonville City Council twice, and on various committees. He belonged to at least four German American organizations, The Turnverein, Jacksonville Harmonie; Improved Order of Red Men, and Eintracht, a German Swiss mutual aid group. Britt handled correspondence for Eintracht, found work for young emigrants, and provided occasional lodging for travelers. After one member, Frederich Ruch, and his wife committed suicide, Peter Britt became guardian for their three sons. Britt did not participate in Jacksonville's religious community, although his children were baptized by Moses Williams, the first Presbyterian minister in southern Oregon, and remained Presbyterians throughout their lives. Peter Britt was a follower of Robert Ingersoll, an agnostic. Britt served as vice president of the Oregon State Secular Union and helped establish the now defunct Liberal University at Silverton, Oregon, in 1896.
Peter Britt's legacy includes many photographs, including 800 that may be viewed on Southern Oregon University's website or at the Southern Oregon Historical Society. The Society also stores the Britt archives, and images of his paintings may be viewed in their catalog. Britt Park and the Britt Festival in Jacksonville are also testimonies to Britt's vision, hard work and success as a southern Oregon pioneer.
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