Tales of Pioneers
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 daugerreotyping 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
Last revised July 3, 2011