JACKSONVILLE — It isn’t often that an artist, let alone a photographer, is regarded as the most influential citizen in a community’s history.
But when you visit this charming Southern Oregon town of 2,600 people, seven miles southwest of Medford, the name you’ll hear most often is that of Peter Britt, a mid-19th-century Swiss immigrant and a true Renaissance man.
The summer-long Britt Festivals include dozens of popular and classical performances, most of which are staged at a hillside amphitheater nestled among the lush Britt Gardens.
A contemporary bronze depiction of Britt, by sculptor Ralph Starritt, stands outside the box office. The Jacksonville Museum devotes an entire section to his legacy. It’s even hard to miss the Britt family plot in the Jacksonville Historical Cemetery, on a hilltop overlooking the town.
The iconic Peter Britt, as it turns out, was much more than a photographer. He started out as an oil painter. He dabbled in prospecting and mule packing before establishing his career path. Then he branched into horticulture, wine making, beekeeping and meteorology, crossing those interests with a keen business acumen that enabled him to become one of Southern Oregon’s wealthiest and most respected men, even as he raised three children alone after his wife’s early death.
As my traveling companion metaphorically noted, avid gardener Britt may have started his life in Jacksonville tending a small flower, but through perseverance and creativity, he encouraged it to blossom into a bouquet.
Today, carefully tended gardens surround the carefully tended homes and buildings that characterize this gold-rush town, which has, indeed, bloomed into something very special.
A Britt biography
Peter Britt (1819-1905) was 33 years old when he arrived in muddy Jacksonville, then known as Table Rock City, at the start of a gold rush in 1852. Local legend maintains that he had $5 in his pocket and was pushing a cart filled with photographic equipment. He built a log cabin on a hillside near town and invested in a string of pack mules to caravan food and mining tools from the nearest seaport — Crescent City, Calif. — to the diggings.
By 1856 he had saved enough money to buy a new, state-of-the-art camera in San Francisco and devote full time to photography. He converted his hillside cabin into a storage shed, built a new house, illuminated his studio with a north-facing skylight, and began to commit the life of the town and its citizens to film.
About the same time, Britt began planting ornamental shrubs and exotic trees, such as an Abyssinian banana tree, around his home. Rhododendrons, wisteria, palms and cypress were prolific, nurtured by a mile-long, hand-crafted irrigation system. He planted a giant sequoia to honor the birth of his son, Emil, in 1862; today that tree is about 220 feet tall. The four-mile network of Jacksonville Woodland Trails meanders past it.
As he expanded his holdings, Britt developed a 20-acre commercial orchard and expansive grape vineyards on land about a mile outside of Jacksonville. He raised bees to improve pollination and marketed their honey as a sideline. He paid close attention to climate and weather conditions, and was a civilian observer for the federal government for more than 20 years. By the 1870s, he was marketing wine regionally under the Valley View Vineyard label.
Britt also was ahead of his time when it came to race relations. While other business people turned their backs on the mining town’s Chinese population, Britt offered loans and accepted many as tenants in his rental properties. Even today, the town honors its debt to the early Chinese with a Chinese New Year parade in late February.
Britt was married for only 10 years to Amalia Gross, a Swiss widow who came to the 1861 wedding with a 7-year-old son. When she died in 1871, Britt was left to raise Jacob Gross and his own two children, Emil and Mollie (born in 1865) on his own. They were a tight-knit family: None of the younger members ever married or left the ever-expanding house on the hill.
Journey to the past
Touring downtown Jacksonville today is like taking a trip back to Britt’s time. In fact, back in 1966 the entire town was designated by the National Park Service as a National Historic District, the first in the state of Oregon. It is acknowledged as one of the West’s outstanding examples of a mid- to late-19th-century mining and agricultural town, little changed from its heyday.
Simple brick and wood-frame buildings line California and Main streets. Hearty maples and oaks, a century-and-a-half old, drape their boughs over stately homes on Jacksonville’s cross streets. For three decades, this was the unrivaled urban heart of Southern Oregon, a center for trade, transportation and entertainment.
When the Oregon and California Railroad bypassed Jacksonville in favor of Medford in the early 1880s, business shifted and the town declined. It wasn’t until after World War II that a community revival focused on Jacksonville’s rich gold-rush heritage. The Beekman Bank and United States Hotel, both on California Street, were the first to be fully restored at the start of the 1960s. By 1972, when Hollywood released “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid,” filmed in part in Jacksonville with Robert Duvall as Jesse James, the town had a new identity.
A good place to start a visit today is at the Jacksonville Museum, housed in the handsome Jackson County Courthouse, built in Italianate style in 1883 and the seat of county government until 1927. A museum since 1950, it has fine exhibits on many aspects of regional history, including a new exhibit on American Indian cultures. Next door, the former county jail is now a hands-on children’s museum.
Climb aboard the Jacksonville Trolley ($5 a head) for a 45-minute town tour conducted by ebullient Harry Joy or one of his colleagues. The tour route winds past dozens of homes, churches and commercial buildings and Joy, it seems, has a story about every one of them.
Joy will point out the spot in Rich Gulch where, in 1851, Jim Cluggage and John Poole discovered gold when one of their mules got a nugget lodged in its hoof. He’ll tell you about the $34 million in gold that passed over the counter of Cornelius Beekman’s bank between 1863 and 1911. He’ll talk about the garden of purebred roses planted in 1867 at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, still thriving today. He’ll even introduce you to Vance Colvig, son of a local judge. Colvig, who grew up in Jacksonville, was the original voice of Walt Disney’s Goofy and Pluto, but he became best known as Bozo the Clown.
Board a Segway — a gyroscopically controlled two-wheeler, available for rent at $45 an hour, $150 a day — to fashion your own Jacksonville tour. You can climb to the Jacksonville Historical Cemetery to visit 150 years’ worth of headstones, Britt and Beekman among them. As was common in their time, different churches and brotherhoods have their own plots. Each October, in the weekends before Halloween, townspeople costume themselves as early settlers and speak from the grave in a unique “Meet the Pioneers” event.
‘Magic things happen’
But the highlight of life in Jacksonville is the Britt Festivals, which fourth-year volunteer Jerry Trottmann insists is “the best lawn party in seven western states.”
“Magic things happen on these grounds,” he said.
Peter Britt’s original hillside homestead burned to the ground in 1960. But in 1963, a small stage with a canvas roof replaced it in a nearby meadow. At first, musical offerings were restricted to classical, with an occasional touch of jazz and bluegrass. But a full-size pavilion was constructed in 1979, enabling concert organizers to add rock music, dance performances and other genres to the mix.
In 2008, the Britt (as it is best known) will stage more than 40 shows in a 14-week period between June 1 and Sept. 7. The series kicked off with a show by classic rockers Crosby, Stills and Nash, and will wrap up with a concert by the Black Crowes. In between, jazz, country, blues, folk and contemporary rock stars perform, and the first 17 days of August are devoted to the Britt Classical Festival. (A few Britt performances are held at a new 5,900-seat amphitheater in Central Point, several miles west of Medford, as well as a Medford orchard and an Ashland recital hall.)
When we visited on June 12, the Britt was presenting “Mardi Gras in June” with touring New Orleans musicians Dr. John and the Neville Brothers. A crowd of about 1,500 (the amphitheater holds about 2,200) attended. Perhaps one-third of them occupied reserved benches in front of the stage; the remainder spread out on blankets and towels on the lawn above. Picnic baskets filled with sandwiches, fruit and wine (yes, the Britt is a bring-your-own venue) were the order of the evening.
The gravelly voiced Dr. John, whom I first heard perform in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1985, maintained his voodoo mojo with a piano-top human skull and other trappings of Cajun tradition. Clad in a lime-green leisure suit, he took the audience through an hourlong set that included songs like “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Iko Iko.”
He was followed by the Neville Brothers, veteran rhythm-and-blues stylists. Although technical difficulties left the group with only an hour to perform before a 10:30 p.m. town curfew, this quartet — who really are brothers — put on a remarkable show. Older brother Art Neville, on the Hammond organ, was the glue that held together Charles’ saxophone licks, Cyril’s percussion and Aaron velvety voice, especially on numbers like “Tell It Like It Is.”
No doubt Peter Britt, himself a music lover who encouraged his sons to sing and his daughter to play piano, would have been pleased.
Lodging and dining
As befits a little town whose modern economy is tabbed to tourism, Jacksonville has numerous fine places to stay and dine.
We hung our hats at the lan Guest Suites & Gallery, a lovely boutique property just steps from the Britt Festivals grounds. Our fully equipped second-story suite, one of three, exceeded our expectations, especially with the pair of sunny balconies that hang over Main Street. The ground-floor gallery features the work of young oil master Gabriel Mark, whose mother, Cherie Reneau, happens to be co-owner of the gallery and the hotel above. Mark’s painting of a turn-of-the-20th-century belle appears as the 2008 Britt Festivals poster.
Just completing a full renovation is the Nunan Estate, reconstructed near downtown Jacksonville in 1892 after Jeremiah Nunan ordered it from its architect, Tennesseean George Barber, in a catalog. It took 14 rail cars to deliver the kit, which Nunan dutifully erected as a Christmas present for his wife, Delia. A flamboyant Queen Anne Victorian in style, it has five gorgeous bed-and-breakfast rooms in the main house. A new restaurant, the Carriage House, scheduled to open in mid-July, will feature the work of acclaimed chef Tim Keller, formerly of Firefly in Ashland.
Also offering both rooms and meals is the Jacksonville Inn, an elegant historic property built in 1861 on the town’s main drag. We didn’t check out the eight guest rooms, but we enjoyed a prime-rib dinner in the restaurant, considered one of Oregon’s finest. Specks of gold are still visible in the mortar of the sandstone walls. Adjoining the main dining room are a bistro and a patio for lighter dining.