The artist Burt Vernon Brooks was one of the outstanding chroniclers of daily life in the Swift River Valley before it was inundated to create the Quabbin Reservoir. Born in Brimfield, Mass., in 1849 and raised in Monson, Brooks moved to Greenwich with his family in the 1870s, where he worked on the family farm. At some unclear point before he turned 40, Brooks became active as an artist, painting local homes and scenery and taking photographs of the landscape, residents, and daily life in the Quabbin region. A prolific photographer, he was, in the words of historian Donald W. Howe, "hardly ever seen without his camera strapped to his back," remaining active for decades. Three years after following his second wife to the west, Brooks died in Los Angeles in 1934.
The great majority of the 92 photographs in this collection are 5x7" dry plate glass negatives taken by Brooks in the earliest years of the twentieth century, documenting the houses and people of Greenwich. Brooks' work includes landscapes, houses, and a significant series of images of the Hillside School, but some of his best works are studio portraits, images of people at home or with their carriages, and posed scenes of children at play or at work. The collection also includes eight images by Brooks at Enfield, Greenwich, and Dana that are the property of the Swift River Valley Historical Society, and six images taken by Chetwynd and Pike in the Quabbin region to document properties slated for removal.
The collection is open for research.
Background on Burt V. Brooks
Burt Vernon Brooks left a remarkable visual record of daily life in the Swift River Valley, Massachusetts, in the years before it was inundated to create the Quabbin Reservoir. Born in Brimfield on May 22, 1849, the son of Benjamin (1813-1888) and Charlotte Emerson Brooks (1813-1895), Burt was raised in a home perched on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. His father, a farm laborer and later farmer, never acquired significant taxable property, even by the standards of his poor neighbors, and the family's fortunes improved little after they relocated from Monson, where they had been living, to the Swift River Valley town of Greenwich in the 1870s.
Whether in spite of poverty, or because of it, family became a center of Brooks' life, and he never strayed far from his parents or four siblings, living with his parents until well into his forties, only separating from them when his mother died. Both of Brooks's brothers died young: Abner Shaw Brooks (1841-1863) was just 22 when he was killed in action during the Civil War as a member of the 25th Connecticut Infantry, falling in the Battle of Irish Bend, while a younger brother, Orson Francis Brooks, was even less fortunate, dying at the age of six on Aug. 12, 1857.
The tragic fate of the Brooks brothers were not visited upon the sisters. Anna Mariah (1837-1904), the eldest of the siblings, traveled the furthest afield of them all. Marrying a shoemaker, T. Walter Deming (1832-1885) in 1852, she moved away from home, though barely, settling nearby in the town of Palmer. Her younger sister Martha Jane (1838-1912) was married twice: first to Miner King, with whom she had two children, and then, in 1876, to a carpenter and English immigrant, William H. Fewell. Until her parents' deaths, Martha remained at home: she, her husband, and sons William (who died young) and Edgar, lived with or next door to Burt for over thirty years. Even in death, the family remained close. Most of the family's graves were removed together from Greenwich when the Swift River Valley was flooded and reinterred in Walter Deming's family lot in Monson's Moulton Hill Cemetery. There Abner and Orson share a single stone, as do Anna and Walter, whose stone is inscribed with the Spiritualist motto "passed to spirit life."
Burt Brooks married twice, relatively late in life, and both of his marriages were to much younger women. At the age of 34, he married Gertrude F. Childs (1868-1907), a dressmaker from Dana who was nearly twenty years his junior, and in September 1913, he married Ina Amelia Gamwell (1883-1983), who was nearly 35 years younger. Neither marriage resulted in children. Beyond these simple facts of family, however, many details of Brooks' life remain unclear. Although listed as a farm laborer in the 1880 census, he and his family found income where they could, including taking in boarders to their crowded house. In 1880, they boarded Rispah Chamberlain Powers (1803-1883), an elderly widow who was deemed "demented" (and who had formerly been an inmate at the state asylum in Worcester). Forty years later, three young girls were listed as living in the Brooks home, apparently orphans or abandoned children, one of whom was later recorded residing at the Lancaster State Industrial School.
Flexibility in making ends meet was a necessary part of a poor person's life, of course, but Brooks stood out for pursuing an unusual occupation, not typically associated with life in a small rural town: art. Precisely when he took an interest in the subject or whether, how, or with whom he trained remains unknown, but by the age of forty, Brooks was making money from his talents, and by 1900, he listed himself regularly as a painter -- or sometimes a landscape painter. His first artistic job probably predated 1887, when the Greenwich Selectmen paid him $35 to produce a map of town, and there are suggestions that Brooks may have taken up photography by the same time. Twenty years later, he was thanked in the town's annual report for presenting "pictures" of the town's schoolhouses, church, and two villages to the local library, and at least some of his surviving photographs can confidently be dated to prior to the turn of the century.
As both painter and photographer, Brooks was known for fairly straightforward depictions of the landscape and buildings of Greenwich, but he ranged as well into posed "genre" scenes and studio and family portraits. In his history Quabbin: The Lost Valley, Donald Howe recalled that Brooks cut a striking figure in town, with his high starched collar, bowler hat, and full beard, and that he was "hardly ever seen without his camera strapped to his back." The eccentric artist, Howe records, painted his own coffin during a "violent" flu epidemic, adorning it with scenes from life in Greenwich.
Brooks remained active as an artist well into his 70s, but by the time of the census of 1930, the 80 year old was living alone in a rooming house in Springfield, his wife Ina having moved to Los Angeles. In that census, Burt listed himself as married, while Ina, living with a lodger named John Finch, indicated she was divorced. Whatever the circumstances, Burt reportedly followed Ina to Los Angeles in the following year, toting his painted coffin with him, and he died there on April 24, 1934. Despite his wishes to be buried in his coffin, he was cremated, and the ashes were returned to Greenwich. He shares a stone with his first wife, though his own death date was never inscribed. Ina eventually married a chauffeur, Frederick Weston Finch, and lived in northern California until her death in 1983 at the age of 99.
The photographs in the Brooks collection represent a significant assemblage of works by one of the most important chroniclers of the Swift River Valley. The heart of the collection consists of 75 glass plate negatives, all but one of which is 5x7", representing the full range of Brooks' work between ca.1899 and 1920, from scenic views of Greenwich Plain and Mount Pomeroy to images of the Hillside School and its students, houses and families in Greenwich, portraits of Brooks' relatives, and careful genre images depicting children at play and people at work. Added to the collection are six negatives on flexible stock: one of these (depicting an old fire engine in Enfield, Mass.) may be by Brooks, however the rest were taken by Chetwynd or Pike to document buildings in the Quabbin towns that were slated for removal. Eight other 5x7" glass plate negatives, all apparently by Brooks, are included in digital form only: the original glass plates are held by the Swift River Valley Historical Society, New Salem.
Although none of Brooks' images is clearly dated, a few contain internal clues that set temporal boundaries: an image of a man in Enfield reading a broadside can be affirmatively dated to 1889 based on a calendar in the background; the image of the infant Elizabeth Adaline Edwards must have been taken shortly after her birth in 1899; and the photograph of Clarence and Marion Hall was taken at their wedding on Sept. 6, 1920. We have assigned an approximate date of 1910 for all images in which internal clues are lacking, although the range of dates is surely wider.
For the purposes of the finding aid, we have arranged the photographs in three broad groupings -- images by Brooks, images by other photographers documenting the Swift River Valley prior to its removal, and images owned by the Swift River Valley Historical Society. The Brooks photographs are in turn organized somewhat arbitrarily by category:
In most cases, we have retained the numbering system used by the donors of the images, assigning numbers at the end of the sequence for which they had not accounted or for images where they had assigned duplicate numbers. The collection includes two images for which there are second, slightly variant negatives: nos. 19and 19b and 62 and 62b.
All images in the collection have been scanned and are available online through our digital repository, Credo.
Gift of Friends of Quabbin through Gene Theroux, Paul Godfrey, and Les Campbell, June 2014.
Howe, Donald W., Quabbin: the Lost Valley. Ware Mass. : Quabbin Book House, 1951. Call no. F72.S94 H6 1951
Processed by I. Eliot Wentworth, July 2014.
Cite as: Burt V. Brooks Photograph Collection (PH 060). Special Collections and University Archives, UMass Amherst Libraries.