A Page From North Quabbin History: A portrait of the past

Published: 07-05-2023 3:33 PM

By Carla Charter

The Swift River Valley Historical Society houses many artifacts from the towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich and Prescott, which were lost when the Quabbin Reservoir was constructed in the 1930s. On July 9, the museum will offer visitors the opportunity to meet residents dressed in their Sunday Best from those towns through their portraits at the Prescott Church.

“These are people who lost everything when the Quabbin was built. They lost their community, their home, their jobs, their churches... These people gave up everything so that the Quabbin could be built,” said Peter Peirce, a full-time photographer from Salisbury, Conn., who transformed the photographs from glass plate negatives to the 11x14 framed portraits which will be on display in the church pews. “It’s a powerful presentation.”

The photographer of these portraits, dated from 1890-1920, was Burt Brooks, a photographer and artist from Enfield.

“He was a generally artistic guy,”said Peirce. “He was a local phenomenon. He didn’t do much outside of the valley.”

The Swift River Valley Historical Society houses some of Brooks’ portraits as well as several of his paintings. His photography of the Swift River Valley can also be seen online at Robert S. Cox special collections and University Archives Research Center at http://scua.library.umass.edu/brooks-burt-v/.

The UMass Collection, according to Peirce, documents farming and daily life in the valley. Peirce himself grew up in Orange, the son of Elizabeth and the late Clifton Peirce, lifelong residents of the town.

“Clifton was born in Prescott and moved to Greenwich a little later on. At one time or another they both served as presidents of the Swift River Valley Historical Society. I used to take hikes in the Quabbin with my parents as a child,” he said.

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Due to their involvement in the society, Peirce explained, over the years they would receive donations of items that would arrive at the house.

“These negatives were in a shoebox and I printed them to see what they were,” Peirce said.

At about the same time, Peirce acquired new software for his commercial business that allowed him to correct photos blurred from movement. He decided to see if the software would work on the glass negatives.

“They were blurry. People then didn’t stay still long enough for exposure time for the camera... They looked better then when they were first made. I began working on a whole bunch (of plate glass negatives) for fun,” Peirce said.

His wife, Jill Esterson, suggested that he should do a show with these, “and here we are,” Peirce continued.

Peirce said he was able to identify the photos as Brooks’ through several ways.

“They were all taken in the same studio. There were eight photographs of Brooks himself in the same studio testing out lens and lighting and just having fun. There was a consistency of style as well.”

Peirce has yet to be able to put names to any of faces in the portraits he printed.

“I don’t know who they are. I would love to know about any of these people,” Peirce said.

Any readers who recognize any of the people in the portraits can e-mail Peirce at peterpeirce@comcast.net.

During the presentation on July 9 at 1;30 p.m., Peirce will discuss the process of getting the portraits from what they were to what they are as well as placing Brooks and his photos in a historical perspective. Following the presentation, the displayed photos will be permanently housed at the museum. More information on the Swift River Valley Historical Society can be found at www.swiftrivermuseum.org.

Carla Charter is a freelance writer from Phillipston. Her writing focuses on the history of the North Quabbin area. Contact her at cjfreelancewriter@earthlink.net.