The man in Wednesday’s post and pictured above is my paternal great-grandfather, Burton Brewster. My cousins and I spent time with our great-grandparents, when we were very young. Burton and Kirtlye, or Pampa and Murr, were dramatic and legendary figures in our little eyes. I remember him as a jovial, pipe smoking man with an abundant supply of Big Red chewing gum and cinnamon bears. He enjoyed telling stories and tolerated his great-grandchildren tussling over the embroidered footstool at his feet.
Before he was my grandfather, Burton was the youngest son of George and Grace Brewster.
In 1890, his education complete, George, a Massachusetts native and direct descendent of Elder William Brewster of the Mayflower, traveled West. His appetite for adventure led him to Montana to hunt bison. Legend claims, George was successful, but a blizzard forced him to skin his trophy and wrap himself in the green hide to survive the storm.
Despite this inauspicious beginning, George Brewster stayed in the area and built a successful ranching operation. In 1892 the Quarter Circle U Ranch, was established on the banks of the Tongue River of Southeastern Montana. Solvent and secure in 1896, he married Grace Sanborn of Greeley, Colorado. Until his death in 1912, they raised their family on the Quarter Circle U. Grace was strong and determined woman. She had to have been, to raise and educate three boys, while also running a business.
The late ’20s and ’30s were a pivotal time in the shaping of Western agriculture; profit margins were thin. With the help of her ranch manager and later husband, Jack Arnold she steered the ranch through the Great Depression. They were successful in part, because they began hosting wealthy Eastern dudes to supplement the ranch’s livestock income.
Concerned about agriculture on a National scale, Depression-era President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal launched a Farm Security Administration photography project*. Some of the nation’s best photographers were tasked with documenting the struggles of agricultural families from 1936 to 1942; Dorothea Lange’s iconic Migrant Mother is a result of this project.
At the time the photos of the ranch and Burton were taken, he was employed as a range supervisor for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. His duties involved acting as a liaison between the cattle industry and FSA photographers.
Some of these photographs are displayed in my grandmother’s home, the main house of the Quarter Circle U. On occasion, I find others while casually surfing the internet. I am always surprised when this happens and secretly pleased. The sensation is like knowing a minor celebrity or visiting a deeply historic attraction; a small thrill accompanied by a sense of immortality.
I enjoy the story these photos tell; the moment in history of a place and family captured by the photographers’ lenses. I know more about the kind of man Burton Brewster was, while looking at a photo of him in is prime. It breeds a greater sense of him as a person, than the man I knew through my child’s eyes. The features are familiar, echoes of them exist within my family today. But it is Burton’s gregarious exuberance and zest for life, that shines even in black-and-white.
It may be in imagining I know the story behind these images, that I am turning man into myth. Constructing legends of my own. In part, I believe that is what history is. A story shared through the lens of the teller of the tale. I also believe that history is no less important because of this. We create ourselves out of these myths and legends, we become the people we imagine ourselves to be.
Burton was a lively, forward thinking man. Well-educated and accomplished, he loved ranching and the landscapes and stories it involves. The Quarter Circle U today, is tended by his daughter and two of her children; my grandmother, my father, and my uncle. The three of them are as reticent and shy, as Burton Brewster was gregarious and outgoing. What they have in common is more important. They too love the ranch-its landscapes and its stories.
*A more in depth view of the FSA and New Deal photographers in Montana can be found in this book, Hope in Hard Times: New Deal Photographs of Montana, 1936-1942
The pictures featured in this post, were taken by Arthur Rothstein in 1939. All FSA photographs can be viewed on the Library of Congress web page.
February 7, 2014
Snow is falling steadily outside. Four or five inches of fresh white blankets the landscape out my window. We haven’t seen this much accumulation all Winter. The world is so clean and quite, when covered in snow.
It has taken me by surprise. I had resigned myself to a dry, brown Winter devoid of hope. My thoughts were looking ahead to Spring, with fingers crossed for rain. The tiny Oregon Juncos and White-crowned Sparrows inhabiting my weedy backyard were frantically gathering seeds this week. They felt the impending change in weather. Where are they now?
With my less-than-subtle companions, I stroll through the wintery landscape. Our presence stirs up the Robins, Flickers, Quail, Juncos, Sparrows, and chortling Pheasants from the quiet draw they tucked themselves in the rushes and Russian Olives leading down to the river.
February 10, 2014
The snow is melting quickly. All of that wonderful water soaking right into the ground. Cacophonous starlings roosted outside my window this morning. Yesterday evening, while emptying my compost I saw a large flock of ducks settling on the cornfield. The siren song of Spring must be in the air.
The brown winter hillsides are peeking through their rapidly dissolving blanket. The beauty of the white landscape vanishes with the sunlight, the real beauty of the storm is yet to be seen.