History of Brewster's Woods

William Brewster 1916

Brewster’s Woods Wildlife Sanctuary is our new 130-acre wildlife sanctuary that joins more than 1,700 acres of nearby protected land, including the Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge just across the river. This historic land was formerly part of the country homestead of William Brewster (1851-1919).

A recognized leader in ornithology, Brewster was the founder of the Nuttall Ornithological Club and co-founder of the American Ornithologists’ Union, the Curator of Ornithology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and Mass Audubon’s first President, where he served for 17 years.

In the early 1890s Brewster purchased the 300-acre October Farm in Concord as a respite from his city life in Cambridge. Here he embarked on extensive field work taking full advantage of the forest, meadows, and extensive wetlands on the banks of the Concord River.

Much of his work can be examined through his extensive journal entries, letters, manuscripts, field notes, and photographs, which are currently being digitized by the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), where the collection is held.

Nearly 2,000 of Brewster’s glass plate negatives are in the collection of Mass Audubon's Museum of American Bird Art (MABA). MCZ and MABA staff are taking a close look at many aspects of Brewster’s work, including an exploration of the significant role played by Robert Gilbert, a Black man who assisted Brewster in his photography and research. 

Frost on meadows off Ball’s Hill by William Brewster
Frost on meadows off Ball’s Hill, November 1897, by William Brewster

After his passing in 1919, Brewster’s land was divided and sold to different owners. His obituary, written by Henry Wetherbee Henshaw for The Auk Vol XXXVII (no 1): 1-23, noted how much his Concord estate meant to him. In fact, he worried that “all the interest in his Concord place was destined to lapse when he was through with it.” It also noted that he often “discussed its availability for a duck or game breeding place, or for a bird refuge.”

Decades later, Concord resident Charlene Engelhard began piecing together as much of October Farm as she could and reestablished trails through the riverfront portion of the land. Meanwhile, nearby neighbor Nancy Beeuwkes shared Engelhard's vision for returning to Brewster's roots; she and her husband, Reinier, were living next door in the very home in which Brewster once lived.

When the time came for Engelhard to sell her 131-acre property in 2018, the Beeuwkeses saw the opportunity to protect the land forever. Wanting everyone to experience the beauty of Brewster's landscape, they approached Mass Audubon with the most generous offer in the organization’s 125-year history: Nancy and Reinier would purchase the Englehard land and donate it to Mass Audubon, leave their own home and 12 acres to Mass Audubon through a life estate, and provide a robust endowment to care for it all.

An earlier partnership between the Concord Land Conservation Trust and the Town of Concord, made possible through the generosity of many donors, had protected another 80 acres of Brewster’s original land to the south—October Farm Riverfront—adjacent to Mass Audubon’s new sanctuary.

There is still so much to learn about this land and its history. Mass Audubon is now embarking on thorough examination of the land and its previous inhabitants, including both Indigenous and colonial residents. We will be sharing what we have learned once the project is complete.