David O'Neill, president of Mass Audubon, reflects on the Beeuwkes' gift of Brewster's Woods. The property fronts the Concord River. - Photos by Margaret Carroll-Bergman
David O'Neill, president of Mass Audubon, reflects on the Beeuwkes' gift of Brewster's Woods. The property fronts the Concord River. - Photos by Margaret Carroll-Bergman

By Appointment Only: Mass Audubon’s Access for Brewster’s Woods

By Margaret Carroll-Bergman - Correspondent
November 9, 2022

Brewster greatly regretted that all interest in his Concord place was destined to lapse when he was through with it, and he frequently debated some possible use it might be put to… Henry W. Henshaw, The Auk, The Quarterly Journal of Ornithology, January 1920

A little more than 100 years after his death, a plan for the general public to enjoy the nature and bird sanctuary once owned by Concord resident William Brewster, first president of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, is nearing approval.

“Brewster spent his whole life devoted to birds,” said Amy Montague, director, Museum of American Bird Art, Mass Audubon. “He was completely smitten by birds from childhood on.”

Addressing input from Balls Hill residents and the Friends of Brewster’s Woods (FOBW) over the past year and a half, the Mass Audubon Society has agreed to no bus groups; no weddings; no summer camps; no field station; no programming for children; and visits by appointment only to the Brewster’s Woods Wildlife Sanctuary at 221 Balls Hill Road.

Peter Alden discusses the woods.
Peter Alden discusses the woods.

David O’Neill, Mass Audubon president, assured the 25 people who attended the sanctuary’s most recent open house last Sunday, that there would be no “revenue-generating events” at Brewster’s Woods.

Tucked away in one of Concord’s most exclusive residential neighborhoods, the 130-acre tract of land that runs along the Concord River was once owned by William Brewster. It was purchased for $22.5-million in 2018 from Charlene Engelhard by Nancy and Reinier Beeuwkes, who then gifted the land and an $11-million endowment to Mass Audubon. The Beeuwkeses live in October Farm, the 1744 farm house once owned by Brewster, on property that is adjacent to the sanctuary.

“The endowment allows us to keep the property forever … and more freedom to not have to raise revenue,” said O’Neill.

O’Neill mentioned that Mass Audubon would offer its university-level Birders Certificate Program and the Field Naturalist Certificate Program; bird and naturalist walks; and historical lectures. Educational programming will be focused on older teens, families, and adult learners.

“Brewster’s Woods is a migratory corridor,” he said, “with kingfishers, songbirds, and waterfowl making their way along the Concord River corridor.”

When O’Neill was out on a short walk this spring with naturalist and birder Peter Alden, the two spotted 42 different kinds of migratory birds.

Dennis Fiori, a spokesman for FOBW, was on Sunday’s tour and was agreeable to the compromises that Mass Audubon made concerning no bus traffic on the narrow, tree-lined, 18th century Balls Hill Road and the reduction in parking from 50 to 30 new parking spaces. Visitors will be required to make a reservation to visit the property for a two-hour block of time.

“It’s impressive and wonderful what Mass Audubon is doing with the property at this point,” Fiori said. “We will see what the final application [to the Town] will have for numbers of parking spaces and people visiting the property.”

Cyrus “Chuck” Gibson, also a member of FOBW, said “the property might become a magnet for visitation” that goes beyond what the 130-acre wildlife sanctuary can absorb.

Gibson added, “Balls Hills Road doesn’t stand up to normal wear and tear, much less increased use.”

Brewster, the son of a wealthy banker, first discovered birding at a very young age. He had poor eyesight and before binoculars were in wide use, he would shoot a bird and hold it in his hands to study it. He took thousands of photographs of birds, which he donated to Mass Audubon and Harvard University. Although he did not attend college due to his failing eyesight and frail health, Brewster was a self-taught ornithologist, having learned taxidermy at the age of 12 from the father of his friend, Daniel Chester French. Brewster was founder and the first president of the Nuttall Ornithological Club, which started out as an informal group of his childhood friends, who all had a passion for birding. The Nuttall Club will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2023.

Brewster moved to Concord from Cambridge and pieced together 300 hundred acres of land that fronted the Concord River.  He paid for it himself and operated a field station from this property. He spent his later years working to outlaw the shooting of migratory birds and the sale of their feathers.