History of the Town of Keene, New York
Town Historian, James Bailey 1979-80. James Bailey currently lives in Plattsburgh, NY. and is Historian of the City of Plattsburgh.
The town of Keene was formed March 19, 1808, taken from portions of Jay to the north and Elizabethtown to the east nine years after the country of Essex was itself formed. Until 1849, it contained all the territory that is now the town of North Elba, to the west, as well.
The highest of the Adirondack peaks and the picturesque valley of the East Branch of the AuSable River are the prime features of this town, features which have beckoned visitors from its beginning and which to this day direct its destiny. Mt. Marcy’s summit elevation is 5,344 ft; the AuSable valley inclines to an elevation of 1991 ft. at Upper AuSable Lake at the southern town line to 726 ft. as the river crosses into Jay about 16 miles to the north. Deer, bear, and bobcat can be found in this heart of the Adirondack Park, and the East Branch of the AuSable River is known for its trout fishing, but the panther in the forest and the fish in most high altitude ponds are now gone, the latter a recent phenomenon due to “acid rain”. Other than maple syrup production on a modest scale, and home gardens, there is little agricultural production. With a few notable exceptions, such as around the AuSable Lakes, all is second growth forest. The river runs today unfettered by dam, unharnessed by mill, in sharp contrast to the last century.
Though the consensus of authoritative opinion seems to be that the Indians never made any part of what is now the Adirondack Park their permanent home, rather they roamed this region on hunting and war excursions. Thus, within the original town of Keene, now North Elba, lies the spectacular “Indian Pass” whose eastern flank is the MacIntyre Range. Three summits of this range are named to perpetuate the memory of the original land users, and their division of these prized beaver-hunting grounds: Algonquin on the north, for the tribes who lived along the St. Lawrence; Iroquois on the south, nearest the finger-lake region that was their home ; and Boundary Peak in between.
Tradition asserts that a man named Griswold was the first settler, in the 1790’s, who named the place after his former home in Keene, N.H., but who then moved on. Perhaps this was Stephen Griswold who came into Jay in 1812 and perhaps it was his daughter Cynthia whose marriage to Thomas Dart was the first recorded in Keene.
There is an unsubstantiated claim that Burgoyne’s troops were the first whites in the town when they cut a road south up the AuSable Valley through to the Schroon valley in 1777 on their way to surprise the Americans at Fort Ticonderoga, but no primary sources are quoted, or have been found so this theory is suspect.
Earliest landmark names were AuSable (some maps give Sable or AuSable river and ponds, Long Pond and mountain (which are known now as Cascade Lakes and Mountain), Walton, Styles (or Stiles), and John’s brooks. The last is for John Gibbs who occupied lot 23 of Mallory grant, where the brook joins the AuSable, in about 1795.
The first settlers came into Keene over the mountains from the east, either through the Styles Brook-Sprucemill Brook notch from Lewis or via the route of the present highway 9N from Elizabethtown, for it was along the western shore of Lake Champlain that settlement began in earnest in Essex County at the close of the American Revolution.
Platt Rodgers constructed the earliest roads in Essex County, including one in 1790 from the first county settlement, Willsborough, north to Peru in Clinton County, and, a few years later, one from Sandy Hill in Washington Co. north through the Schroon valley, the Boquet valley to today’s Route 9. However the earliest routes west into the AuSable valley are not well documented. Historian Winslow Watson says a track had been opened by 1804 from Westport to Pleasant Valley (Elizabethtown) and “a road which was almost impassable extended to the new colonies in Lewis, Jay and Keene.” The earliest available Essex County map, by Burr in 1829, hints at both the above mentioned easterly approaches to Keene with “country road” symbols going from the AuSable River to the easterly town line on both routes but abruptly stopping there. This map also shows a road the length of the town along the AuSable river and on south through the Chapel Pond Pass, but again stopping at the Keene town line, less than a mile from the “old state road” made by Platt Rogers. The road to the western portion of the town, known early as the Plains of Abraham, or the Great Plains, in 1829 was via the pass north of Pitchoff mountain, today called “the old military road” and impassable.
According to the earliest gazetteer with such data, the first settlers included Benjamin Payne, Timothy Pangburn, Thomas Roberts, Zadock Hurd, Eli Hull, Thomas Taylor, Gen. Reynolds, and David Graves. The town records from its formation in 1808 until 1818 are lost. Hurd kept the first home near Hulls’ falls on the AuSable , and the other earliest homes were scattered along the river in the central part of the town. The three present population centers, each with its post office, St. Huberts, Keene Valley, and Keene hamlet, roughly correspond to the earliest designation of Keene Heights (or Beede’s Heights), Keene Flats (or The Flats) and Keene Centre. The last named was the first community of record. Here, where Gulf Brook joins the AuSable, the houses and enterprises first clustered.
The virgin forests provided the first industry in Keene, as in all northern Adirondack towns, serving Canadian markets. The biggest pines were cut for “British ship masts and hauled over the mountainous primitive roads through Lewis to Essex for floating down Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence.”(1) Most of the lumber from the earliest sawmills was used for the growing settlements, but quantities of logs were floated down the AuSable. Watson’s 1853 Agricultural Survey of Essex County for the state legislature gives an idea of the magnitude of the forest exodus. Even after a half century of cutting in portion, in the year 1852 there were 625,000 board feet of lumber shipped from Port Kent on Lake Champlain, 30,000 logs rafted on to Schroon Lake from the town of Newcomb, and 40,000 logs of pine, spruce, and hemlock floated down the Boreas River from Minerva.
The Burr map of 1829 shows 5 sawmills in Keene: two on the AuSable, one on Styles Brook, one on the Boquet in the extreme southeast corner of the town (later Euba Mills?), and one on Gulf Brook.
By the end of the 19th century the woodcutting, a considerable source of employment for locals as well as for French Canadians, was for pulp manufacture to supply the paper mills at Ticonderoga, AuSable Forks, Plattsburgh, and Glens Falls.
Iron works were tried from the very start, for ore was found throughout the county. Perhaps second in the county only to the 1801 iron works of Highby and Throop at Willsboro, were those erected in the first decade (Spafford’s 1824 Gazetteer says 1804, Watson says 1809) by Archibald McIntyre on sources of the AuSable’s west branch and called the Elba Iron Works, then in the Town of Keene. This shortly failed but it was here that McIntyre received information from an Indian about the vast Adirondack Iron district 15 miles to the south through Indian Pass, to which he and his associates removed their efforts in 1826.
Iron works in the central part of Keene date back at least to 1823. Eli Hull and sons had a forge on the AuSable south of Keene Center, and David Graves and R.C.R. Chase had one in the village, both of which appear on Burr’s map. The ore for these came from beds in Jay. By 1879 it was an W.F.and S.H. Weston operation, and using ore from the Keene mine on Walton Brook.
Concurrent with iron manufacture, which was quite significant down river in Jay, was the production of charcoal, and the remains of huge charcoal kilns can yet be seen not far east of Cascade Lakes. Much of this Keene area forest went to fuel the J & J Rogers Co.’s forges in Jay.
The manufacture of potash was considerable in the first decade of the nineteenth century in Essex County because of the high priced, but illegal trade with British Canada. In 1824, there were two asheries in Keene, as well as two distilleries.
The land surveys which covered Keene began with the 1772 Township 48 of the Totten and Crossfield Purchase surveyed by Israel Thompson, a 1799 grant by NYS to Nathaniel Mallory along the AuSable River the Town of Jay and Keene surveyed by Charles Broadhead, Thorne’s Survey or Township One – Old Military Tract surveyed by Stephen Thorne, the 1807 Essex Tract by Enock F. Henry, the 1807 North River Head Tract done by Webster and Kellogg, the 1812 – 13 Old Military Tract Townships 1 and 2 surveyed by John Richards, and the 1827 Roaring Brook Tract laid out by Silas Kellogg.
From a handful in 1800, the population grew rapidly and the first federal census for the new town listed 642 in 1810. In 1820 there were 605, but it mysteriously dropped to 287 in 1830. Back up to 700 in 1835, the total gradually rose to over 1000 by century end. In 1970, it was 754.
One of the most important, and certainly the most conspicuous, means of livelihood in Keene was the trade catering to summer visitors once the word spread of the unique beauty of the alpine valley.
Remarkably, the oldest hotel in the town still serves the public: Monty & Ron Purdy’s Elm Tree Inn at the junction of 9N and 73 in the center of Keene was built by David Graves in 1823 and operated as The Graves Hotel. It changed hands frequently and with its history grew out front a huge elm planted by the daughter of the first proprietor. When it succumbed to the elm disease in the 1970’s, it was reputedly the largest elm in the Adirondacks. It’s huge stump still guards the Inn. Directly across the street was built, in 1867, the Keene Center House of Willard Bell, which burned in 1883. Its replacement, built in 1885 and called, first, the Hotel Haleyon, then Owls Head Inn, was torn down in 1947.
Phineas and Diomana Beede came to Keene from Vermont in the early 1800’s. About 1842 they moved from their first home, on a geologically interesting eminence just east of Hulls Falls still called Beede Hill, up the valley to the St. Huberts area, and in 1867 built there a boarding house which survived Phineas, becoming known as “The Widow Beede’s”. The name changed to “The Astor House” when Phineas’ daughter and her husband Royal Stetson operated it. It was taken down in the early 1900’s and nearby was built, by the AuSable Club, a place which was leased by Mr. and Mrs. H.J.W. MacCormack and run as a boarding house called “Bradley’s “.
The nephew of Phineas Smith Beede moved mid-century to the southern end of the town to build a new farm home which is now called Putnam Camp. He took in boarders there until 1876 when success persuaded him to build a large hotel on nearby table land on the road to the AuSable lakes. This three story “Beede’s Hotel” was operated to capacity, even after a major addition by Smith and his son Orlando until 1890.
The attraction of course, was the unique mountain scenery of the AuSable lakes 4 miles west. Since 1866 the lakes and encompassing 28,000 acres of Township 48 of the Totten and Crossfield Purchase had been held by Plattsburgh lumbermen waiting for the right timber price. They employed David Hale as caretaker, but allowed the guides to keep their camps and continue their guiding livelihood on the property. Hale had operated a small sawmill at the outlet of the lower lake since 1857, the year after the state-funded dam (erected at the behest of wealthy timberland owners) there had burst flooding the AuSable valley. When William Neilson and other men of means from Philadelphia, who had camped with guides on the lakes, heard of its imminent sale to a lumber company in 1886, they quickly subscribed the purchase price among themselves and, in May 1887, the Adirondack Mountain Reserve was incorporated to preserve this largely uncut region around the lakes. The AMR also allowed the guides to continue their trade; the property was not to be closed to the hiking public.
By 1890 several AMR shareholders had built cottages near the hotel on land purchased from Beedes. The Keene Heights Hotel Company was formed mostly from AMR stockholders, but, in March 1890, just before the sale, the hotel burned. Even though the 600 acres was the prime purpose of the sale, the new owners did rebuild immediately, and that 3 story Victorian structure stands today facing Giant Mt., the last of the grand Adirondack hotels still in use. It was the new building which inspired a new name, St. Hubert’s Inn for the patron saint of hunted deer, which soon spread to the entire community (and post-office) there at the head of the valley. Tennis Courts, a casino for bowling alleys, and a golf course were among the improvements by 1902. The forest fire of 1903 which blackened Giant and other nearby mountains discouraged patronage and the St. Huberts Inn Association went bankrupt in 1904, closing the hotel. The reorganized entity which operates the hotel today for its members and guests, as well as holding title to the AuSable Lakes region, open to the public for hiking but not hunting or camping, is the Adirondack Mountain Reserve — AuSable Club.
Six other large, typically Adirondack hotels in the town of Keene were: The Tahawas House (1874-1908), the Adirondack House (1881-1928), the Cascade House (1880-1938), Interbrook Lodge (1903-1966), The Mount Porter House (1889 -1891), and The Willey House (1885 – 1960?).
Another famous hotel was built in 1874 by, and named after, Orrin Dibble. Only when it was sold to George Egglefield in 1883 (and enlarged considerably by him ) did it change its name from Dibble’s to the Tahawas House. The 105 foot long 6 story structure, located on the west side of the main road in Keene Valley, where the Keene Valley garage now stands, burned in 1908. The Egglefield son, Burt, moved to Elizabethtown and, with the insurance money, started a Ford auto dealership which is owned and run by the 4th generation of Egglefields.
Robert Blinn built the hotel called, among other names, Adirondack House on the Johns Brook road, now Adirondack Street, a few roads west of the main street in the center of Keene Valley. Naturally, it was known as Blinn’s; other names were Crawfords’ and Keene Valley Inn. It burned on the eve of the 192 8 summer season opening.
The Cascade House occupied a unique site: the fill of an old landslide off Cascade Mountain that makes the Cascade Lakes, earlier knows as Long Pond, then Edmond’s Pond, two in number. W.F. Weston and J. H. Otis were the creators of this 100 guest structure which boasted its own post office, Cascadeville PO., albeit only seasonal. The blasting for the improved state road, route 73, through Cascade pass in the 1930’s caused damage to the hotel, which was then torn down. The state picnic site there uses the hotel’s foundation slabs.
Interbrook Lodge was built by Melvin Luck who gained his hotel experience a the nearby Flume Cottage. The Lodge, with numerous cottages surrounding it , occupied a knoll between Slide and John’s Brooks on the west side of Keene Valley. In the last few years before it was torn down, it was used by Baldwin School’s Keene Valley summer sessions.
Mount Porter House existed only 3 years before fire destroyed it on Dec 18, 1891. It was built by James Holt and the Hurley brothers just a short way above Interbrook Lodge. Another name for it was Watch Rock Hotel.
Wiley House was on East Hill above Keene Center, a western flank of Hurricane Mountain. Harvey Wiley built first a 9 room house, then a 6 room cottage, and finally, in 1891, a 30 room hotel. In 1904 he sold to the Hurricane Hotel Company. The hotel burned in 1912, and the rebuilt hotel, with adjacent cottages, tennis court, golf course, and its own post office (Hurricane PO. ) was collectively called Hurricane Lodge. Gradually the complex was torn down until nothing remains today but a pair of blue spruce trees that once framed the entrance.
Other guest homes of town history include: The Hull House of Otis H. Hull (1865 – 1890) near Mossy Cascade Brook east of the AuSable Rive and south of Keene Valley property; Flume Cottage, a rather exclusive place according to Stoddard’s guidebooks of the 1880’s, built and run by Professor Martin Bahler, located on Flume Brook (once Washbond’s Flume), on the west side of the river above “the Flats”; The Ester House, one of the pioneer homes of Keene, built in 1800 by Otis Ester, and surviving today (though once moved back to higher ground after a freshet on Phelps brook) as Taylor’s “Rivermede”; Crawford House, located on O.S.Phelps’ map of Keene Valley in the 1884 Stoddard Guidebook at a point across the road from the present post office; Tamarack Inn and Baxter Mountain Lodge, across the (old) road from each other north of Keene Valley; Spread Eagle Cottage, part of the old Holt homestead, in the center of Keene Valley; and Trail’s End in Keene Valley.
The summer boarding business grew rapidly from about 1860 until the arrival of the auto in the early 1900’s. Instead of relying on stagecoach from the train at Westport via Elizabethown (or at Port Henry via Underwood), the vacationer by auto had new mobility and need not spend the whole season in one site. Thus the big hotels were doomed by the 1920’s. In fact, the Hotel on East Hill next to Hurricane Lodge had the misfortune to be built just as cars became prevalent and closed shortly after it opened about 1930.
As important as the boarding houses to the town’s summer “industry” beginnings were the guides. These local men knew the woods and waters from providing for their families, in some cases for 2 generations by mid-nineteenth century, and so naturally turned these skills to gainful occupation when the visitors arrived seeking the remote scenic wonders of the region heralded by such as Wm. H. Murray’s 1869 book “Adirondack Adventures in the Wilderness.” Most famous of the Keene Valley guides, because of his description in print by Charles Dudley Warner, was Orson S. “Old Mountain” Phelps who moved into the valley about 1850 and died here in 1905. Phelps made first recorded ascents of, and named, many area peaks. Other guides, many of whom used primitive lean-to camps on the AuSable lakes as bases of operation for trips up to Mt. Marcy, were Mel Hathaway, Mel, Archie, and Charles Trumbull, George and Harry Sheldon, Legrande Hale, George, Charlie and Oren Beede, James Owen, Frank Parker, and John Brown. After AMR bought the lakes, there was a gradual phasing out of guide ownership of camps there, with the guides being hired by AMR to serve St. Huberts Inn guests. The lake camps now are a mixture of Club owned and rented places and those owned by Club members.
Putnam camp is unique, and yet typical of the development of Keene Valley. This private family colony is located on Putnam Brook, formerly Beede Brook, at the south end of the valley just east of the AuSable Club. It was in 1876 that a group of young Boston doctors came for a walking trip through the mountains. Drs. James and Charles Putnam, Dr. Henry Bowditch, and William James stayed at Smith Beede’s farm house. So charmed by the locale were they that they bought some land from Beede and erected a building. For 5 years they continued to take meals at Beede’s during summer visits, sleeping in their own quarters. In 1891 the Beedes sold the farm to the Putnam group with the restriction it not be used for a public boarding house any more in competition with Beede’s new hotel across the brook. So it grew as a family camp, with with farm buildings remodeled and new ones built to accommodate growing families of the original group. The philosopher, Wm.James, dropped out as co-owner about 1885 but his name remains on a trail and ledge nearby. Another name on that land is that of Professor Angelo Mosso, Italian physiologist, who was a guest of Dr. Bowditch. Mosso Ledge was reciprocated by the grateful Professor on return to Italy with the name “Lago di Bowditch” for a small lake high on Monte Rosa. The most famous visitor to Putnam Camp was Sigmund Freud, who arrived Sept. 16, 1909, accompanied by his German colleagues Jung and Ferenczi. Freud had been lecturing at Clark University and was invited to the Adirondacks by Dr. James Putnam. Freud also visited Glenmore School at the other end of town at that time. Through the founders were all dead by 1920, the camp continues with second and third generations spending pleasant hiking summers here in the rustic, simple accommodations their parents deemed adequate.
Ranney, Dunham, Hammersly, Sage, Hillard, and Thomas are some other names which appear on an 1884 map of Keene Valley drawn by Old Mountain Phelps, many of which, like the Putnams, are still associated with cottages in the valley occupied by new generations with century-old ties.
The AuSable Club — AMR is the largest private club in Essex County, perhaps in the Adirondacks. Over 50 cottages, many now winterized, are clustered around the 1890 hotel and golf course, and most are owned by members, with a few available for rental to to the members or guests. These “summer people” have become in integral part of the town in many ways, not the least of which is the payment of property taxes to support schools, fire protection etc.
Mr. Neilson, founder of AMR, had purchased land from Smith Beede even before Beede’s original hotel went up, and so his 1870 Noonmark Lodge on present club grounds is the oldest summer home in St. Huberts. Dr. Felix Adler built on land purchased from Beede in 1882. William A. White, who was the first president of the Adirondack Trail Improvement Society in 1897, was another of the early camp owners. ATIS was formed to develop and maintain hiking trails not only on AMR property but throughout the town. Today its scope has enlarged to include organizing hikes and a summer camp for youth at the lakes.
A.L. Donaldson states that the first school district in the Adirondacks was organized in the town of Keene in 1813. The first Keene School house was erected in 1820 in Keene Flats on the main road just north of Johns Brook. Gray’s 1858 map of Essex County locates 7 school houses in the town; one just west of Bartlett Road junction on the Shackett Road (1980 road names), which incidentally, was still in 1858, the main road west to North Elba via the notch north of Pitchoff Mt.; one on the west side of the road to Upper Jay just north of the mouth of Styles Brook; one in Keene Center just south of the start of the East Hill Road; one near the junction of routes 9N and 73 at what was once called “Holt’s corners”; one up on East Hill built in 1849 and still standing, now red; 2 log school houses, one up at the top of Spruce Hill (Route 9) whose 1890 replacement still stands but at a new location; and one in the heart of Keene Valley( 2). This last mentioned school house was built in 1850 by O.S. Phelps and survives as a storage building for the Keene Valley Country Club, suitably marked with a plaque. In 1887 a new Keene Valley school was built, called the Lower House, with another, called the Branch House, simultaneously built at St. Huberts. They survive as residences, in 1980, of Mrs. Cheney Crawford on Adirondack Street (moved there from the main street location) and Mrs. Leo Douglas in St. Huberts. In 1911 a larger school house was built in Keene Valley on the site of the previous building. This had a second floor added a few years later, and then was torn down when the present Keene Central School on Market Street was built in 1935 to accommodate students from all districts of the town.
All three Keene population centers have had libraries. Keene Heights Library was built about 1882, on land donated by the Beedes, under the leadership of Felix Adler. It grew to a collection of 1200 volumes by 1930, but was closed in the 40’s, the building now serving as golf house for the AuSable Club. Keene Valley Library was founded in 1885 with a donation by Miss Sarah Dunham, the books being first housed in a room of the house next to the present library. The existing structure was completed in 1896 after another gift from Miss Dunham. It contained over 1400 volumes including the valued John T. Loomis collection of Adirondack Books housed in a 1931 addition, the Pickard collection of fishing books, an Alpine Collection, and a 1000 album record collection. The Keene (Center) Library was begun in 1901 under the initiative of Mrs. John (Prestonia) Martin, a niece of Horace Mann, whose “Summerbrook” was built on East Hill above Keene several years before. The library, with design like Summerbrook, was built in 1904 across the street from the Elm Tree Inn. Mrs. Alice Goff, mother of Dr. Goff, kept the library open while interest ebbed in the 1920’s. In 1934, the Town of Keene assumed title and librarian’s salary cost, and has made continual improvement, the latest of which is the Bicentennial addition begun in May 1975.
As three libraries attest, Keene people were a cut above the average town in literary interests. But Keene’s intellectual highlight was something unique to all America, the Glenmore School of Cultural Science founded in 1899 by Professor Thomas Davidson. Davidson, born in 1890 in Aberdeen, Scotland, had an amazing mind and phenomenal linguistic talent. Graduating with honors and the Greek prize from University of Aberdeen at age 20, he began a career of teaching, but was too restless for the traditional academic life. Traveling worldwide learning and speaking the native language, he became known as the wandering scholar. In the late 1880’s in New York City, Davidson had met Stephen Weston, brother of S. Burns Weston. The latter Weston, father of artist Harold Weston, was spending summers at Keene Heights as a leader-in-training for Felix Alder’s Society of Ethical Culture. So Davidson was introduced to Keene, the scenery of which reminded him of his native Scotland. Here, he decided, he would start his life long desire, a rustic school of philosophy. The 180 acres Cox farm on East Hill was for sale, and there, 1700 feet up on a flank of Hurricane Mt. with magnificent views of the high peaks, Glenmore was born. To it were attracted the leading names of American education and philosophy of the time, including John Dewey who built his own cottage nearby (but across Gulf Brook, so he could say “between Davidson’s philosophy and mine there is a gulf”). Despite the illustrious roster of lectures, the school relied on the peculiar charm of the bearded, red-headed, Scot bachelor, and so after his death in 1900, it could not last long. Stephen Weston continued it until 1910, after which the cluster of cottages around the hillside farmhouse lecture hall because a summer relaxation spot for associated professors and their families, including the Bakewells whose descendants own the property now. Davidson was eulogized in London as one of the dozen most learned men on earth. His pitch in the eternal virtues of democracy and individualism is reflected in the brief epitaph at his Glenmore grave: “He has bought his eternity with a little hour, and is not dead”.
Prestonia and John Martin had been drawn to Keene by Glenmore and their “Summerbrook” was adjacent to it. Her most famous guest was the Russian author Maxim Gorky, who, while staying at another Martin cottage, “Arisponet,” nearby during the summer of 1906, wrote his novel “Mother.” Gorky had arrived persona non grata in New York City and Prestonia, an intellectual extrovert, rescued his party with an invitation to her Adirondack home. Gorky’s adopted son, Zeno Pechkoff, returned to this country and Glenmore on two occasions. “Summerbrook” is somewhat of a shrine to modern Russians and the subject of a major article in Soviet Life Magazine, April 1979. 1 (1.. Visiting The Gorky sites in USA, Gennadi Gerasinmov, Soviet Commentator)
But for sheer numbers, as well as degree of fame, the activity which is most closely linked with this Adirondack town is painting. Mrs. Peggy O’Brien, who has long studied Adirondack artists, finds over 400 have painted in these mountains and Keene Valley was the summer capital for many of them. The earliest in the valley are Asher B. Durand (1796-1800), considered a co-founder of the Hudson River School, John Casilear (1811 -1893) and John F. Kensett (1816 – 1871) coming in 1848. Fredeick Perkins came in 1857, boarded at the Bruce home, and with Orson Phelps sat on Mt. Marcy and named Skylight, Basin and Saddelback Mountains. Roswell Shurtleff came first to Keene Valley in 1868 and returned each year for the rest of his life, being, with A.H. Wyant, the fist artists to have summer places here. Wyant built on the hillside east of the AuSable, Shurtleff on the west. Winslow Homer joined John Fitch and Shurtleff in Keene Valley for hunting, fishing, and painting. John Adams Parker was here by 1866, subsequently building. Robert Monior came in 1875 and by 1882 had a house which became a center for art students. Samuel Coleman arrived in the 18560’s. Homer Martin (1836-1897), Sanford Gifford (1823-1880), and Arthur Parton (1842-1914) are but a few more of the recognized American artists who painted the AuSable lakes and mountain of Keene in the nineteenth century. In fact, the Heidelberg Museum of the Paletinate’s salute to the American Bicentennial was a 1976 exhibit of work by the first German to the American scenes, a man named Kappel, and featured scenes around Beede’s.
John Marin brought Keene Valley art into the twentieth century. Harold Weston, son of S. Burns Weston, wintered alone at his AuSable Club studio 1920-21 to start his painting career, and gave us later life a good local history as well as art sampling in his autobiography “Freedom in the Wilds” (1971). Present day artists living or working in the town include Bruce Mitchell, Vry Roussin, Jossey Bilan, Pat Kirmer, and Nina Winkel.
The first religious organization was the Congregational Society of Keene Flats formed in June 1928 at the home of Thomas Dart. Meetings wee held in area houses till 1860, then in the school house of the hamlet, occasionally led by the itinerant preacher Cyrus Comstock. In 1877 the present Congregational Church was built. Among the notable pastors who occupied the pulpit summers were Rev. Noah Porter, president of Yale, for whom West Mountain was renamed Porter Mr., Rev. Dr. Horace Bushnell of Hartford, whose name was given to a p icturesque falls up John’s Brook by appreciative guides, and Rev. Dr. Twitchell, affectionately called “Chaplain Joe”. In the 1920’s, under Rev. Pal Wolfe’s pastorate, the church was renovated and a parish hall wing added, the Van Santvoord Room, with its four wall mural by Ray Strong of the mountain panorama from that central valley spot. In 1935, Miss Frederica Mitchell began her devoted 29 year ministry, the first woman in a north country Congregational church pulpit.
A Methodist Church was incorporated in Keene Center in 1833 with the services those earliest years held in the Eli Hull house, now Langman’s. In 1836 the present church was built in Keene Centre on the west side of the main road.
The seventh Day Adventist Church was built in 1870 near the bottom of east Hill in Keene Centre, and has only recently been closed and sold.
St. Brendan’s Catholic Church was erected in 1883, entirely by volunteers from the parish. In 1920 Father F.E. Gilbert was appointed first full-time resident pastor and the adjacent home was then purchased for the rectory.
In 1885 Rev. George Washington Dubois built a small chapel named Felsenheim near his home at the AuSable Club for Episcopal services which had been held for some years in the house. This chapel was open for services summers until 1912, conducted y Reverends Dubois and Walter Lowry. In 1912 the Chapel of All Souls was built further down near the river in St. Huberts, using all the important furnishings of Felsenheim, including the Tiffany glass window, a memorial to Col. Loring. Felsenheim was torn down when this larger chapel, a memorial to Rev. Dubois, was completed. Episcopal services are conducted each summer at All souls Church at St. Huberts.
Medical history of the town consists largely of two buildings and one living legend. The Keene Valley Neighborhood House Association formed in 1920 and bought the Mrs. Potter house just north of the Congregational Church for an activity center and infirmary. Dr. Hatfield, Dr. Ernest Sachs, and Dr. George Miller were the first medical administrators. In 1930 a new wing was added. Clinics were held and school children examined here until the Central School building was built. In 1939 a nurses’ residence was built behind behind the house. By 1955, the building was inadequate, and the present Y shaped one story fireproof building on the opposite side of the street was begun. The Neighborhood House was torn down and the nurses’ residence sold to the church for a parsonage.
Dr. Alphonzo Goff is the living legend, having tended to the needs of the people all down the AuSable valley from 1920 till the late 1970’s. He tried his hand first at school teaching, on East Hill, then worked his way through University of Vermont and medical school, returning to Keene where he’s been ever since. He found time to take pilot lessons and was responsible for Marcy Airfield coming into being at the north end of the valley, even flying mail into town. An avid hunter, his tales and tales about him are as numerous as his patients. He has been cited by the state medical society for his over 50 years of devoted service. Dr. Goff is now retired and himself in the care of a grateful community in the building where he once served.
Dr. Tillman Kluwe became a resident doctor in 1975. Practicing dentists in the town in recent years were Dr. Eckley, who lived on East Hill, and the husband -wife team of Drs. Jaenish who constructed behind their home across Dart Brook in Keene an observatory to study the night skies.
Hiking has obviously been the prime recreation in this town. The first several decades (ca1860 to 1930) of hikers required guides to attain the summits, but later the wilderness was less wild, logging roads penetrated everywhere and foot trails were well worn, so mountain climbers went out on their own, carrying their own lightweight equipment. The state developed trails and built open camps–the celebrated Adirondack lean-to, a refinement of the guides’ shelter– for free use on its growing portion of the high peaks region. To accommodate this trend in the 1930’s much work done by Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) crews.
The prime outdoor club here is the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) formed in Albany in 1921, and its hiking heart, historically, is Keene Valley where it gathers each October for its Fall Outing weekend. Two of the approximately twenty regional chapters of ADK around the state are the local Keene Valley chapter and the Hurricane Mt. chapter on East Hill. One of the two ADK owned lodges is in the town of Keene. Johns Brook Lodge is 5 miles up the brook from the end of Interbrook Road. It was built in 1925 on a spot that had been occupied by Mel Hathaway, guide turned hermit and squatter. It has been open for over 50 summers for hikers headed up Marcy way who wish to sleep in a bed or eat a kitchen prepared meal. Hut boys backpack the supplies in, though the heavier materials such as fuel tanks are snowsledded in the winter before. A few other private hunting camps are adjacent to JBL and its smaller camps in this island of private land surrounded by state land; close by is the Conservation Department’s interior ranger’s cabin.
Winter mountaineering could be said to have started in march 1893 with the first winter ascent of Mt. Marcy by AMR warden John Otis and Ben Pond. But it was the ADK’s Winter Mountaineering committee headed by the late Kim Hart, his brother Dave Hart, Paul Van Dyke, Gil Barker and others who recorded a number of first winter ascents of the Highpeaks. They first promoted the sport, with emphasis on safety, in the late 1940’s as various college outing groups started doing winter climbs. ADK sponsors a winter mountaineering school each winter and awards leadership badges in response to the growing number of people these past two decades who have taken to winter camping, ski and snowshoe climbing and ice climbing. For, as the number of winter sports enthusiasts grows, so does the grim list of Adirondack hypothermia fatalities, most around Mt. Marcy.
The greatest incentive to present day high peak climbers, winter or summer, probably, is the organization of the Adirondack Fortysixers. This club was unwittingly begun by Herb lark guiding the young Marshall brothers in 1922-24 as they climbed during Adirondack vacations all the mountains they thought were 4,000 ft elevation or higher. The list numbered forty-six. And half of them were in the town of Keene. The 46ers club has grown phenomenally, from 7 in 1936 to 53 in 1947 to 136 in 1957 to over 1000 by 1977, and so has the environmental impact, causing occasional introspective calls at the semiannual meetings for disbanding and/or retiring the coveted arm patch. To its credit, the 46ers group has done more trail work and educational work in the high peaks than perhaps even the Conservation Department, to stem the ill effects of the growing number of hikers on the fragile alpine summits.
There are no ski lifts in the town, but the recent surge in cross-country skiing is evident in the creation a few years ago of a ski touring lodge and center, the Barkeater, at an old Keene farm on Alstead hill. There is an outdoor equipment shop in Keene, the Skyline Outfitters, in Monroe Hale’s 1889 whimsical “castle”, and one in Keene Valley, the thoroughly modern “Mountaineer”.
Purdy’s historic Elm Tree Inn in Keene is the unofficial headquarters for bobsledding in the Adirondacks, a winter sport which began with the 1932 Lake Placid Olympics when the Mt. Van Hoevenberg bobsled run was built just outside the Keene town line- the only such run in the USA. Many Olympic and other championship competition bobsledders come from Keene, where a practice push track has recently been constructed by the Hurricane Bobsled Club.
Besides bobsled athletes, the town of Keene’s place in 1930 XIII Winter Olympic history seems to be for the largest parking lot east of California, Marcy Airfield, where some 10,000 spectators are currently having to leave their cars and wait (and wait) for shuttle buses to take them into auto-banned Lake Placid during these heady but hectic two weeks in February.
Other sports in Keene history include bicycling, baseball, and auto racing. A Keene Valley bicycle association was formed in 1897 and the popularity of the sport caused the town to construct a cycle path alongside the road from St. Huberts into the valley. Even the guides, packbaskets aback, were pedaling: some even down the muddy road from the lakes to St. Huberts. There were town baseball teams from 1904 on, in both Keene Centre and Keene Valley. Ballfields were in the valley behind Crawford’s store and later at the south entrance to the AuSable Club, and since 1936 behind the Central School. Soccer, baseball, basketball and riflery are sports in which Keene students have competed with those of neighboring schools.
From 1948 to 1964 East Hill was the site of an annual spring sports car hill climb, initiated by Mountain House proprietor Walter Biesemeyer and sponsored by the Motor Sports Club of America as well as by the Keene Fire Department. And a quarter mile track for trotting races was established on the town owned Marcy airfield in 1973 which has resulted in several competitions each summer, drawing large crowds.
Weather extremes have plagued Keene throughout its recorded history. Apparently the slide on Cascade Mt., which made two lakes of one, was before white men were here. “The year without a summer” , 1816, was the first natural disaster we know of, when snows in June and frosts in August ruined just about all crops on the just cleared land in this and every Adirondack town. The “freshet of 1856” was the biggest flood in the AuSable Valley. Heavy rains had already filled the river when on September 30 the 10 foot dam erected by the state on the lower AuSable Lake burst sending a surge of water down river that took out nearly every bridge and mill all the way to Keeseville with the loss of several lives. The state was sued but the courts dismissed it as “an act of God”. Other floods on the AuSable occurred in 1901, 1908, 1913, 1924 and 1932. Heavy rain centered over the summit of Giant Mt. one Saturday in June 1963 and so saturated the think topsoil there that it peeled down the steep slope causing a major landslide in the Roaring Brook valley below, burying hikers’ parked cars in mud and eroding the main highway.
Major forest fires struck the town in 1903 and 1913. In 1903 simultaneous fires burned toward Keene from North Elba and from North Hudson, the latter stopped by rain on Noonmark Mt. just before it reached the AuSable Club. The North Elba fire was the one that destroyed Henry Van Hoevenburg’s original log Adirondack Lodge. In 1913, when the Club was again threatened by fire, Woodrow Wilson was president. Having previously stayed at the Club, he was persuaded to call out federal troops from Plattsburgh to fight the fire. Again rain intervened before any structures were consumed, but that second burning of certain areas around Giant Mt. so depleted the soil that it will be centuries before the forest cover returns.
And the year just p ast, 1979 was notable weatherwise. It was warmer on Thanksgiving day than on the 4th of July. It snowed 6 inches on Oct. 9 on East Hill. Steady rain over Hurricane Mt. for 3 days brought damaging floods down Norton Brook into Keene and down the Boquet River into Elizabethtown on November 26, with the loss of 5 lives on the Keene-Elizabethtown road. And finally, December 1979, (as well as January and February 1980) brought virtually no snow, even to the high peaks.
As for the next one hundred seventy-two years, the major factor in Keene’s story will probably be the state land use plans, begun in 1974 through the Adirondack Park Agency. There had never before been any zoning in Keene. Now the town board is moving toward regulations of its own. Development of private land for second homes has been a major “industry’, and tax base expansion, for about 25 years. APA rules on lot size, shoreline setback, altitude limits, etc. will affect the pace and quality of homesite preparation in the future. But land tax procedures will have to be carefully examined in this town which is 68% state owned. Tax costs have recently prompted AMR to sell 9,000 acres of its highest elevation forests around the AuSable Lakes to the state. In the long run, most people agree, zoning regulations will aid the town economically, for that way the natural beauty will remain relatively unspoiled to lure future generations here, as in the 1800’s first as seasonal visitors and then to settle permanently.
FOOTNOTES 1. This is a phrase which, in one form or another, appears in reference material..an heroic if not impossible feat considering the need for undamaged and unstrained timber with which to rig His Majesty’s ships!” …E.G. Barker.
2. Charles Holt in his talk on the Schools of Keene (Keene Valley Bi-Centenniel Series Lectures) states that the first school was south of the Norton Cemetery. French’s 1858 Map shows a school on present Rt. 73, south of present Rt. 9N/Spruce Hill Road intersection (See Rt. 73-5 Resource #105)
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