History of the Town of Keene, New York
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.back
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) back
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