Monday, January 9, 2017

Some History of the Famous Red Barn in Keene

In late December, the rustic red barn that stood at the intersection of Routes 73 and 9N in Keene was taken down by the Department of Environmental Conservation after it became hazardous.

Although not an officially-recognized historic landmark, many who have traveled through Keene saw the barn, with its majestic High Peaks in the background, as a quaint countryside icon.

Since it came down, folks have waxed nostalgic while mourning the abrupt loss of this unassuming structure. I decided to dig into the barn’s history and see if there was more to it than met the eye.

According to longtime Keene resident Tony Goodwin, the land on which the barn was built was once owned by Wallace Murray.  “Wal” Murray was an investor and entrepreneur who around 1855 at the age of six moved with his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Owen Murray, to Keene.  Murray invested some of his wealth in rebuilding local farms. In the early 1900s, he sold this particular piece of property to Albert Jakes (or Jaques, according to 1940 census records), who along with his wife, Clare Belle, had a farm on Spruce Hill Road (today’s Route 9N). The junction of Routes 73 and 9N was once known as “Holt’s Corners.”

According to Palmieri, Albert Jaques sold the land to Jud Whitney, and Goodwin clarifies that the barn was built in the late 1950s by Reginald Whitney, who once kept cows there. Examination of the 1940 census for Keene show Reginald (then 7 years old) and Judson (then 20 years old) living in the same home on Alstead Hill Road, about four miles northwest from Holt’s Corners. Jud and Reginald may have been brothers. In 1964, Elizabeth Doty, noted that Judson owned a house at the foot of Spruce Hill.

Reginald, possibly along with Jud, ran a small eatery at the red barn until the 1960s. The Whitneys sold the land to the State in 1966 when it was added to the Forest Preserve (Outdoor Recreational Bond Act of 1966 funds were used). Around the same time Route 9N was undergoing improvements.  Apparently, DEC made an informal deal to continue haying the land. The barn was leveraged by the State for a short time to house equipment used in the road improvements, and then used to store hay.

Janet Hall, historian for the town of Keene, believes the barn was functional for only a few years, although haying continued in the surrounding field into the early 1980s. The land is now part of the Hammond Pond Wild Forest.

Of course, the history of the land goes back further than Wallace Murray. On J.H. French’s Map of Essex Co., New York (1858), the land is located on lot 19 of Mallory’s Grant. On lot 19, two structures near what would become the intersection of Routes 73 and 9N are depicted by the names “S&F. Shaw” and “B.F. Shaw.” A search of census records shows a B.F. and Silas Shaw each owning 150 acres of land.

A sketch from 1798 of Mallory’s Grant was made following a survey of the 9,973-acre tract by Charles C. Brodhead. The tract is named for Nathaniel Mallory, who (along with other partners) acquired the land. The sketch shows that lot 19 measured 80 chains by 80 chains, or 640 acres.

As a tangent on the history of Keene’s most famous barn and the land on which it resided, I’ll offer a brief commentary on Spruce Hill. Route 9N, once called Spruce Hill Road, goes along Spruce Hill Brook in an east-southeasterly direction from Route 73. I could find no officially identified hill or peak by that name on historic maps, Elizabeth Doty’s regular column “Keene” revealed Spruce Hill’s identity. Doty explained that Spruce Hill is actually two hills with buildings along said road, with a village at the top. Route 9N crests around the entrance to Hurricane Road. Thus, Spruce Hill designates a general region, usually the road itself, and not a once-named peak.

The earliest mention I can find of Spruce Hill in writing is in Alfred Billings Street’s 1869 classic “Indian Pass.” Describing his travels on the road northward from the village of Keene, he mentions their turning onto Spruce Hill (also called Partridge Hill) and ascending for about two miles.

Street recounts, “Turning my head accidentally, a most grand prospect, even in this enchanted region of grand prospects, broke upon me. There surged the Keene Mountains, rolling gigantic billows in softest, sweetest azure upon the valley, like those of an ocean that might whelm the world. The standing forth of the peak of Tahawus on the ascent from the side of Lake Colden, was scarce finer in effect.”

For those who have driven on Route 9N to the west towards Route 73, they can identify with the majestic backdrop Street described. The red barn that was at the forefront of that backdrop may be gone, but the photos and memories of it will long remain.

Thanks to Nick Palmieri, who wrote about the barn in the August 2013 issue of Adirondack Life; Mike Lynch who reported the barns removal at the Adirondack Almanack; and Tony Goodwin, for adding his comments.

Photos, from above: Red Barn in Keene, courtesy Gerald Lynch; J.H. French’s “Map of Essex Co., New York” (1858); and Map of 9,973 acres of land laid out for Nathaniel Mallory and others, courtesy New York State Archives (note that Essex County was formed from a much larger Clinton County in 1799).

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John Sasso is an avid hiker and bushwhacker of the Adirondacks and self-taught Adirondack historian. Outside of his day-job, John manages a Facebook group "History and Legends of the Adirondacks." John has also helped build and maintain trails with the ADK and Adirondack Forty-Sixers, participated in the Trailhead Steward Program, and maintained the fire tower and trail to Mount Adams.

19 Responses

  1. common sense says:

    I have researched the deed that places the land from private to NY State, I noticed that in bold letters across the deed it states “not to be included in the forest preserve” Has anyone else seen this in other deeded transactions? I have found it in deeds for some of the lands around sharp bridge campground as well.

  2. A few summers back when I was photographing the barn, the fellow (I didn’t get his name) who was selling hot dogs there told me that the reason for the copse of trees in the midst of the open field was that it was an Indian burial ground and the farmer was never allowed to use that section. I don’t know if that is fact or not. I note that it isn’t mentioned in the history above so perhaps it isn’t.

    What I can say for certain is that the house on the left with a lot of windows as you go out 9N that is home to an artist (at least it was the last time I was by there several years ago) was built by a relative of my wife’s family, Alfred P. Gardiner. He also had a home in NYC and another in Daytona Beach. The house on 9N was intended as a gate house for a much larger house he planned to build farther up the side of Hurricane Mt. but the larger house was never finished because he ran out of money. My father-in-law, Charles Gardiner, remembered as a boy visiting there and I have a couple of photos of the house that he had from that era (early 1930s). According to Charlie, there was a very large table in the house “that was put in as it was being built because it was so big and had axe marks in it and the story was that it came from Europe and people had been beheaded on it.” Charlie wrote that Alfred had called the house “Alcadel” but he wasn’t sure of the spelling. I’ve been meaning to go there one day with the thing Charlie wrote about it and copies of the photos to give to the current owner. Perhaps this coming summer.

  3. Tony Goodwin says:

    That statement in deeds in the 60s came from a bond act passed by the legislature and, I believe, the voters for the purpose of acquiring additional land for the State within the Adirondack Park. The primary purpose of these acquisitions was to improve recreational opportunities such as state campgrounds, but some of the land now used by Mt. Van Hoevenberg X-C Ski Area was also included with funds made available by this bond act.

    The goal of not having these purchases become Forest Preserve was apparently to reduce the restrictions that would otherwise apply to Forest Preserve. In the case of the “Red Barn Lot” this may have been to make it easier to construct a road across that parcel as a way of getting traffic to Lake Placid away from “downtown” Keene.

    The “not Forest Preserve” provision was challenged by environmental groups. The solution was in the crafting of the State Land Master Plan in 1972 whereby the category of “Intensive Use” was created for state facilities such as campgrounds and ski areas. No road was ever even proposed (as far as I know) across the Red Barn field, so that dodge in the deed was never tested.

    Otherwise, John provides a good summary of the history and issues related to this iconic barn. The clincher for me was the report that people had been going inside the barn and removing pieces for whatever reason. Thus, it would have ultimately fallen down, perhaps on someone scavenging a piece, so better to take it down and be done with it. The barn will live on in the thousand of images captured there over the years.

    • JoJo says:

      Hi Tony, Do you happen to know anything about Baxter Dale farm or Fred Besaw Dairy? From the mid twenties until about 1935, my grandfather and his first wife had a farm and a place for lodging at the “foot of Spruce Hill” according to their business card. My family always assumed the red barn was part of his property at the time. I have one of the business cards and some of the milk caps. I know his farm was around that area because he is listed in the 1930 census as being located on Keene Road and owning a farm. Nina, the historian of Keene Valley has some information/documents, but no specific land information. I also have pictures of his wife standing on the side of a large house with lots of windows and a porch. Just hoping someone can lead my dad and I to the correct property :-). Please email if you can help 🙂 Thanks! 🙂

      • JoJo,the county should have hisorical records of land sales. Staff at the county offices should be able to assist you in researching this.

        • JoJo says:

          Thanks James ? My dad and I did go to the county offices and could not find the deed. Apparently some records have been lost over the years through flooding and fires. If we could figure out exactly where the property was, then we could look it up on the lot maps and go from there.

  4. Tony Goodwin says:

    James Bullard;
    I guess i was working on my comment while you were posting yours. Yes, there was a hotel known as Alcadel located across the road from the current Mountain House at the top of Hurricane Road. The building you referred to is now a studio/gallery for artists Bruce Mitchell and his wife. It was originally intended to be a “gateway” to Alcadel, although I have no idea what the term “gateway” actually meant.

    My father remembers Alcadel as a grand project launched just before the Great Depression that also suffered from an inadequate water supply and therefore didn’t last very long.

    • Thank you Tony, for your response. You have confirmed for me that my father-in-law had a remarkable memory for all things related to family history. He never graduated from HS but he was a very bright guy who could explain very complex things and remembered details far better than I ever will.

  5. Tony Goodwin says:

    I should have also mentioned that the hill in the middle of the field is not an “Indian Burial Mound” but is a geologic feature known as a kame. It was formed as the continental glacier melted back. Sometimes, a hole would open up in the ice sheet and all the overburden of rocks and gravel would fall through and create a hill – this one more obvious and dramatic than most. Then, for several thousand year after the ice melted, this area was a lake that stretched nearly to St. Huberts before the river found a way out via Hulls Falls.

  6. Tom Stuart says:

    Thanks John for the history. If people would only take time to sit, read, and learn
    about the history in the Adirondacks they would be amazed. I love the history of
    the area and hope to read more. Thanks again for the great article.

  7. Charlie S says:

    ” I love the history of the area and hope to read more.”

    There’s probably more history written on the Adirondacks than any other geographical area in the world Tom. And every year more comes out.

  8. John Sasso says:

    Tony, thank you very much for addressing the matter of an alleged Indian burial ground, which others have inquired about. In general, I’m quite grateful of your insight on this topic and others!

  9. George L. says:

    What a fine and thorough account. Thank you.

  10. G. Blanchette says:

    Thank you, Mr. Sasso, for a precise, in-depth article. Surely, we readers await more submissions by such a learned gentleman. G. Blanchette

  11. Marj Wallace says:

    Nice article John!

  12. Ron Konowitz says:

    Great Article John!
    However, since this article will likely be referenced in future historical searches it would have added some substantial validity if the family of Judson and Reginald Whitney had been contacted regarding the 1966 Sale of their property and Cafe to the State of NewYork.
    Jud Whitney and his son Wade helped in the construction of my first home in Keene during the early 1980’s. Wade and his son Ned then helped construct my current home on Alstead Hill Lane in 1993. During my 34 years at Keene Central School I taught and coached many of the children and grandchildren of both Reg and Jud Whitney.
    During my 27 years as a volunteer firefighter I have worked alongside both the Children and Grandchildren of Reg and Jud Whirney during numerous natural disasters in the Town of Keene. Not only are the Whitneys volunteer fire fighters but they also serve as line officers in the Keene Fire Department.
    The Children , Grandchildren , and Great Grandchildren of both Reginald and Judson Whitney continue to reside on Alstead Hill Lane as they have since the early 1900’s.
    It is unfortunate that their own personal story (which may very well differ from the supposed facts you have provided) regarding the sale of their land at the base of Spruce Hill to the State of New York where the Red Barn was recently dismantled was not included in your research.
    All too often the voice of these Lifelong Adirondackers is not heard nor included in discussions regarding their private personal property becoming New York State Forest Preserve Lands.

  13. From the Friend’s Intelligencer 1861-62 about a trip over today’s Spruce Hill:
    “Ascending Partridge Hill, (so called, not from the birds, but from the number of human families of that name who reside upon it), we bring Keene flats into view.”

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