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).
I am wondering if anyone can help me because I am a bit confused. My grandfather, Fred Besaw, had a dairy farm and a place for lodging called Baxter Dale Farm, located, according to his old business card, “at the foot of Spruce Hill.” He owned the property in the 1920’s until about 1935. I have a business card and old milk caps from the dairy. Our family always assumed the beloved red barn was a part of the old dairy that my grandfather owned. If that property was not his, then did the road change since the 1920’s? Was the “foot of Spruce Hill” in a different location back then? The Keene Valley historical society has a town map that mentions my grandfather in the legend as a place to get milk, and it also lists his phone exchange at the time. Unfortunately, that map isn’t large enough to show his exact property because he lived too far out of the village. If anyone has helpful information for me, I would truly appreciate it 🙂
DONNA REED AUSTIN says
I am very interested in your comments regarding Fred Besaw. I just bought some milk bottle caps
of his that I found at an antique show on Marcy Field, just down from where the famous red barn
Do you have any milk bottles from his farm? I have quite a collection of local ones and would love
to add it to my collection. Also would it be possible to get a copy of the business card that you have?
I will do some further research for you and see what I can find out about your grandfather’s
farm. Do you know how long your grandfather was in business?
PS I think the red barn was built by the Whitneys.