An Historical Perspective on the Keene Hut (Keene Farm)

by Gordon Weetman in 1991

The Alpine Club of Canada, through the holding company, Montreal Alpine club; owns the Keene Farm in the High Peaks Region of the Adirondack Mountains in New York State. The farm consists of 90 acres of mountainous forested and pasture land adjacent to the state-owned land of the Adirondack Park. There are no other immediate farms or neighbours and the area is wild. The pasture serves as a very large campground; an ice-cold brook provides a swimming hole. The large log lodge on the farm, built in the 1970's can sleep up to 45 people in the loft. The farm serves as a center for club members to hike, climb and ski in the Adirondack Mountains. The farm is only a two-hour drive south of Montreal on a paved road. This article, prepared by the former Montreal Section chairman, examines the purchase of the property 25 years ago.

The ACC, Montreal Section has climbed in the Adirondacks since its start. John and Elizabeth Brett from Switzerland, founders of the Section, went to Keene Valley in the 1940's when there was gas rationing. The Northway Interstate construction in the mid 1960's resulted in an influx of more hikers and skiers into the High Peaks Region and cut the driving time from Montreal by one hour.

By the late 1960's, the Adirondack Lodge camping area was crowded; the old ball field at the foot of Giant was covered by the big slides off Giant and the Keene picnic park was closed to camping. It was hard to camp on weekends.

The Section was small and needed an overnight location in the Adirondacks. Arrangements had already been made to rent a ski lodge in the Laurentians, after rejecting the idea of purchasing land at Val David.

Dick Morden and I, while on an annual March ski pilgrimage up Mt. Marcy made a particularly speedy descent in 1966 and had time to call in at Keene to inquire about real estate.

During the next two months, visits were made with Keene Valley and Keene real estate agents to look at property. The section had $35 in the bank and about 40 members, so the property had to be cheap and suitable for camping. Most property was in the $15,000 to $30,000 range at that time. Francis Hickey, a Keene real estate agent and the brother of the Keene ranger for the Department of Conservation, mentioned that Daniel Howe had died and his widow, Mary Howe, had contacted him about selling the old family farm of 90 acres on top of the hill at Styles Brook. Mr. Hickey was an old friend of Mrs. Howe. We went to look at it; the road crew was just finishing paving the steep road up to the farm. Mr. Hickey did not leave the car, but waved at the old farm house on the roadside, the collapsed barn and said it was 90 acres up the hill backed on two sides by the Adirondack Forest Reserve land (uncut since the last century) and by Styles Brook and the powerline on the other sides. We walked the yellow state property line, looked at the meadow and the farm and couldn't believe the low price of $4000 US.

Mr. Howe was born on the farm, one of 14 children, and married the girl from across the brook. I believe the Irish settled in the valley after the potato famine. They were poor, with no electricity, only a pipe from the field well in the meadow into the house and a telephone line from across Styles Brook. They had cut hay and grown crops on the rocky meadow which faced south. There was an old orchard nearby. The house was built with square nails and clapboard in the New England style. Earlier in the century, before the 1908(?) fire that burned Giant and spread across the Jay Mt. And Styles brook, there was active logging to cut spruce pulpwood and was flumed down along Styles brook, over the waterfall (holes in the rocks used for iron supports still remain there) into the Ausable River. The Styles Brook Valley, like the rest of New England, supported many farmers and was largely cleared of trees and had a village and school in the 1800's. By the 1880's, the agricultural economy collapsed and people moved west. Styles Brook Valley is now nearly all heavily forested again with many stone walls and basements of old farms. The formation of the Adirondack Forest Preserve locked up most of the regions' forests.

The state of New York during the depression bought up old farms and forested lots for taxes and put them in the reserve. The economic malaise of the region still persists today. The population of Keene and Keene Valley has remained relatively constant for over a 100 years.

In 1955, while driving the truck down the steep Styles Brook road, Mr. Howe had an accident and suffered brain damage. He was taken to the Royal Victoria Hospital. His wife and daughter were left alone on the farm. A large dead elm tree (killed by the Dutch elm disease which destroyed the rest of the large elms on the farm during the 1950's and '60's) fell on the house leaving a hole in the roof. Mrs Howe told me that at that point she was entirely fed up. She then drove off to Lake Placid abandoning the farm land leaving all clocks, dishes, family organ - even the bottled preserves - in the house. She never went back. The house, sitting next to the road was empty for 10 years (1955-1965) and the barn was vandalized. Mr. Howe wouldn't sell while he was alive, but could not work. As soon as he died, Mrs. Howe put the farm up for sale. Her daughter insisted on keeping the land below the road and she put a house trailer on the property. She did agree, however, to let us have a block of land going down to the brook for access. Another adjacent little block upstream was purchased by Louise LaRivière of the club and she and Doug Urquhart ( a long-term section member who was very quiet, kind, and loved by all section members), built a “residence” on it. Doug Urquhart worked hard at Keene and collected weekend dues for many years.

In order to buy the property, money had to be raised. Members of the Montreal Section held a special meeting and together with some Ottawa Section members, put up cash as loans to raise the $4000 US. (We paid less because Canadian dollars were worth more than US dollars at that time!) A deposit was made and I made representation as Section Chairman to the ACC Board at the ACC Annual Meeting held at the 1968 summer camp at Mt. Assiniboine in the Rockies. I suggested that the ACC should buy the land in the name of the ACC. The board refused and were even offended that the property was in the US and not in Canada.

Who was to own the land? Legal and real estate agent opinion was that it was the custom to incorporate in New York, as a non-profit company. Liability insurance could then be purchased at a reasonable price and the liability and high cost of insurance of running a campground on private land avoided.

To form the company, a board of directors composed of U.S. citizens was needed. The Keene Valley real estate agent and Mr. Hickey agreed to sign incorporation papers, but two more were needed. While skiing Tuckerman's Ravine with Bill Putnam of New Hampshire (a leading member of the American Alpine Club) and Fritz Weisner of Stowe Vermont (a famous U.S. German American climber and frequent rock climber with club members at Val David, Pocomoonshine, the Rockies and Shawangunks), I broached the need for U.S. incorporating directors. They agreed to sign. We found Harland Carson, a lawyer in Elizabethtown, New York, to incorporate the Montreal Alpine Club Inc. (MAC Inc.)

At the first formal annual meeting of the company in Montreal, we fired the U.S. directors and passed a by-law saying the directors were the ACC Montreal Section executive. We bought the farm in the name of the company and Mr. Hickey sold us insurance. Mrs. Howe was then living in a trailer at Lake Placid. She said that she hated the place, but her unmarried daughter liked it (she was born there).

The section was very busy at work weekends for the next three years. The roof was repaired and the house, outside and inside, was fixed. Even at -25o the two wood stoves kept it warm and water came from the ice in the stream that crosses the road at the corner of the property.

Trails were marked on the rocky ridges up to Clements Pond, cross-country ski trails were picked out across Styles Brook and the trees overgrowing the meadow vigorously attacked. Eventually, a tractor and mower were purchased. The old field well was dug out, the valve discovered and water fed into the house below.

Further legal work was done to correct problems with the incorporation by a lawyer friend of Doug Sloan from Manhattan. The loans were quickly paid off and user fees have made the Keene Farm self financing.

Sadly, the old farm house was burned down one very cold night in the 1970's when some urban Manhattanittes, unfamiliar with wood stoves, went to bed with the stoves loaded and the dampers wide open. The pipes overheated in the night. It was too late when the Keene fire department came. Fortunately, the section had met the previous week and phoned Mr. Hicky to double the fire insurance. The insurance company honored the verbal commitment and the company collected $20,000 U.S. This formed the cash basis for the construction of the present large prefabricated log lodge on the hill under the guidance of Paul Gillespie. Unfortunately, a lot of files and records of the purchase were lost in the fire.

As a professional forester, I was saddened to see that Mrs. Howe had sold off the merchantable sawtimber (mainly large oak and pine) in the 1960's. The forest had been high graded, but 40 acres of vigorous young forest remained. Much was dense oak coppice from a previous clearcut, plus old maple (formerly tapped for maple sugar). Some large white pine was uncut and even pitch pine (at the northern end of its range) grows near the house. By now, 1991, the forest is ready to cut again.

[I suggested that the farm be registered under the New York State Tree Farm Tax Law - this would result in a permanent 50% reduction in annual taxes, provided that the silviculture stand tending work prescribed by a forester of the New York State of Conservation is done as scheduled. We contacted the department in the early 1970's. The forester prepared an excellent map and report showing the forest types and prescribing thinning of a few acres in the dense oak coppice. Since I am a Professor of Silviculture, all this made good sense to me. It was an excellent financial deal for the club and would enhance the value and beauty of the property. Sadly, the section vetoed the proposal. I believe the option may still be open and the farm should be registered to save tax dollars and earn timber revenue. Millions of acres are routinely registered like this in the U.S. The trees proposed for thinning are mainly doomed to die, because there are too many of them.

Ecologically, Keene Farm is very interesting. The elevation range spans the transition from hardwoods (maple, beech, oak, basswood) up to red pine/white pine and almost reaches the red spruce zone. Neither Clements Pond or Styles Brook appear to have been influenced by acid rain.

The old field succession through brush and trees on the meadow has been stopped by mowing. The camping and fine view over the meadow and the biological diversity of the property is enhanced by the meadow. Water flows all winter from the state forest through the culvert across the road. The beavers have returned to Clements Pond Brook and deer and black bear are common. Styles Brook is clear and clean, but cold on a hot day! Because the property is somewhat remote and is situated against the 'forever wild' old growth forest of the Adirondack Park, the farm's seclusion, beauty and wilderness will not and cannot be disturbed. The South aspect of the slope and meadow make it warm and sunny. The pine covered cliffs and ridges on the farm give fine views and nice walks.

We did cost out the installation of electricity in the 1960's. It would have cost $3000 U.S. for poles from the bottom of the hill. The decision to use propane, privies and a hand pump in a deep drilled well has avoided complex maintenance problems in the new cabin. Unlike other ACC cabins, the club owns Keene Farm properly and it is worth a lot of money today. Like all ACC cabins, its success was only possible due to an abundance of volunteered labour, work parties and dedicated club members.

My thanks to all these members who helped make Keene 'go'. More recently in the 1980's, Dave Gillespie and Emil Koller have managed the Keene Farm and upgraded the roads, pasture and buildings and serviced the tractor. Today Keene Farm gets heavy section and club use and serves well its intended purpose set up 25 years ago as a centre for the ACC in the Adirondacks.