Boquet Valley tour pedals unique area of historic preservation
By Tom French
The first settlers in the Boquet Valley near Essex included Revolutionary War soldiers/farmers, shipbuilders, and frontier entrepreneurs who owned or worked the many sawmills, gristmills, foundries, and industries along the Boquet River. The first mill, for lumber, was built 1791 in the hamlet of Boquet, three miles from Lake Champlain.
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The area became a major manufacturing hub and significant travel corridor between Lake Champlain and Albany via the Champlain Canal after it was completed in 1823. Shipbuilders in Essex provided multiple vessels for Commodore MacDonough’s American fleet in the War of 1812. By mid-century, Essex was one of the largest towns on Lake Champlain, but the economy declined after the introduction of rail as a main mode of transportation.
Steven Englehart, former executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), has enjoyed biking the town’s many roads with an e-bike that he purchased after retiring in 2021. He recently shared his pedaling enthusiasm and historic preservation expertise as a guide for an AARCH-sponsored bike tour.
Gathering at the Grange
A group of 15 biking and history enthusiasts gathered at the Whallonsburg Grange Hall on a cool September morning with a variety of bikes that ranged from road, hybrid, cross, mountain, and fat tire along with several e-bikes.
The tour began with the Grange (from Latin granum as in grain). Built in 1915, it was one of thousands across the country that formed after the Civil War to promote the interests of farmers. They advocated for better railroad prices, helped form cooperatives, and were politically active as well. As centers for social activities, they hosted events such as dances, pot luck dinners and theatricals.
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Today, the Whallonsburg Grange Hall is owned by the town of Essex, and managed by a volunteer-based nonprofit that provides lectures, music, movies and other community events.
In 2018, the nonprofit purchased the 1950s-era Whitcomb’s Garage across the street through a private donation. Renovated with a local blacksmith at one end, retail space, and pottery studio, it also provides mixed-use areas that can be utilized for smaller events. The project received an Excellence Award from the Preservation League of New York State in 2021.
After the tour of the Grange, we bike up Walker Road, past the one-room Whallonsburg Schoolhouse, built in 1931-32 after the original 1851 schoolhouse burned. Designed by Alvin W. Inman, a prolific Plattsburgh architect who designed many schools in Northern New York, it is now a private residence.
Our destination is the Orren Reynolds House, an early 19th-century homestead owned by Willie Wilcox. Willie insists we sound a barbaric yawp before beginning his tour. “This is the middle of nowhere and there’s no neighbors. No one can hear you. There’s nothing around, and it feels good.”
Legend has it the house was built by the Ethan Allen boys of Vermont, though Willie concedes there’s no way to prove it. Originally built in the Federalist Style, a porch was added later. A massive chimney with five flues and four Rumfeld fireplaces dominates its center.
Living in the home is much the same now as it was when it was built circa 1815 – no power or phone lines exist along this section of Walker Road. When Willie bought the property in 2007 after it had been abandoned for 47 years, “It was uninhabitable.” But Willie historically preserved it, and it now serves as his “getaway house.”
“I’ve learned so much about light, shadows, nature, water, and darkness. It’s incredible how much you learn by not having electricity and plumbing.”
Willie deals in folk art and Americana while also working to preserve historic buildings in the area. He received an AARCH Preservation Award in 2011 for “sensitive restoration” at the Walker Farm and he has done extensive work work on the farmstead at Crystal Spring Farm, one of the oldest homes in the county. Some of his work can be seen on YouTube.
Steven had told us that Walker Road would be the worst hill of the day. He lied. Most without an e-bike walked the last 100 yards to the Lakeside School at Black Kettle Farm. There, a lunch was provided by The Hub on the Hill, a food hub/distribution center that connects local producers to markets within the region.
Maeve Taylor, administrator of the Waldorf farm and forest school, gave us a tour around the converted 1790 farmhouse across the street.
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Lakeside School was established in 2006 and moved to its current location in 2007 when the Eddy Foundation, a non-profit that purchases and preserves wildlands in the Adirondacks, invited the school to lease and then purchase the 70-acre property. The school also utilizes 200 acres still owned by the Eddy Foundation. They offer year-round childcare and early education programs through third grade. In addition to a traditional academic education, the school uses the outdoors as part of the classroom.
“We take the children out to the forest almost every day – even in the middle of winter. They’re discovering and learning about science and nature through their observations of habitats changing from fall to winter to spring to summer.”
After leaving the school, we pass the former site of Boquet’s mill industries on the way to the Octagonal Schoolhouse – the only historic building left from the once bustling community. Lauren Murphy and David Hislop, two leaders of local historic preservation through their involvement with the Essex Community Heritage Organization (ECHO), greet us in the schoolyard. ECHO partnered with the town, who owns the building, to preserve the structure. Most recently, the roof was replaced with western cedar. A bell that disappeared years ago mysteriously reappeared and will be returned to the belfry soon.
Boquet, with its series of mills, was home to over 50 families in the first half of the 19th century. The one-room, stone, octagonal school was built in 1826 and in operation until 1952, though David once gave a talk about the school’s history when a woman stood up and said she went to school there in 1961.
The last stop of our 12-mile tour is the Eggleston House at the corner of School Street and Middle Road. The federal-style, 5-bay brick home was built circa 1830 by Richard Eggleston, one of the shipbuilders in Essex.
Lauren Murphy purchased the home in 1996. By then, “the metal roof on the addition had flipped off the back, rain was pouring in, and from the top of staircase in the corner, you could look down and see the basement,” she said. “It was a total wreck, but that’s why I loved it. It reached out to me.”
Same for many people in the Boquet Valley, who continue to work tirelessly at preserving the architecture, environment, and stories from the past.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that Willie Wilcox received an AARCH Preservation Award for his work at the Crystal Spring Farm. The award was actually for his restoration of the Orren Reynolds House on the Walker Road.
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