Home Nature preserves Cycling Backroads, Essex Stories

Cycling Backroads, Essex Stories

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Pass one of the many historic farmhouses along Leaning Road in the town of Essex on an architectural tour of the Boquet Valley sponsored by Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH). French photo of Tom

The Boquet Valley tour pedals through a unique historic preservation area

By Tom French

Early settlers in the Boquet Valley near Essex included Revolutionary War soldiers/farmers, shipbuilders and frontier contractors who owned or operated the many sawmills, gristmills, foundries and industries along Boquet River. The first wood mill was built in 1791 in the hamlet of Boquet, three miles from Lake Champlain.

The area became a major manufacturing center and an important travel corridor between Lake Champlain and Albany via the Champlain Canal after its completion in 1823. Essex shipbuilders supplied several ships to Commodore MacDonough’s American fleet during 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 the primary mode of transportation.

Steven Englehart, former executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH), has enjoyed cruising the city’s many roads with an e-bike he purchased after retiring in 2021. He recently shared his enthusiasm for pedaling and historic preservation expertise as a guide for an AARCH-sponsored bike ride.

The hamlet of Whallonsburg with its red Barn Hall in the center of the photo, the historic home of Patrons of Husbandry Chapter #954.  Whitcomb's Garage, recently acquired by the nonprofit Whallonsburg Grange Hall, Inc. for a <a class=community center, is across the street.” class=”wp-image-289199″ srcset=”https://www.adirondackexplorer.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/whallonsburg-900×643.jpg 900w, https://www.adirondackexplorer.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/whallonsburg-300×214.jpg 300w, https://www.adirondackexplorer.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/whallonsburg-768×549.jpg 768w, https://www.adirondackexplorer.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/whallonsburg-1536×1097.jpg 1536w, https://www.adirondackexplorer.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/whallonsburg-560×400.jpg 560w, https://www.adirondackexplorer.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/whallonsburg.jpg 1800w” sizes=”(max-width: 900px) 100vw, 900px”/>
The hamlet of Whallonsburg with its red Barn Hall in the center of the photo, the historic home of Patrons of Husbandry chapter no. 954. Whitcomb’s Garage, recently acquired by the nonprofit Whallonsburg Grange Hall, Inc. for a community center, is across the street. French photo of Tom

Gathering at the Barn

A group of 15 biking and history buffs gathered at Whallonsburg Grange Hall on a cool September morning with a variety of bikes ranging from road, hybrid, cross, mountain and fat tire along with several e-bikes.

The tour started with the Grange (from the Latin granule as in cereals). Built in 1915, it was one of thousands across the country that formed after the Civil War to further the interests of farmers. They advocated for better railroad prices, helped form cooperatives, and were also politically active. As centers of social activity, they hosted events such as dances, potlucks, and plays.

Today, Whallonsburg Grange Hall is owned by the City of Essex and operated by a volunteer-based non-profit organization that offers lectures, music, films, and other community events.

In 2018, the nonprofit purchased the 1950s Whitcomb Garage across the street with a private donation. Renovated with a local blacksmith at one end, retail space and a pottery studio, it also offers mixed-use areas that can be used for smaller events. The project received an Achievement Award from the Preservation League of New York State in 2021.

The one-room schoolhouse in Whallonsburg was built in 1931-32 after the original schoolhouse burned down in 1851. Designed by Alvin W. Inman, a prolific Plattsburgh architect who designed many schools in northern New York is now a private residence.
The one-room schoolhouse in Whallonsburg was built in 1931-32 after the original schoolhouse burned down in 1851. Designed by Alvin W. Inman, a prolific Plattsburgh architect who designed many schools in northern New York is now a private residence. French photo of Tom

Historical monuments

After visiting the Grange, we cycle up Walker Road, passing the one-room schoolhouse in Whallonsburg, built in 1931-32 after the original schoolhouse burned down in 1851. Designed by Alvin W. Inman, a prolific Plattsburgh architect who designed many schools in upstate New York, it is now a private residence.

Our destination is Orren Reynolds House, an early 19th century farmhouse owned by Willie Wilcox. Willie insists that we give a barbaric yawn before starting his tour. “It’s in the middle of nowhere and there are no neighbors. No one can hear you. There is nothing around and it feels good.

Legend has it that the house was built by the Ethan Allen boys of Vermont, although Willie concedes there is 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 chimneys dominates its center.

The Orren Reynolds House may have been built by the Ethan Allen Boys of Vermont.  Preserved and owned by Willie Wilcox, it is still not connected to any mains due to lack of electrical or telephone service along Walker Road.
The Orren Reynolds House may have been built by the Ethan Allen Boys of Vermont. Preserved and owned by Willie Wilcox, it is still not connected to a grid due to lack of electrical or telephone service along Walker Road. French photo of Tom

Life in the house is much the same today as when it was built around 1815 – no power or telephone 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 has historically preserved it, and it now serves as his “getaway home.”

“I learned so much about light, shadows, nature, water and darkness. It’s amazing how much you learn without having electricity or plumbing.

Willie dabbles in folk art and Americana while working to preserve historic buildings in the area. He received an AARCH Preservation Award for his work on Crystal Spring Farm, one of the county’s oldest homes. Some of his works can be seen on Youtube.

After another yawn, we return to Whallonsburg and turn left onto Cook Road, stopping briefly at Spirit Sanctuary, a green burial site and part of the Champlain Region Trail Network.

School stop

Steven had told us that Walker Road would be the worst climb of the day. He lied. Most without an e-bike rode the last 100 yards to Lakeside School at Black Kettle Farm. There, a lunch was offered by The Hub on the Hill, a food hub/distribution center that connects local producers to markets in the area.

Maeve Taylor, administrator of the farm and the Waldorf forestry school, gave us a tour of the converted 1790 farmhouse across the street.



Lakeside School was established in 2006 and moved to its current location in 2007 when the Eddy Foundation, a non-profit organization that buys and preserves the wild lands of the Adirondacks, invited the school to rent and then buy the property from 70 acres. The school also uses 200 acres which still belong to the Eddy Foundation. They offer year-round child care and early education programs through grade three. In addition to a traditional academic education, the school uses the outdoors as part of the classroom.

“We take the children to the forest almost every day – even in the middle of winter. They discover and learn about science and nature through their observations of habitats changing from fall to winter and from spring to summer.

Built in 1826, the octagonal one-room schoolhouse in Boquet may have been in operation well into the 1960s. The weathered flagpole still stands guard above the structure, restored through a partnership between the city of Essex, which owns the building, and the Essex Community Heritage Organization (ECHO).
Built in 1826, the octagonal one-room schoolhouse may have been in operation well into the 1960s. The weathered flagpole still stands guard above the structure, restored through a partnership between the city of Essex, owner of the building, and the Essex Community Heritage Organization (ECHO). French photo of Tom

After leaving the school, we pass the former site of Boquet’s factory industries on the way to the Octagonal School – the only remaining historic building of the once bustling community. Lauren Murphy and David Hislop, two leaders in local historic preservation through their involvement with the Essex Community Heritage Organization (ECHO), greet us in the schoolyard. ECHO has partnered with the city, which owns the building, to preserve the structure. More recently, the roof was replaced with western cedar. A bell that disappeared years ago has mysteriously reappeared and will soon be back at the belfry.

Boquet, with its series of mills, housed more than 50 families in the first half of the 19th century. The one-room octagonal stone schoolhouse was built in 1826 and operated until 1952, although David once gave a lecture on the school’s history when a woman stood up and said she went to school there in 1961.

The last stop on our 12 mile tour is the Eggleston House on the corner of School Street and Middle Road. The 5-bay Federal-style brick house was built around 1830 by Richard Eggleston, one of Essex’s shipbuilders.

Lauren Murphy bought the house in 1996. By then “the addition’s metal roof had rolled over on the back, the rain was pouring down and from the top of the stairs in the corner you could look down downstairs and see the basement,” she said. “It was a total wreck, but that’s why I loved it. It reached out to me. »

The same goes for many people in the Boquet valley, who continue to work tirelessly to preserve the architecture, environment and stories of the past.


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