We’ve had some snow here and it’s hard to get into the woods right now so I thought I’d take a walk through the plowed sidewalks of Keene. This aerial view from probably the 1960s shows a good part of the downtown area. Main Street was once, and might still be, the widest paved Main Street in the world, as someone has written on the photo. Where the street becomes a Y at the northern end is the town common. Washington Street is the right leg of the Y, and that’s where I go when I want to show you Beaver Brook Falls. On the left Leg of the Y is Court Street and that’s one way to get to Tenant Swamp, which I showed in my last post. By American reckoning Keene is an old town, having first been granted township status in 1732 and settled in 1736. The population fluctuates because of the college students coming and going, but I think it averages about 25,000 residents.
Here’s a shot from the 1960s showing just how wide Main Street was. It’s still as wide but there is now a divider going up the center of it with a walkway for pedestrians. I could have easily been in this photo riding my stingray bicycle up the sidewalk, but I can’t really tell. I can tell that this wasn’t taken on a Sunday though, because on Sunday every single store closed and Keene became a ghost town for a day. That was when my father and I usually went to visit relatives. We often drove up the right side of the Y, past Beaver Brook Falls.
One of the most familiar landmarks in Keene is the United Church of Christ, all in white. It’s called the “white church” or the “church at the head of the square” by most of us. Though the town common is round the blocks of buildings that surround it form a three sided square, so that’s where the term “head of the square” comes from. That confuses a lot of people so I just call it the “white church.” It’s a very beautiful building, in my opinion.
Almost as iconic to townsfolk as the white church are the huge coal silos that have been here for as long as anyone can remember. Surprisingly I can’t find much historical information about them.
Since there are railroad tracks beside the silos in this photo from about 1920, I’m guessing that the coal was brought in by rail, but how it got into the silos from there I don’t know. I’d guess that some type of conveyor was used. If you needed coal you just backed your horse and wagon or truck under the silo, a door would open and gravity would do the rest. I walked down those tracks beside the silos many times when I was a boy but I never saw them actually work. By then the roof over the tracks was gone but trains still used them.
Keene has a long railroad history. The Cheshire Railroad was opened in Keene on May 16, 1848. The first train to arrive was from Boston, a “doubleheader” with two engines, the Cheshire No. 5 and the Monadnock No. 6. The train is said to have been decorated its entire length with flags and evergreens. By the time I was old enough to walk through here the double arched repair shop had become a screw factory. My father worked there and so did I for a while. The old roundhouse can still be seen today, even though the building is now full of stores and restaurants. When I was a boy the original turntable was still there. I used to love playing on it, but I never saw it turn a locomotive.
This photo is of a big steam locomotive leaving the railroad station which was once located on Main Street. I never got to see one quite that old but I saw a lot of trains pass through town.
At one time Keene was called the Elm City because of all the beautiful 200 year old elms that grew along almost every street, but Dutch elm disease wiped out most of them in the 50s and 60s and the city replaced the elm trees with others of various species, including oak. I happened to look up at one of these oaks and saw that it was covered in gouty oak galls. Gouty oak gall is caused by a wasp called, not surprisingly, the gouty oak gall wasp (Callirhytis quercuspunctata). In spring the wasp lays its eggs in expanding plant tissue and secretes chemicals that will cause the abnormal growth seen in the photo. The gall grows quickly and once the eggs hatch the larvae feed on its tissue. It can take two years or more for the gall wasps to reach adulthood. One adult exits the gall through each hole.
This photo of Court Street from the late 1800s shows why Keene was called the Elm City. Almost every street in town became a tunnel formed by the massive arching elms. I was lucky enough to have been born before all the trees died and I remember seeing many views just like this one. It was a beautiful place for a boy to grow up in; like living in a Currier and Ives lithograph.
Many of today’s trees are encrusted with fringed candle flame lichen (Candelaria fibrosa) and other lichens. The city of Keene uses in-ground sprinklers in the summer and the spray keeps the trunks of the trees moist to about 5 feet off the ground and that’s just where these water loving lichens grow. Some trees are so covered with them that it looks as if someone painted them bright yellow. People were giving me some strange looks; probably wondering what was so fascinating about a tree trunk. If only they would stop and see for themselves.
The book Lichens of North America says that fruiting bodies (Apothecia) are commonly seen on fringed candle flame lichens, but I rarely them. They are the tiny cup shaped parts, which were extremely small and difficult to get a good photo of. I think the largest one seen in this photo was probably only 1/16 of an inch across. This lichen is said to be very sensitive to air pollution, so seeing it is a good sign that our air quality is good.
What I believe were star rosette lichens (Physcia stellaris) grew among the fringed candle flame lichens. Star rosette lichen gets its common name from the way its lobes radiate outward like a star. This photo doesn’t show that feature well though, because I was trying to get a shot of the apothecia. This lichen’s dark brown apothecia are often pruinose, which refers to a white, waxy, powdery coating like that found on blueberries, plums, and first year black raspberry canes. The waxy coating can reflect light in different ways, sometimes appearing ashy gray and at other times more blue.
I don’t know when this Coca Cola sign was painted but it has been here all of my life, on the side of the old Bullard & Shedd drugstore. Bullard & Shedd had special things like Russell Stover chocolates and I used to save my money and buy my grandmother the biggest box of them that I could afford on Valentine’s Day. Of course she always shared them and I usually got about three to her one.
This sign isn’t anywhere near as old as the Coca Cola sign but it’s probably a lot more famous, because it was painted for the film Jumanji with Robin Williams. Many of the exterior scenes in the film, including the animal stampede on Main Street, were filmed here. The film crew painted this sign for a business that never existed on the wall of a downtown building. Robin Williams was a nice guy who truly enjoyed meeting people, and he became friends with some of our local residents.
We have a lot of brick buildings here in Keene and Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) grows well on a few of them. But Boston ivy isn’t from Boston and isn’t an ivy; it is in the grape family and comes from eastern Asia. In the fall its red leaves are one of the most beautiful things in town but since the vines grow mostly on the rear of buildings few notice them. Boston ivy attaches itself to just about any vertical surface with tiny circular pads that form at the ends of its tendrils. It secretes calcium carbonate and uses it to “glue” the pads to the surface it wants to climb. The glue can to hold up to 260 times its own weight and it is close to impossible to remove the vine from a building.
A Colorado blue spruce poked its colorful branches out of the deep snow. Snow won’t hurt this tree any; it was found growing in Colorado on Pike’s Peak in 1862 up in the high country, so it’s perfectly cold hardy. Its silvery blue color comes from the waxy coating on its needles, which is similar to the bloom on blueberries and plums. This coating helps its needles (actually leaves) to minimize moisture loss in winter when there is little water available to its roots. Some western Native American tribes used the tree medicinally to treat colds and stomach ailments but today its value comes from its popularity as a landscape specimen.
I didn’t notice it when I took the photo but this Japanese Andromeda looks like it might be infested by Andromeda lace bugs. Andromeda lace bug nymphs are 1/8 inch long when they hatch in late spring. They suck cell sap, which speckles the leaves with off color dots. These lace bugs damage broadleaf evergreens throughout the eastern U.S. from western North Carolina to Maine. They attack shrubs that are stressed, especially those that receive too much sun.
It wasn’t the time but the cold that ended this outing. The odd thing was that at 22 °F it really wasn’t that cold, but every time I had to take off my gloves to snap the shutter my fingers felt like they had been frostbitten so I called it a day. This beautiful old cast iron clock is another Keene landmark. E. Howard & Co. was a clock and watch company formed by Edward Howard and Charles Rice in 1858, but I haven’t been able to find out when this clock came to Keene. With its gold leaf details restored it certainly is spiffier than it was when I was a boy.
How strange it is to view a town you grew up in, not in wonderment through the eyes of youth, but with the eyes of a historian on the way things were. ~ Marvin Allan Williams
Thanks for coming by.