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April 4, 2009

Keeseville: Layers of history

As winter yields to warmer weather, I can finally put away the Nordic Trak and begin exercising outdoors.



Adirondack trails are still too muddy, but it's a good time to do some walking around town.



Adding a sense of history to walks makes them more enjoyable, as I've tried to demonstrate in my most recent book, "One Foot Forward: Walks in Upstate New York." A lengthy stroll around Keeseville continues in that spirit.



Last summer, I joined a tour led by Adirondack Architectural Heritage (AARCH) Executive Director Steve Engelhart. It didn't take much to see that the rapids of the Ausable River led to Keeseville's initial settlement. Along with water power, there was ample forest for lumbering, sandstone to be quarried from the riverbed and iron from nearby Arnold Hill and Palmer Hill.



Gristmills and sawmills came first. A woolen mill, the Adirondack Twine Company and a brewery followed. By 1864, there was enough demand for fine wood products that R. Prescott Furniture, Sash, and Blind Manufactory became established. And there was Keeseville's most unique contribution, the manufacture of horse nails.



HORSE NAILS

Start at Riverside Park. Only part of a stone wall and the circular opening where the flume spilled out remain from the former five-story Prescott complex. When sashes, blinds, doors and architectural ornamentation became unprofitable, the firm switched to fine furniture. Forays into wooden radio and television cabinets let Prescott survive decades longer. Low-slung stone buildings across the river held the Ausable Horse Nail Company. Once, nails were cut laboriously by hand; they were so valuable that abandoned homes would be burned just so these slivers of metal could be saved. Then came the issue of horseshoes.



Enter Daniel Dodge, an ingenious Keeseville blacksmith. He sought a machine for stamping nails that would be sturdy, consistent and cheap for daily use. In 1862, he gained his patent and opened the Eagle Nail Company along the Ausable River.

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