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Sep 29

In Search of Doctor Beebe

I hardly know where to begin this story, because its roots stretch back a long way before my time. It centers around an old foundation, abandoned more than 100 years ago, that is now in the middle of the woods, but in its day was at the center of much activity.

I first encountered this remnant of an old homestead while horseback riding, more than 20 years ago. It is only in recent months that I have discovered it was the homesite of a Dr. Richard Beebe, and I’ve set myself on a mission to learn more about him. Some of what I’ve learned is listed at the bottom of this post. First, I will tell you how I came to be interested in this enigmatic ruin.

For the past 30 years, I have owned a house in Alford Massachusetts. In the early days, it was a part-time dwelling. When I bought the house, my primary residence was in Manhattan, where I worked for Morgan Stanley as a research analyst. After about five years, I took a job as a portfolio manager and product developer for State Street Bank, and I moved to Boston. So the Alford house was still a weekend address.

I named my “estate” Thyme Hill, for both descriptive and sentimental reasons. The sun-drenched hillside to the south of the house was (and still is) covered with wild thyme, in the spirit of most New England lawns, which are often composed more of weeds and wildflowers than they are of grass. The sentimental connection was to another property named Thyme Hill that had been a favorite place of mine during my youth.

I grew up in Stockbridge (Alford does not border that town, but is directly south of West Stockbridge), and for a week or two of every summer, I would stay with my Aunt Belle (actually my grandaunt, as she was quick to point out, since she was my grandmother’s sister) and her husband, my Uncle John (Weiss). They had built a house in Monterey, a town to the southeast of Stockbridge, and named it Thyme Hill because of the wild thyme growing on the hillside below their house. My grandmother (and, of course, her sister) was a Bidwell, a name that had been in Monterey since 1750, when the area was part of Housatonic Township #1. A story for another time.

Map of Berkshire County, with its western border on New York state

Aunt Belle had left this world before I bought the Alford property, and I was glad to have a sign at the top of my driveway to honor her and keep alive the wonderful memories I have of time spent with her and Uncle John. After living in Boston for about five years, I moved to Alford full time, having left State Street to start my own business.

Oftentimes, I teasingly refer to my place as my estate, or my farm (I keep two horses on my property), but the truth is that my holdings are tiny; a small corner carved out of a 200-acre farm, on the site of an old marble quarry. When I’m standing in my yard, however, I feel a connection with the wider world around me, looking south many miles down the Alford Valley, with a spectacular view of Mount Everett.

Looking due south from my yard in the winter light, mid-January 2017, with Mount Everett in the center distance

Another view of Mount Everett, from my deck, in early November 2016

To the north and east are mostly woods, and to the west I have another grand view of a ridgeline atop the steeply-rising Taconic mountain range that runs on a nearly true south-to-north line, intersecting and crossing the New York state boundary line, which tilts slightly eastward as it moves north.

My horse Stewart, with a view to the southwest behind him, showing part of the western mountain ridge

Looking directly west from my house, August 2016

Early October 2014, Spot and Stewart await their dinner, with a view of the Alford Springs property behind them

The story of Doctor Bebee (ah, yes, remember him? the subject of this post?), for me, is connected to the property visible behind the horses in that last picture. Years ago, I spent a lot of time alone, being quite depressed about how my life was going at the time. One of the things that would get me out of my funk was to take some hand tools and take a walk on that mountain, clearing riding trails. In those days, I did not have my own horse, but rode with my friend Amy Shinerock, who lived in the shadow of that mountain.

At least once a week, I would drive over to Amy’s house (five miles on the roads of Alford, though only about a mile as the crow flies). We would ride up the hill in the back of her house, and, without ever crossing a paved road, we could ride for as long as we wished (often two hours or more).

After many months of riding, trail-clearing, and walking off my depression in solitude, inside the comfort of a thick forest, I got to know that mountain like the back of my hand, as the expression goes. I became quite possessive of the trails I had created, and the stream crossings I had improved, for the sake of easier passage by the horses. In fact, I came to feel quite proprietary about the mountainside, but of course I didn’t actually own it.

At that time, the land was owned by a fellow named Reed Rubin. I was fairly new in town at the time, so I didn’t really know the story of the property, but I had heard rumors that he had won 600 acres in a poker game. This sounded preposterous to me, a story out of the Alford Book of Legends, akin to the tale of a murder at the gold mine further north on the same mountain. In all of my wanderings, I never came across anything that looked like a mine of any kind. Plenty of charcoal pits, to be sure, (or “charcoal hearths” as some would call them, since they were leveled places in the forest used in the creation of charcoal, to feed the iron furnaces operating in nearby towns).

The poker game story, though, was of more recent origins, so I asked around. Several of the locals confirmed that it did in fact happen, though I never talked with anyone who had actually witnessed the game. In any case, after a period of time in which I had been acting as self-appointed caretaker of his property (unbeknownst to him), Mr. Rubin evidently decided it was time to log the forest. Many large pieces of equipment showed up, and began to “improve” the old woods roads we had been using as horse trails.

The loggers made quite a mess of it, tossing aside the treetops and any brush that was in their way. It was also distressing to see the forest thin out, and the ground get chewed up by large bulldozers and trucks. Amy and I made the best of it, riding on weekends when they weren’t around. We even found one stretch of road that was so smooth we could race our horses up the hill without worrying about obstacles or holes. The horses were delighted.

And I must say, now that 20 years have passed, it is hard to see any evidence of what seemed like total destruction at the time. Mother Nature has a way of healing itself, given enough time.

What with all the activity and disruption, Amy and I had to find other places to ride. So we went to the south and to the west, finding networks of old roads that had been used for farming, for logging, or even for transportation, in days long ago. Some of the roads showed signs of recent use, but many of them had trees growing in them that were large enough to suggest they hadn’t been used for dozens of years. I’ve discovered the same thing in my hiking in this area — it’s amazing what an extensive network of roads once existed back a hundred years ago or more, when this was primarily an agricultural area. There is an aerial photo of Alford in the Town Offices that shows the town as it was about a hundred years ago, and at least 80% of the land was open space. Today, the situation is reversed, and probably the same percentage is now wooded.

In our wanderings to the south of the Rubin property, we encountered a small network of old roads and wide trails that had obviously been well cared-for in recent years. Amy thought she knew who owned the property, so we rode down to the nearest house, where we were warmly greeted by an elderly Mrs. Andrews, who came out to see and pet the horses, and tell us stories of how, in years gone by, she had ridden on the same trails.

In recent weeks, through conversations with the Andrews (extended) family, and some online research, I’ve come to know more about the history of the property. My interest in the foundation was rekindled when a large chunk of the land was given to BNRC, and they took over maintaining the trails and meadows on the now-extended Alford Springs property. The original 600-acre poker game property became the origins of what is now an 884-acre preserve with improved trails and viewpoints. (The photo in the document just linked, btw, was obviously taken just to the south of my house, across the Valley from Alford Springs.) There were, as I understand it, a couple of ~200-acre  chunks given to, or acquired by, BNRC since that original acquisition in 2002.

I’ve hiked the BNRC trails in Alford Springs many times over the past few years, sometimes alone, sometimes with my step-dogs, sometimes with a group of friends. If I was with others when passing the foundation, I would point it out, but couldn’t tell much at all about it. After last year’s Thanksgiving snowstorm, my friend Bess and I took the dogs for a long walk from my house, across the Valley, and up the slopes to the top of the ridge. We saw an astounding amount of storm damage along the trails, with some of the woods roads being totally blocked by large fallen trees.

Clearly, the trails were, at least temporarily, not suitable for passage by skiers, horses, or vehicles. This brought out my trail-clearing instincts, and I volunteered to help with the clean-up. One thing led to another, and recently I’ve been cleaning up storm damage and new growth around the foundation. I’ll show “before and after” photos of the clean-up effort in a later post.

I asked the BNRC folks if they had any information about the history of the foundation, beyond what they told me they knew (that it was the home of a Dr. Beebe). They admitted to having “something around somewhere” but to date nothing has surfaced.

Meanwhile, Bess did some web searching and came up with lots of intriguing tidbits. We will continue to follow these leads and talk to people who might have connections to the Andrews property or the Beebe family. I enjoy doing this partly out of general curiosity, and also because I like to try to picture what it was like to live in my town before the days of electricity and automobiles.

What I refer to as the Andrews property evidently came into the hands of that family around 100 years ago. I have talked with the current owners of part of that property (Bob and Ann Snell), and will follow up to be sure I have it right. As I understand it, the property came on the market after the Titanic sank (in 1912), since the land was owned by someone who was lost in that event. Ann’s mother was the Mrs. Andrews I referred to earlier. Ann’s sister (yes, Joe, I guess they were the Andrews sisters!) came to own the part of the property on which the Beebe foundation sits, and she is the one who sold that land to BNRC. Ann and her husband Bob came to own the portion of the land that contains the original house where Ann grew up. I believe there is a third sibling (Tom) who lived for a time on another section of the original Andrews property.

Ann told me that, as long as she can remember, the Beebe foundation was in pretty good shape (still true today), but there was no evidence of the long-lost structures. Bob Snell (her husband) told me that for 40 years he had maintained the roads and trails, and that when he first started doing that, the foundation was totally in the woods. He had cleared an area around it to make a meadow, leaving only some old apple trees (which Ann said he kept pruned, hoping to appeal to the deer, since he is a hunter).

Years ago, Amy and I had asked Bob for permission to ride on those trails, which he readily granted, subject to the provisos that we not ride during hunting season (which would scare off the game), nor during mud season (which would tear up the trails). We agreed, and thanked him for his generosity.

If I learn more, my faithful readers will be among the first to know.

2 comments

  1. Will Ryan

    Thanks for this fascinating history, Michael.

  2. Nathan Wilson

    Great ongoing saga here. Thanks for sharing!

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