Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. Today we share a portrait of a storied Keene roadhouse and its colorful proprietor, Monty Purdy. Monty’s, as the Elm Tree Inn was sometimes known, continued as a local gathering spot for another 25 years after Helen Higgins’s 1979 article. The 19th-century landmark has stood empty since its closing, around 2004.
At the main intersection in Keene, New York, sits the Elm Tree Inn, the menu of which describes its setting as “beautiful downtown Keene.” Buildings in the immediate area include the Keene Library, a general store, a hiker’s supply store, a motel and a gas station. The center island at the crossroads, planted with pansies in the summer, has six road signs giving distances to neighboring towns, which suggests that Keene is a stopover for the traveler on his way elsewhere. The Elm Tree Inn has been banking on that idea since it was first opened for business in 1823, and Wilmot “Monty” Purdy, who owns Monty’s, or Purdy’s, as the Inn is alternately called, carries it on today in what has become one of the region’s best-known havens for the hungry and thirsty.
Keene has never been a place where tourists or hunters or fishermen spent a great deal of time. Almost since Keene separated from Jay and Elizabethtown in 1808, travelers have mainly been interested in getting some food, having a good night’s sleep, and moving on.
In 1823 an entreprenurial type named David Graves appeared on the scene. In his first year he built a forge to exploit the local iron ore, was involved with building a saw mill on John’s Brook five miles away in Keene Valley, and built the Elm Tree Inn, the first hostelry in the Keene–Keene Valley area. Apparently Graves did a flourishing business, for two years later he built the Keene Center House, a larger establishment across the street. He also managed the only store in town and became the unofficial postmaster of the village.
After Graves died, probably around 1835, the Elm Tree Inn changed hands many times. Ira Marks of Elizabethtown had control of the property until 1847, when Willard Bell, Stephen Partridge and Uriah Mihills bought it. Then Ira Marks bought it back. A few years later he sold it to a lady named Arville Blood. She did not want to be bothered taking care of the two hotels, so she leased them to her brother, Royal Blood. In 1866 Willard Bell once again became interested in the property and persuaded Arville Blood to sell it to him. Bell held it for 17 years before selling to W. F. West on and J. Henry Otis.
It’s not clear whether all the buying, selling and rebuying means that the Elm Tree Inn and the Keene Center House were booming businesses, or whether it suggests that no one could make a go of them for very long. But it is evident that by the turn of the century, when Weston and Otis controlled the property, the Elm Tree Inn was not as well respected as the Keene Center House. In the 1880s and 1890s the latter received a one-line mention in Stoddard’s Illustrated Guide to the Adirondacks. In Stoddard’s 1905 edition the Keene Center House, renamed Owl’s Head, merited a further statement: “this is the regular dining place for passengers by stage between Westport and Lake Placid.” The Elm Tree Inn was never mentioned in Stoddard’s nor was it mentioned in another prominent guidebook of the times, Wallace’s Guide to the Adirondacks. Judging from pictures taken of the Elm Tree Inn around the turn of the century, the facade of the Inn was well maintained and there were definitely lodgers. The lodgers, all male, posed in coat and tie for the photographer. Most likely the Elm Tree Inn catered to the Canadian lumberjack while he enjoyed rest and relaxation after being in the mountains, rather than to the visiting fishermen and hunters from Syracuse or New York. Eventually the Elm Tree became primarily a stopping place for travelers who had had a drink at the old Deer’s Head Inn in Elizabethtown and were ready for a simple chicken dinner in Keene before heading on to Lake Placid.
The Inn’s rise from obscurity to fame began in 1946. That was the year Monty Purdy sold his house in Greece, New York, outside of Rochester, and moved his family to the second floor of the Elm Tree Inn. Monty had bought the Inn from a lady whose major source of income came from selling Trailways bus tickets and whose major interest, according to Monty, was a Trailways bus driver. The driver wanted to buy the Inn, but Monty claims, without further explanation, that he “outsmarted” the bus driver. The old Inn showed every sign of age from the sloping tin ceilings in two of the dining rooms to a leaky roof above rotted rafters; floors had warped over the years, there was only one oil burner to heat the whole establishment, and cooking was done on a wood stove. Monty closed down the Inn and the family went to work.
In 1947, the Purdys reopened the Elm Tree Inn after getting rid of the tin ceilings and disguising the unevenness of some of the floors. Initially they planned to keep overnight guests, but that plan quickly changed. One reason was that a motel went up across the street where the Owl’s Head Inn used to stand. The second reason involved a late night at Monty’s. Around 4 one morning a group standing around the barroom piano was singing “Good Night, Irene.” Suddenly the voice of a disgruntled guest came from upstairs: “Will you get rid of lrene so I can go fishing?” Monty decided on the spot that he preferred late night revelers to early-rising guests, and overnight accommodations ended forthwith.
That decision gives some insight into Monty Purdy’s approach to life. He has been referred to as “the bon vivant of the Keene strip.” Monty, as he is known to everyone young or old, claims now that he is 65 years old and in such constant pain from arthritis in his hip that “only booze and broads keep me going.” Monty is a large, handsome man who first came to the Keene area in 1932, the year of the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. He lived with four others in a two room cabin on $2 a week. Since the $2 was not enough money to satisfy the appetites of 20-year-olds, he and his friends “shot wild rabbits and ate them so often they almost came out of our ears.”
There just was not enough work in the Keene area in those Depression days, so Monty returned to Rochester, married, and went to work for Eastman Kodak. But Monty had fallen in love with the Adirondacks. He would work 12 hours a day, seven days a week for three weeks and spend the fourth week in Keene. Then, just after the war, an aunt of Monty’s told him that the Elm Tree Inn was for sale. At the time, Monty did not have the money to make a bid, but his father advised him to give the owner about $50 to show his interest and receive priority treatment. Meanwhile, Monty went back to Rochester, sold his house and dug up enough money to make the down payment. And somewhere along the the line he outsmarted the Trailways busdriver.
In buying the Inn, Monty received more than just the “oldest hostelry in Essex County.” He became the owner and caretaker of a huge elm tree so well known that it was listed in Hurd’s Flora and Fauna of Eastern United States. The tree had a girth of 21 ½ feet and, to its topmost, measured just under 100 feet. No one is completely sure how old the tree was. The most accepted story is that David Graves’ daughter, Delia Ann, planted the tree out in front of her father’s new inn around 1824. That would make the tree about 150 years old by the time it was was hit with Dutch elm disease. Others, including a man referring, in 1885, to the “old elm,” place its age as older than that, perhaps because of the following poem which was at the base of the tree:
Caesar saw fifty years
For centuries I have stood and
The ceaseless flow of generations
Beneath my branches to and fro
As savage, pioneer and tourist
Monty first began to notice organic problems with the Elm in the late 1950s. The famous trademark received surgery and constant observation of limb and trunk. Says Monty, “We babied it
a lot. Everytime some car drove up and scraped the bark off, Lorraine [his wife] had a fit. She made up this concoction of plastic wood, balsam pitch and crystalized iodex and made a plaster of it to fill in the scars. One night she sat up till nearly dawn with the damn tree. One of the Pierce-Arrows at our 1962 car rally ran its octagonal hubcap halfway around the elm, nearly girdling the tree.”
On Monday, Oct. 7, 1974 the elm tree came down, a victim of Dutch elm disease. The day the tree was cut down, a local newspaper described Keene citizens as bemoaning “the end of a golden era.” Monty asked the men cutting the tree to leave a stump 12 feet high, so that at least he could have the biggest stump in the Adirondack Park. Today wood from the tree burns in the large stone fire-place off the barroom on cold winter evenings.
The Elm Tree Inn, minus most of its famous tree, would still be easily recognizable to 19th century visitors. The major change has been to eliminate a porch which encircled the second story of the Inn and to add shutters to the windows up there. The porch on the ground level is more cluttered than in the 19th century: a telephone booth (equipped with a phone that for a time let callers reach Tokyo, London, etc., for free), a bobsled, and flower boxes planted with pansies all vie for space with the Elm’s wood stacked up in corners. Three signs tell a visitor he is at the Elm Tree Inn or Monty’s or Purdy’s; the largest sign states the official name, Monty’s Elm Tree Inn, though regulars most often call the Inn Monty’s. There are three entrances—two into dining rooms and one into the small room with a fireplace. The fireplace room, just off the bar, used to have a stuffed bear guarding the hearth. A few years ago the bear was stolen; in its place have been added the original street signs made up when the Apollo astronauts visited New York City: Apollo Way, Mercury Way and Astronaut Way, given to Monty by a friend from Princeton, New Jersey. They join street signs already over the bar, “Purdy Street” and “Purdy Avenue,” lifted from towns in Westchester County by other friends. The barroom is distinguished by Keene’s only black light and by the fact that one section of the carpeted floor is four inches higher than the other. After several hours of sipping at the bar, the ability to remember this difference in altitude separates the regular from the passing tourist. One of the two main dining rooms is papered with bobsled photographs; awards received by the Purdy family and friends; and newspaper articles about the Elm Tree Inn. One newspaper columnist publicly regretted saying too many nice things about Monty in his article because he knew the article would end up framed on the wall; he was correct. The other dining room has various paintings and sketches of the Inn on the several walls.
The fact that local newspaper writers and even the New York Times have taken an interest in Monty’s indicates that the Purdy Family was doing something right when it re-opened the Elm Tree Inn in 1947.
“You know,” Monty explains, “if we were to make a decent living up here in the North Country, we had to create a kind of festive, carnival atmosphere. My wife wouldn’t let go-go dancers work here, so I had to come up with other ideas.”
The first big idea Monty came up with was founding and organizing Hurricane Bobsled Club of Keene. Mt. Van Hoevenberg, about 10 miles from Keene outside of Lake Placid, has the only bob-run in the Western Hemisphere, and Keene is well known as the hometown of several famous bobsledders. Monty’s enthusiasm for bobsledding spread to his two sons, Bob, now Supervisor of the Town of Keene, and Ron, now the manager of the Elm Tree Inn. Both soon became strong competitors. Monty himself treasures a picture taken of him sharing a bobsled with singer Kate Smith who lives in Lake Placid. For excitement in the summer months, Monty organized the now-discontinued Antique Car Rally of Keene.
Monty also attracted attention by handing out silver dollars as change. He always carried a couple of hundred silver dollars in a burlap sack or a paper bag and often gave out over $500 a week in change. In the spring of each year Monty would load up on the silver dollars and go on a tour of other North Country bars, paying with his shiny calling cards. The practice of giving silver dollars is pretty much discontinued, but there are usually a few in the register.
Publicity aside, what really set Monty’s in motion and made it a major gathering place for North Country cognoscenti were the food and the conviviality at any time of day. Monty’s is well known for its soups, made, Monty says, “by a lady in the kitchen who knows how to use everything.” The soups range from corn chowder to tuna chowder to mushroom or pea or vegetable beef or almost any combination imaginable. They are always so thick and chockfull of the appropriate meat, fish or vegetable, that some diners take seriously the host’s oft-repeated statement, “If you eat it with a fork, we charge you for stew.” The kitchen is also famous for its Purdyburger, an oversized hamburger topped with a slice of onion completely obscured by melted cheese. A Bloody Mary that one seasons to one’s own taste with Worcestershire and tabasco is a common accompaniment to a soup-and-Purdyburger meal.
In February 1975, an article in the New York Times travel section finally gave the Elm Tree Inn its first major recognition in a century and a half existence. The writer, Fred Sullivan, was impressed not only by the coldness of the beer and the size of the Purdyburger, but also by the fact that “the person sitting on the next stool may be surprisingly urban, downright plain or anywhere in between.” Conversation at and around the bar is constant and fastmoving. The Inn attracts hunters, fishermen, downhill skiers, cross-country skiers, hikers, snowmobilers and just plain scenery viewers in addition to the local fans and the bobsledding contingent.
Would that old David Graves, Willard Bell, The Bloods, and all the rest of the owners of the Elm Tree Inn could sup at the old lady today. Purple faces, under the black light in the bar might disconcert them, but surely they would appreciate Monty Purdy’s explanation of the Inn’s latter-day success after more than a century of relative obscurity: “I guess not much else is involved than our love for people, giving them the best we could offer, including good cheer, friendship and tall stories.”