June 20, 2009

Volunteers working to re-raise the Grange


WHALLONSBURG — Almost all the chewing gum stuck under the folding chairs was gray, circa 1950 or '60.

No pink, no raspberry blue or purple wads.

Construction volunteer Mary Burke made the observation with a rather droll grin as she hoisted another 40-pound, three-seater bench over the balcony railing.

It was probably 100 degrees up there.

There were piles of the seats — each in near-perfect condition — under a generation of dust (and some gum).

"Here we go," Mary said, gripping the line, lowering the next folded bench over the balcony with the help of her husband, Tim, to Bill Johnston on the floor below.

They were among about 10 volunteers helping that day, as renovation of the former Whallonsburg Grange got under way.

Four local organizations are working together to rejuvenate the building for use as a community center.

In a matter of hours, the foam drop ceiling had been torn down. The proscenium of the stage opened another five feet in height.

Windows behind the balcony, hung with cobwebs, poured light onto the grange floor for the first time in some 40 years. It spilled over railings marred with antique graffiti.

"Wow," was pretty much all anyone said as they walked through the front door.

The second ceiling came down the next day, with 10 more volunteers pushing restoration right to the pine rafters.

It was the dirty work, tearing through some 95 years of construction in Phase 2 restoration at the Grange Hall, a process that continues this summer on various volunteer fronts.

About $50,000 has been raised so far to help pay for new electrical wiring, lights, engineering, materials and some construction labor.

The building, a barn-shaped community hall with a big basement kitchen and stage, was originally built in 1915.

In 1933, it was lifted and turned to make room for the road.

"The state moved it; that's when they put Route 22 in," said Ron Jackson, supervisor of the Town of Essex, encompassing the hamlet of Whallonsburg.

For nearly 100 years, Grange 954 remained a central gathering place for dances and bingo games, shows, meetings and election dinners.

"That's how I remember the grange," Jackson said of the restored high ceilings.

"When Ken Richter every year used to show his travelogue film, the balcony was the best spot to be. I have some fond memories from there. Once they put that (drop) ceiling up, nobody went up there anymore."

The entire project is unfolding under the auspices of four organizations: Whallonsburg Civic Association, Friends of the Whallonsburg Grange, the Essex Community Fund and the Town of Essex.

"Ted Cornell has kind of been the glue that has held them together," Jackson said.

Cornell, an artist, director and arts innovator from nearby Wadhams, has spent 40-hour weeks for months reinventing a Grange Hall.

"This process feels like an old favorite rediscovering its youth. People come in while we're working and recall the square dances, the bingo games, the concerts, plays, budding romance and occasional fights in the parking lot."

There is still a year's work ahead, as the Grange committees begin working with Adirondack Park Agency to site a new septic system.

"We are still fundraising and have some big volunteer work days ahead," Cornell said.

"The next big step will be the party celebrating the new ceiling."

Work crews are needed in the coming days to help paint and tackle smaller construction projects, ahead of the Whallonsburg Idol contest starting in late June.

Rita Fitzgerald, president of the Civic Association, has organized a small kitchen committee to oversee upgrades bringing the grange kitchen up to Department of Health standards.

They plan to paint the kitchen and install a new stove.

"The Health Department came and said we've got to put in a sewage system and potable water," Fitzgerald said.

"What we hope to do is establish a wonderful cultural center, not only for Whallonsburg and the Town of Essex, but for the surrounding area."

People interested in lending a hand to help renovate the grange hall or those who wish to make financial or other in-kind contributions, can contact the Friends of the Grange at 962-4386.

Work crews are needed for painting, landscaping and smaller construction projects.

"There's plenty of work to be done," Cornell said.

E-mail Kim Smith Dedam at: