WEST BATH — Community.

One word that holds personal emotions and memories … just a step above “home” and “family.”

That’s because people creating a larger “family” is what builds a community and makes it work. And in Maine, reaching back just over 150 years it was the local Grange at the very heart of that.

Granges started out as farmers organizations when the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry was born in 1867. Local granges sprang up across the country, where anyone from 14 years of age on up, men and women, could join. Topsham Grange member Merton Ricker, who knows the history well, said Masons were among Grange founders, bringing along some similar traditions.

In Maine’s small towns the Grange became essentially the community center. Joyce DeVito grew up in Topsham and remembers in the late 1940s and early ’50s how Topsham Grange No. 34 was where everything happened. Community suppers downstairs, eighth-grade graduations upstairs, along with just about anything else requiring a curtained stage and portable audience seating. It was also THE place to be for Saturday night dances, with chairs pushed back against the walls.

“This was the social hub,” recalls DeVito, “and it seemed like everybody was a member. And because most of the people here were locals and in town, your parents would let you come even if they didn’t. Aunts and uncles and friends would be watching out for you.”

Nationally, you can thank the Grange organization for the development of RFD, Rural Free Delivery. Today the national group is still thinking big with rural needs in mind.
“One of our big projects that we’re working on at the national level at this time is rural broadband … trying to upgrade and make sure everybody is covered with broadband internet,” says Sherry Harriman, Maine Grange State Master.

April is National Grange month, and there are currently 104 open Granges in Maine, which is fourth or fifth in the country for the number of Granges. Harriman says while the organization’s roots are in agriculture, membership is open for anyone in any profession.

“We are more a community service type of organization at this point,” Harriman said.

She described how individual Granges do their own community work as they know what local needs are, such as winter fuel assistance or a new playground. A Hancock County Grange even brought about a new helicopter pad for emergency medical transports between hospitals.

“We did dictionaries for all the third-graders in Topsham, Brunswick and Lisbon schools,” recalls Ricker. “We took the dictionaries and presented them to the kids and did a little lesson with them, how to use it, how to look things up, and the teachers just loved it.”

Which brings us to the Seaside Grange No. 592 of West Bath. The Grange hall is nearly identical to the one in Topsham, as both were built around 1900. However, this Grange, starting in 1875 as West Bath Grange No. 52 closed in 2011 due to lack of membership. Five years ago, a very determined group of West Bath residents re-opened it with the new name, and they’ve never looked back.

Old becomes new
Bonnie Goodenow, who grew up in West Bath and in the West Bath Grange, says they have 15 members and are looking for more.

DeVito, now living in Phippsburg, is a member of both West Bath and Topsham Granges. It means that much to her.

Members recognize the strengths of this building as a fabulous gathering space, which is how they see it serving the community. It’s available for rent, and it’s getting used. A church holds services every Sunday in the lovely second floor space which, like the first floor, is flooded with natural light from the many windows.

Others have rented the huge dining hall downstairs for receptions, parties, and other occasions. It offers a full kitchen with modern appliances, although the original stove, sink, and cabinets are still preserved in a prep area, all part of the building’s heritage.

“If it’s used by the school, we don’t charge,” says DeVito. “We try to charge the minimum, to pay expenses.”

The Seaside Grange also offers public suppers, like the one coming up Saturday, for $8, with children 3 and younger eating free. The suppers are held April through December on the first Saturday of the month, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. No membership or reservations are required. The menu includes several homemade casseroles, salad and bread, hot dogs and beans, and a beverage.

The Seaside Grange stepped up after the October windstorm and power outage. The building still had power, so members opened it up for a $5 supper. It wasn’t homemade, as the members didn’t have power either, but still managed to pull it together for the community.

“There was one lady who stood there with tears coming down from her eyes,” remembered Goodenow. “She thought it was so wonderful and they all thanked us.”

“We try to relate to the community, that this is what this building is,” she continued. “This is what we wanted it to be … able to be used by our community members. And that is progressing. We’re getting more people to use the building, that’s for sure.”

“In each town, each grange would fit into the town, however it’s needed,” says DeVito. And in West Bath, it looks like this Grange is fitting in just fine.

For more information on Seaside Grange, contact Bonnie Goodenow at 443-4366 or visit West Bath Seaside Grange on Facebook; or for Maine Granges in general, visit http://mainestategrange.org/.

 

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