Antrim Grange launches effort to restore its hall

  • The Antrim Grange is in need of repair work. Staff photo by Abby Kessler

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Monday, July 24, 2017 6:22PM

From outside of the Antrim Grange, the building looks sound, a simple puritan-like structure placed on a small lot along Clinton Road.

But walk around the building once and it’s clear the structure, which was built in the early 1800s, needs a lot of work. Certain parts of the rock foundation are missing, which has left gaping, dark holes, and if you stand at a certain angle at one end of the building the walls undulate in and out. The roof also needs to be repaired, and most likely, replaced.

And that’s just a smattering of work that needs to be done. Inside, the walls are cracking, parts of the roof need to be patched, the ceiling needs to be replaced, the windows need work, and an upstairs kitchen needs to be redone. Running water, plumbing, rewiring of electricity, and parking would be nice, too, said Renee Mercier-Gerritsen, who is a longtime Antrim Grange member.

“We’ve never asked for help,” Mercier-Gerritsen said. “We’ve done little patch work over the years but it’s beyond that now, and we need help.”

Mercier-Gerritsen said they recently launched the effort to restore the building, and already the project has grown larger than the members originally anticipated.

“We were thinking OK, foundation, roof, a little bit of inside work,” she said.

Then someone from the New Hampshire Preservation Society came to tour the building, and the to-do list grew.

“He (a person with the N.H. Preservation Alliance) was like, ‘Oh no.’ He’s like, ‘you need a whole lot more than that,’” she said.

Mercier-Gerritsen said the group was thinking repairs would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $35,000, but it’s looking more like $100,000 to $200,000 right now.

For a group of about 30 members, about 10 of which are active, it’s a lot of money to come up with. 

The group has launched a GoFundMe page with the goal of raising $35,000, and is planning to print out flyers to send to local businesses in hopes of gaining some financial support. Mercier-Gerritsen said the building was recently listed on the historic registry, which means the group can also start applying for grants, most notably from the N.H. Land and Community Heritage Investment Program, or LCHIP, which could help cover burgeoning costs.

“We’re looking for anything at this point, we’re looking for money, we’re looking for support, we’re looking for supplies, we’re looking for anything,” she said.

The decline of grange halls

Despite the structural challenges it’s facing, Antrim is the only active grange in the 16 towns that the Ledger-Transcript covers. There is a group that also meets in New Boston.

At one time, the region was dotted with granges, the halls acting as community spaces aimed at agriculture, education, and recreation. In an article about the former Wilton Grange, which was published in 1975, the author wrote that members engaged in discussions about various food products that could be purchased in bulk at a discount. Grange members also purchased fertilizers and seeds at discounted prices, according to the article.

State Grange Historian Richard Patten said in its heyday, there were about 75,000 members and 350 chapters in New Hampshire alone.

“Each town would have a school, a church, and a grange,” Patten said. “[The grange] was the center of activities; Saturday night dances,  public suppers, and public meetings all took place in grange halls.”

But eventually, members got too comfortable and stopped doing membership drives. In the ’60s, the youth dropped out to fight in the Vietnam War. In the ’70s, interests and lifestyles started changing. TV started competing with people’s time, women started working full-time jobs, kids were pulled in a number of different directions including sports, band, and drama.

The burden of maintaining a hall became difficult for many communities in the late ’70s, early ’80s. Around that time administrators encouraged chapters to close their doors and merge with others nearby. In the ’80s, after many had already shuttered, a piece of legislation passed, which made it so grange halls no longer had to pay property tax, a move that helped some halls hang on.

By the ’90s, Patten said grange membership had fallen to about 15,000 to 20,000 with 200 chapters. Right now, he said, there are about 1,800 members and around 50 chapters.

Many of structures that were once grange halls remain intact, sometimes the sign still hangs somewhere on the building, a reminder of what they used to be.

As examples, the former grange hall in Wilton is now the Andy’s Summer Hall, the one in New Ipswich is now a renovated duplex, and the unit in Hancock now serves as the U.S. Postal Service office.

Not the end

Even though there are fewer active organizations across the state and many of the buildings now serve a different purpose, many are hopeful membership is bouncing back.

“A lot of the grange halls are closing, but those members are going to other grange halls, so we aren’t really losing a lot of members,” Mercier-Gerritsen said.

Adam Paquin-Varnum, who is a member of the Antrim Grange said there could even a slight uptick in membership across the board.

“We are seeing somewhat of a gain in membership, not in Antrim, but across the state and nation,” Paquin-Varnum said. “We are a grassroots group and a lot of farming, especially with this non-GMO, holistic lifestyle movement, people are starting to come back.”

He said there’s been a bump of young families who are attending meetings.

“They are looking for that community feel,” he said. “And we basically consider ourselves an extended family.”

He said the grange community across the country is connected on some level and said if he were traveling anywhere between New Hampshire and California and put feelers out, a fellow member would likely take him in for a night or two.

“It’s not a farmers’ organization anymore, it’s a family organization,” Mercier-Gerritsen said. “We do a lot of community service.”

She said the Antrim Grange is responsible for building the community garden downtown that residents are welcome to pick from and much of which is donated to the Antrim/Bennington food pantry, they give out dictionaries to third graders in the ConVal district, host an annual art show to promote local artists and have public education programs throughout the year.

“That’s why we’re trying to save this, not just for us, but for the community,” Mercier-Gerritsen said.