‘A PLACE TO BE TOGETHER’
Redding residents band together to save historic Grange Hall
REDDING — The old lady sits by the side of the road as cars whiz by. She’s been there on Newtown Turnpike since 1914. Her bones are still strong and hearty, but she appears worn down from decades of harsh Connecticut winters. Her paint is flaked and chipping, and her sign is a bit worse for wear.
But the 150-year-old Redding Grange Hall, which resident Elizabeth Jensen lovingly calls “the old girl,” is about to take on a new life thanks to some dedicated residents.
Jensen didn’t know why she fell in love with the little wood-shingled building, but she did. And when she heard it was up for sale this summer, something in her told her she should try to save it.
Grange buildings have been around since the late 1860s, and served as an agricultural hub for local farmers. In the intervening years, the organizations have changed with the times to serve more of a community service role.
After Redding’s previous Grange membership forfeited the chapter’s charter to the state organization last winter due to financial struggles, national bylaws required a group of 13 new members to file for reorganization. And so Jensen, along with dozens of Redding residents, did just that.
Among the new members is First Selectman Julia Pemberton.
“We did a thing! Redding Grange reporting for duty,” reads the group’s Facebook post from Nov. 7, the day after the charter was returned.
If not for the revitalized group, the state, which automatically obtained ownership of the property after forfeiture, would likely have sold the land. Jensen doesn’t think the building would have survived the sale.
This is the chapter’s second reorganization since obtaining its charter in 1906.
Jensen gets choked up when she talks about how quickly and enthusiastically the community rallied together to save the building.
After hosting online events and hang
ing posters in town about saving the Grange, Jensen was taken aback by just how many people were interested.
“I had 33 in five minutes,” she said. “I think it’s going to be terrific. We got all the members we needed.”
A local seamstress offered to make and donate new theater curtains. A woodworker offered to make a new sign to replace the old, weathered one.
On Nov. 6, the group reclaimed their charter — an actual physical, framed piece of paper.
Jensen looked out into the audience and realized she didn’t know any of these Redding residents prior to her work saving the Grange. The Grange was already doing its job: bringing people together.
“It’s such a time in our community right now where we could really use coming together,” Jensen said. “And that’s exactly what these buildings were designed to do.”
Inside the Redding Grange building, there is one main room with hardwood floors and a stage with curtains. There’s a bathroom and a cloakroom by the entrance, as well. While the place needs some sprucing up, Jensen said its structure was solid.
The Grange, the nation’s oldest agriculture advocacy group, was a progressive place from its inception.
Women could vote at meetings long before they were allowed to cast a ballot in America, Jensen said. National Grange members included greats like President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, and artist Norman Rockwell.
Originally, Granges were secret societies, frequently compared to the freemasons, who lobbied against powerful railroad barons and their monopolistic practices. That secrecy has eroded over the years, in part, to save the organizaco-op, tion from dying out.
“That secret part of the organization has kind of been back-burnered for more than 50 years. But more specifically, the last 25, the doors have really been flung wide open,” said Amanda Brozana-Rios, membership director of the National Grange.
According to the National Grange website, the Grange community is made up of about 150,000 members in 1,700 local chapters across the country. Brozana-Rios estimates the number of chapters is probably closer to 1,500. In Connecticut, there are roughly 39 local Granges. Over the years, the state has hosted four National Grange Conventions, according to the Connecticut State Grange’s history page.
The creation of Connecticut’s first state Grange was discussed during a meeting at the Old Taylor Opera House in Danbury in April of 1875. Redding No. 15 was among the first 20 Granges established from that initial point.
One of Brozana-Rios’ favorite stories about the Connecticut Grange is the one where the state organization sold so many war bonds during World War II that a bomber plane was named after it — ‘Connecticut Granger.’
Big plans to bring people together
Jensen sent out a survey to get a better sense for how people wanted to use the space.
When polling people to understand their interest level, Jensen noticed three through-lines: a dedication to preservation, a longing for community space, and a love of Redding’s history.
Redding’s Grange was previously been home to many community service projects— from hosting Fall Harvest Fairs to a school dictionary purchasing project to work with Connecticut Foster Care and the American School for the Deaf, according to the group’s Facebook page.
A popular idea is to use the space to facilitate a virtual agricultural where locals growing and harvesting different produce could bring their wares one day a week to host a kind of ‘Farmer’s Market’ in the space.
Residents could select their items online from a plethora of local options and then show up at the Grange building for pick-up.
Most of all, people wanted a community gathering spot— perhaps a place to come enjoy a cup of coffee with a friend. Several also suggested a rental hall where scout troops, music teachers, and the garden club could meet.
Brozana-Rios said Granges have lent themselves to this creation of family and community ties. At a time when the population is more mobile, living far from blood relatives, coming together to find family in friends and neighbors has been a strength of Grange organizations.
“What a primal, beautiful thing that is, especially now,” Jensen said. “What they want is a place to be together.”