Published in the Dunkirk Observer and on observertoday.com.
SHERIDAN — Members of “The National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry” may not have met at the old Victorian structure on Route 20 in Sheridan for over a decade, but that doesn’t change the fact that locals will only ever call it one thing: The Sheridan Grange building.
ONCE UPON A TIME
The huge meeting hall has stood on the same site since before 1900. According to Virginia Becker, secretary for the Sheridan Historical Society, it was purchased by the Grange organization in 1913, but existed long before that, with records showing a rental request from 1894.
Becker said the architecture contains elements of Victorian styling, especially when looking at its decorative features.
“It’s basically a Victorian-style barn,” said the building’s current owner, Joel Hamlet, owner of Hamlet Farms.
“It was never a home,” Becker put in. “It was likely built after the Civil War.”
Becker said it’s likely that “The Good Templars,” a service organization that formed after the Civil War, met there in the 1800s. A woman named Harriette “Hattie” Tooke owned it for some time, too.
“She owned the Grange building and the surrounding woods,” Becker said.
“It was called ‘Tooke’s Hall’ for a while,” said Hamlet, though he wasn’t sure if that was official or a nickname.
‘HOME, HOME ON THE GRANGE’
The Sheridan chapter of the Grange organization, No. 235, met first on Sept. 10, 1874, according to the Fall 2003 edition of the “Now and Then” newsletter, written by Becker and Traci Langworthy. The chapter was the seventh in the county to form.
“The idea for the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry originated at the end of the Civil War with the work of Oliver H. Kelley, a clerk in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While traveling through the defeated South to gather information about farms and meet some of their owners, Kelley envisioned the formation of a national organization of farmers, ‘united by the strong and faithful tie of agriculture,’” Becker and Langworthy wrote. “After he returned to Washington to set up the framework, however, Kelley was unable to inspire the formation of any local chapters until he came to Fredonia in April of 1868.”
That’s right: Fredonia had the first Grange chapter in the country!
The Grange organization claimed many “firsts,” one of them being that women were allowed to join and hold offices — it wasn’t your typical “old boys’ club.”
The Grange served many purposes. Its members often represented a united voice when it came to politics and agricultural policies, with the Sheridan chapter members signing a petition in March of 1880 “in regard to railroad discriminations.” They also shared information about new developments and technologies for farming amongst themselves; it wasn’t a cutthroat competition. Grange members helped one another in hopes that everyone would be successful.
Citing information from Editor John P. Downs’s 1921 book “History of Chautauqua County New York and its people” and Sheridan Grange records, “Now and Then” says “In 1913, the members’ purchase of what is now known as the Grange Hall gave a home on Main Road to new generations of Grange members.”
“It was always a gathering space,” Becker said of the Grange building. “Even before the Grange owned it. I believe the Tookes used to rent it out.”
Becker, who grew up in her family home next door to the Grange, said she has many fond memories of folks coming and going for all sorts of reasons.
“Elections were held there,” she said. “They may have had town offices there, too. But, there were town parties there, and the county nurse would even come in and do vaccinations there.”
Becker remembers her family telling her how once, the building caught fire.
“That had to be sometime around the late 1940s,” she said. “The back of the building caught fire. I remember (being told that my mother) got the children together and told (them) to pick one toy each, something special to (them) that (they) would want to save, (in case they had to leave the house).”
Without modern fire-fighting equipment, fires back then were more likely to spread to neighboring structures. Becker’s mother wanted to keep her kids safe, and she was ready to take them out of the house if necessary.
“They were able to save the building,” Becker said of the Grange. “They caught it in time to put it back, and then they rebuilt that section.”
Becker and Hamlet were kind enough to open the old hall to the OBSERVER, and Becker showed this reporter blackened boards in back room upstairs.
“You can see where the fire was,” she said. “I don’t know how much of this burned, but there are the black marks.”
Sadly, membership at the Grange dwindled throughout the 1990s. By the early 2000s, there were only a handful of local Grangers left — so they made the difficult decision to sell their building and join up with the Fredonia Grange.
“In November of 2002, members of the Sheridan chapter of the Patrons of Husbandry chose to combine with Fredonia Grange No. 1,” Becker and Langworthy wrote in “Now and Then.”
“There were only about a dozen (Sheridan members) at that point,” said Becker. “There are just (fewer) farmers than there used to be in the area.”
Usually, when a Grange chapter dissolves, it is required that the organization’s records be transferred to the New York State Grange. However, Becker and her colleagues in the historical society and the town of Sheridan were able to send up a plea to keep those records right at home.
“State officials granted the request, with the stipulation that the record books and charter would be returned to the state Grange if or when the historical society no longer desired them,” Becker and Langworthy wrote.
Becker said the Sheridan Grange members were also very generous themselves; they gave the historical society $500 to help preserve items of the collection, including many “treasures from the Grange.”
Those treasures include old photographs and the sign that used to hang above the group’s annual display at the Chautauqua County Fair in Dunkirk.
With the money donated, Becker said, an antiques display case was purchased, as well as materials to help preserve the other documents. To view these and more, contact Becker through the town hall.
The Grange building has changed hands a couple of times since the organization moved out. Most recently, Hamlet, its current owner, offered antiques for sale there. (Who could think of a better display space for antiques than an old community events hall?) All the wood floors are original, along with the huge decorative window frames and the stately staircase. There is even an old heating stove upstairs, and an ancient piano hidden away in a storage space. A painting hanging in the upstairs meeting room depicts an idyllic farm scene, though Becker said she doesn’t recognize the topography. It is unsigned, so its provenance can’t be traced.
In short, the beautiful building sits waiting for its next incarnation. And, with its rich history of community gatherings and gorgeous architectural bones, there is sure to be life in the old girl, yet.
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