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Old Lyme history has a new place to call home

By Kimberly Drelich

Publication: The Day

Published March 03. 2014 4:00AM   Updated March 03. 2014 1:37PM
Sean D. Elliot The Day
Tim Griswold, co-chairman of the Old Lyme Historical Society, and Mark Lander, not pictured, greet society member Jennifer Hillhouse in the town Grange Hall on Friday. Lander and Griswold gathered with members of the society after closing the society's purchase of the building.
As Grange closes up, its hall is purchased by historical society

Old Lyme - The former Old Lyme Grange Hall will begin its new role as a center for town history as the Old Lyme Grange retires its charter after more than a century.

The Old Lyme Historical Society on Friday purchased the 19th century building for $175,000 and will begin restoring the Lyme Street building to provide a space for the town's archives, artifacts and historical displays.

But the building already possesses a history of the local community. The Old Lyme Grange got its start in 1905 and for more than 100 years served as the heart of the town's agricultural community. It decided to close after years of operating with a dwindling, aging membership, Old Lyme Grange Steward Norman Stitham said.

Inside the former Grange Hall at 55 Lyme St., a 1920s canvas backdrop on the wooden stage displays a brightly colored patchwork of local businesses. There are notices that advertise E.R. Champion & Son of Old Lyme, Libby's Store in Essex and A.T. Speirs of Lyme, among other local businesses. Some are still around today.

The canvas, commissioned by the Old Lyme Grange, is an example of its entrepreneurship, said historical society Co-Chairman Timothy Griswold, a former first selectman. In its early days, the local chapter, No. 162, had about 100 members, said Stitham. It was a history that encompassed meetings, games, fundraisers and dances. Up until just recently, members would gather for meetings and lecture programs at the hall.

Grange members often volunteered in community service projects, recently participating in coat drives and helping out with the food pantry.

But over time, as Old Lyme became less of a farming community, the Grange's membership numbers gradually declined. Its members were getting older, and some were having some difficulty making it into the hall, Stitham said. The building is not handicapped-accessible.

While the members continued to have a great time together, eventually it became harder to take care of the building, and it seemed time to retire the charter, he said.

Stitham said he could almost hear the voices of past members in the hall every time he entered the building. He recalled fondly "the friendship and the caring and being involved in the community and having the children being a part of it."

Some Old Lyme Grange members may choose to join the nearby Lyme Grange, said Stitham - a suggestion that Lyme Grange Secretary Marita Rand welcomed.

The two organizations have a history of visiting each other and cooperating back and forth, she said.

"Our members went to their Grange and some went to our Grange," she said. "It's been many years."

Evolving mission of Granges

The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry began in the years after the Civil War and is the group under which all state and local granges operate.

In Connecticut, there are currently about 60 Granges, including ones in Lyme, Stonington, North Stonington and Norwich. Connecticut State Grange President Jody Cameron said Connecticut has had as many as 213 Granges throughout the years, though not at the same time.

Land preservation and sustainable agriculture are important to the Grange's mission, as is civic engagement, said Cameron.

The agricultural industry in the state has shrunk over the past 20 to 30 years, said Cameron, but there is an increasing number of local produce growers and an interest in farmers markets. Agriculture remains "a huge contributor to our economy," he said.

The Grange, like any other institution, has faced changing times and has had to find ways to adapt in order to survive, said Cameron. Many Granges are taking on new ways to educate the community, such as offering gardening workshops. Granges today are also focused on community service - one Grange program, for example, provides dictionaries for students.

"The Grange has the opportunity in many communities to be a conduit for education for the community," he said.

Old Lyme had an amazing community service organization, Cameron said. The people he said he knows from Old Lyme are dedicated to their community, and many members had also participated in town government.

"They believe in their community," he said.

Cameron said the Grange went through periods in the late 1990s and early 2000s when many Granges closed due to a shortage of members. But a couple, with the help of the State Grange, have since reopened, and a new Grange chapter was even started in Groton last year. (Groton had another Grange that had already closed.)

"There is indeed an excitement brewing in many communities about what you can do in the community," he said. "The collective voice is awful strong."

Building has own history

The iconic white building on Lyme Street was not always where it stands today. A few years after it was established, the Old Lyme Grange moved into an 1885 building on a side street now called Maple Lane that had formerly been occupied by the now-defunct Old Lyme Gun Club. The Old Lyme Grange eventually purchased the building and in the late 1920s moved the building with a team of oxen to its current spot at 55 Lyme St.

The all-volunteer Old Lyme Historical Society formed in 2005 - a century after the Old Lyme Grange was established - with a mission to research, preserve, interpret and present the town's history to the public, said Griswold.

The nonprofit historical society has been increasing its membership, said Griswold. It currently operates a few days a week out of the library's genealogy room, but the group wanted a permanent space for its archives, long-term displays and events.

The roughly 1,500-square-foot former Grange building has a foyer and basement and includes an addition to the original 1885 building. On Friday, after closing on the building, historical society members held a toast in celebration of their new headquarters in the town's historic district.

The hall's purchase price is $175,000, but the historical society has set a fundraising goal of $225,000 to restore the hall for the archives and continue maintaining the building, which the historical society said is in good condition. It will be several months before the historical society can move in.

Janet York Littlefield, a historical society member, said her grandfather, William Clark, was instrumental in moving the Grange Hall to Lyme Street. Her mother and aunt were both Grange members, and she remembered once attending a card game party at the hall.

York Littlefield also recognized on the mural canvas the last names of her uncles, father and family friends, represented by the local business notices.

"It's wonderful," said York Littlefield of the canvas.

The historical society plans to include a tribute to the Grange when it restores the hall. Eventually, the group envisions a central location where the public can stop in to learn more about the town's history - from the many local greenhouses that produced flowers for sale in New York City to information about the trolley service that ran through town.

"I think we need a place to centralize and really push the town's history, because it's a fascinating one that goes back to the 1640s," said historical society Co-Chairman Mark Lander.

k.drelich@theday.com

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