High on a hill overlooking the Windham Rotary sits a building that was once a hub of social and political activity in town. Now home to Pleasant River Properties, the Pleasant River Grange Number 35 was a vibrant community center in Windham for over 100 years.
The National Grange Order of Patrons of Husbandry was founded in 1867, when after the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson commissioned Oliver Hudson Kelley to survey agricultural conditions in the South. Upon seeing the outdated farming methods employed by Southern farmers, Kelley determined there was a need to bring farmers from both the North and South together to create a spirit of mutual cooperation that would benefit all. So began the Grange Movement in America.
The first Grange Hall was opened in New York State in 1868 by seven men and one woman. The fact that women were encouraged to participate in Grange affairs was something very uncommon in the nineteenth century and is indicative of the forward-thinking principles of the Grange Movement. It was actually a requirement that one of the four elected positions in each Grange Hall should be held by a woman. Teens old enough to draw a plow were also welcome to take part in Grange activities.
Windham’s Pleasant River Grange Number 35 was organized in 1874 at the height of the Grange Movement when it had over 850,000 members. The first Grange Hall in town was in the Pleasant River House, a hotel once situated at Morrell’s Corner, now the Windham Rotary. Later, meetings were held at the Moody house, just down the road from where the Pleasant River House had been before it burned to the ground; the Kennard School, a small building on Route 202; and then at the Masonic Hall on Windham Hill.
In 1885, the building we see today was built to better fit the needs of the growing membership. Here, local farmers would gather to discuss issues affecting all of them and try to find solutions to problems that would be of benefit to the entire farming community. Buying supplies in bulk and establishing grain elevators for storage, as well as educational programs designed to improve farming methods would have been matters decided by and presented to the membership of the Grange.
The Grange was also a place where steps toward political action would be discussed and taken. Because of the sensitive nature of some of the information shared, the Grange adopted some rituals from Freemasonry, such as secret meetings with oaths and special garments.
The Pleasant River Grange was no different. Current owner of the building, Linda Griffin, says “There are peepholes in the doors upstairs where people would be asked to give a secret password before being allowed to enter a meeting.”
The Hall was moved back from what, at the time of its relocation, was called Foster’s Corner to its current location up on the hill by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal agency, during the Great Depression.
George Hall of Hall Implement Company has some fond memories of the Grange in the twentieth century. “It was a place where families gathered to conduct Grange business and to socialize. Wonderful suppers were held for members as well as public suppers to help support Grange endeavors. There were dances with local musicians, a dedicated piano player and outstanding area performers that were always enjoyable. Special programs with home movies and guest speakers were often included as entertainment. There were dances on the second floor that literally made the floors shake and because of this, swing-down supports had to be put into place,” George recalled.
George also remembered minstrel shows where local people displayed their talents. “Some told a few local stories that were not to be repeated. All in good fun, of course,” he said.
Meetings were still being held at the Hall in 1976 when there were still 80 active members, but by 1994, membership had dropped so dramatically that the Pleasant River Grange was disbanded. It was a sad end to one of the most important civic organizations in our town’s history, but what a wonderful legacy it leaves behind.
The Pleasant River Grange in the early twentieth century.
The Grange Hall today is a real estate office.