J. Boyington: Grange hall Saturday night — a forgotten tradition?

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I grew up in a city in Connecticut, but because my mom — Nada — was born and raised in Aroostook County, she thought it best for us to know how soothing a slow-paced, country life could be.

So, every summer, she brought us up to Maine in our old black Buick.

Somehow, the very dark nights in Maine were frightening in their absolute silence, so far from our city lights. And, yet, they held a magic that you could never begin to explain to kids back home.

The whole town of Oakfield was darkened, with each kitchen light in the houses in town extinguished before folks left their homes for the walk up the town hill to the Grange hall for the Saturday night supper and dance.

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How well I remember the smells of the food, prepared from many a favorite, well-stained cookbook, passing separately and then curiously merging together through the hall, escaping out each of the old, painted wooden-framed windows.

The cast iron pump in the old cracked white enameled kitchen sink needed a little priming from a dairy jug of water each time the ladies went to fill the pots and kettles to cook the meals, and yet again to heat the water on the old cook stove to wash up the dishes and pots after the meal was over.

I loved the look of those lovely, old, mismatched dishes — differently colored china patterns from probably a hundred homes — brought to the hall throughout the nearly 100 years since the hall was built. The plates sat piled on the sideboards, in towers of unusual edged patterns created by the placement of wider and narrower plates and saucers that always seemed to lean dangerously to one side, right over the iron sink.

The women would fling dish towels over their left shoulders, towels that were long ago worn out, matching no other one there, and soaking with rinse water too soon. They were stored, folded a little differently, by each ringer-washer load of them, in old wooden drawers. No one cared to remember their long-ago origins.

Strangely, it was that unique collective kitchen ensemble that I remember most, and it stays in my mind as a tribute to those women’s proud inner sanctum — the now nearly forgotten public suppers at local Grange halls.

I had a favorite “carnival glass” cup with a copper sheen at that hall that I truly missed when I went back home to Connecticut to begin another school year. I would ride out of town, praying no one would break that cup before I could return to the hall again the next summer.

My grandfather, Thornley Pratt, called the square dances, held upstairs in the big hall, with a mesmerizing accent and in a strangely amusing language, using loud commands and softer suggestions to the dancers.

I can still hear him sometimes, when the night is still.

We kids were allowed to stay upstairs and watch the dancers, but only from the old staircase in the hallway.

I would guess that there are at least 100 sets of initials still carved in those old stairway wall boards. It was an odd array of combined initials, of those who had perhaps once found a summer love sitting there on those stairs. Maybe shyly smiling at each other while watching the lady dancers fly by in flashes of checkered fabrics and flowers over old-fashioned, bellowing, crinoline slips and plain, clean white sneakers.

And, just when we thought we could stay awake no longer, the men would pack away their fiddles and the women would come and gather us up, along with the supper leftovers from the kitchen ice box.

Then we all walked down the hill to town, with us continuing up Station Road to my great-grandmother Sadie’s house, where we spent those magical foreign summers.

Sometimes, if I close my eyes, I can still feel myself lying there, in an old, four-poster iron bed in the upstairs bedchamber, listening in the still night to the trains on the tracks at the station nearby — backing up and moving forward — just ever so slightly, in a rhythm that lulled this “city girl” fast asleep.

I also remember gently breathing in the different scents of the layers of old wallpaper that were hung, one over the other, by other folks who once might have sleep there, too.

Joanne Stow Boyington is the secretary of the Androscoggin Grange. She lives in Greene.

Editor’s note: According to the Maine State Grange, which is officially known as the Patrons of Husbandry, the Grange was organized in Washington, D.C., in 1867. The first Maine State Grange was established in Lewiston the following year and, by 1876, there were over 228 Granges with about 12,000 members here. By 1907, Maine’s per capita grange membership was larger than any other state.

Over the years, the Grange has offered insurance to its members, advocated for railroad and banking regulation, and promoted the idea of group purchases, among many other things, according to the Maine State Grange history, written by State Historian Stan Howe.

There are currently 135 Granges in Maine, with a combined membership of about 5,000.

According to Howe’s research, the Grange has a strong history of supporting school funding, farmland management and voting rights for women. It also served as a social center in many communities, where Saturday night suppers and dances drew neighbors together.

February is Grange month, and Joanne Stow Boyington, who is the secretary of the Androscoggin Grange in Greene, has written about her memories of such gatherings, which we are happy to share with our readers.

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