For weeks the village would hum with ceaseless activity. Coops would be built to house chickens, roosters and rabbits. Showcases were made for exhibits of fancy articles, home cooking and farm products. What crowds poured in to view the array, which was not only colorful, but quite entertaining as they watched the antics of their pets! A chicken pie supper was always served which would be followed by the crowning event of the evening—a three act play presented by the talented members of our community…. The hall was used for many activities, which have been given up since the television has taken over.
-Lillian Thayer in Williamsville, My Hometown
For three generations in Williamsville and South Newfane, one of the essential institutions was the Williamsville Grange. Today the Grange, as a functioning local organization, is no longer very visible; but for the first half of the twentieth century, the Grange was the chief social center of the community.
The National Grange was founded in Washington, D.C., shortly after the Civil War. It evolved into a large and complex organization that combined features of an agricultural extension service, a fraternal organization, and an amateur talent show. The Grange was first conceived as a buying cooperative for farmers’ products with the idea of keeping farm prices stable. To its market function the Grange’s leaders soon added lectures and debates on farm topics, along with social events like dances, suppers, and plays. In a pre-electronic society, in which all entertainment was necessarily live and much of it was homemade, Grange events and programs were one of the primary ways small communities like Williamsville enjoyed themselves.
Williamsville Grange Number 389 was chartered in November of 1907 with 60 members.
…Records and historical materials on the Grange in its earliest years show that the Grange’s officers, in addition to the Master, were many and had special functions and titles. There were commonly almost 20 officers, including a Gate Keeper, a Steward, and officers called Pomona, Flora, and Ceres. These last, named for ancient Greek divinities associated with agriculture, were the local representatives to the county, state, and national Grange organizations.
By 1910, the Williamsville Grange had increased to 103 members. That year, it built the Grange Hall on land donated by George B. Williams, whose family had given its name to the village in the early nineteenth century. The hall was built into the steep bank going down to the Rock River, and it had three levels: the main or stage floor, the dining room and kitchen floor, and on the lowest level, a small stable or horse shed. …
Williamsville Grange meetings included the regular business meeting and presentations on agricultural topics. More elaborate evenings were organized as fundraisers. A night at the Grange often included supper followed by the performance of a play and, finally, a dance. The cost of a full evening’s entertainment was about 50 cents, proceeds going to the upkeep of the hall and paying down the building loan.
Grange theatricals were popular events. Most productions were mounted by members. In the records of the Grange’s early years in Williamsville are the names of some plays put on in the period 1910-14: “The Deacon’s Second Wife,” “Our Folks,” “The Country Minister,” “The District School.”
What with lectures, supper, a play, and dancing, a full night out at the Grange in its heyday could make for a pretty long evening. One villager remembers her parents’ telling of getting home at 3:00 a.m. from events at their Grange in Dummerston. Her father farmed at the time, and at that hour he didn’t see much point in going to bed but simply changed his clothes and began his day by going to milk the cows.
Membership and participation in the Williamsville Grange held up pretty well through the 1950s, but by the mid-‘60s both had fallen off. One cause was television, which provided a seductive and effortless alternative to Grange programs. The granddaughter of George B. Williams, recalled that by the 1960s she was beginning to notice people saying, “I’m going to the meeting, but I can’t stay past seven, because there’s a TV show I have to watch.” TV meant nobody to put on Grange dances and plays, and nobody to watch them. For the Grange, I Love Lucy was no laughing matter.
By the late 1960s, the Williamsville Grange was down to seven active members–not enough for it to live. It ceased operation in June 1969 and deeded the Grange Hall to the Town of Newfane. Members who wished to continue in the Grange moved to the East and West Dummerston chapters. …The Williamsville Grange exacted a lot of work from its members, but, maybe for that very reason, it also gave them a lot of fun over more than half a century.
NEWFANE REMEMBERS is a volunteer project dedicated to collecting and preserving the recollections of residents about life in town in times past. This installment, on the Williamsville Hall, was written by Castle Freeman, Jr., of Newfane. The photographs were taken by Porter Thayer, circa 1910.