Touring the Willamette Community and Grange Hall is like entering a time tunnel. Propped up on a bench on the ground floor of the disused historic building a few miles south of Corvallis at Greenberry Road and Highway 99W there is a photo that includes O.H. Kelley, one of the founders of the Grange movement just after the Civil War.
A massive wood-burning furnace anchors one corner. It was there nearly 100 years ago when the Grange Hall opened in 1923 (two earlier iterations of the Willamette Grange, which were located west of the current hall, were destroyed in fires in 1889 and 1922, respectively).
There are officer sashes, a service roll of veterans and pike-like staffs that were used to keep enemies — such as railroad employees — at bay.
Charred beams from a 1956 fire that nearly took down the Grange, again, can be seen in the rafters. An old upright piano sits near one of the windows in the grand hall. And you can look out from the stage of the room and just imagine a dance or a wedding or a family reunion or some other community gathering and … hear that piano.
Jay Sexton, president of the local Grange, remembers participating in a square dance at the hall “sometime in the early '80s.”
Such festivities might come again. The Willamette Grange, which has lain fallow for years — Halloween in 2007 is Sexton’s best guess — is on the comeback trail. A lot of work already has been done, but a lot of work remains.
The goal, Sexton said, is to have the Grange in “substantial community usability” by 2023, just in time for the 100th anniversary of the building and the 100th birthday of Cleda Jones of Corvallis, the Grange’s oldest member.
The roof is the biggest project right now. It has been problematic since 1950, when an epic snowfall compromised the trusses. Grange officials have tried a series of measures ever since. They added new wood. They strung cables across the width of the building. They added tarpaper. The result: six buckets placed strategically around the floor to catch the drips.
The roof is looking like about an $80,000 to $100,000 project, said Sexton, while noting the assistance of a $20,000 grant from the Kinsman Foundation. Toni Hoyman, Sexton’s wife, is the grant czarina, reeling in other grants that have helped with the portico, new tables and a number of other projects.
“It’s held up long enough,” said Hoyman. “It’s time to give it some love.”
And hopefully permits. Because of the building’s National Register of Historic Places status, the roof project must go before the Benton County Historic Resources Commission as well as the State Historic Preservation Office and the National Park Service before the Grange can apply for permits. The county group meets March 15.
The rest of the work will come forth in phases:
• Phase two: Electricity, lighting and insulation.
• Phase three: Outer walls, foundation and dry rot repair.
• Phase four: Interior drywall and plaster.
• Phase five: Kitchen and bathrooms.
The Grange also is thinking outside the box — er, hall. The 2-acre plot of land the building sits on includes a spacious back yard. Sexton notes the possibility of adding some amenities that would allow for rummage sales, art fairs and other outdoor events.
“It’s a neat space,” he said.
Working on the restoration has been a bit like going down a historic rabbit hole for Sexton and Hoyman. Mary Gallagher, the collections manager and sleuth par excellence of the Benton County Historical Society, unearthed a 1901 postcard that shows Grange No. 2, which burned in 1922.
The couple also found a photo of an event in 1941. The photographer was in the middle of the grand hall, with several dozen folks gathered in four rows, with the final row on the stage. Most of the people are dressed formally, and you can see an accordion and a fiddle in the arms of two of those gathered.
The event clearly was multigenerational. Wedding? Family reunion? Community gathering? Tantalizing questions.
The 6,000-square-foot building opened in the pre-electricity era. Gas lamps were used, and some of the fixtures and pipes still can be seen. Starlings love to swoop through the open windows and into the building to nest in the rafters. Sexton and Hoyman tried a scarecrow approach, placing a stuffed owl, a stuffed cat and a rubber snake in the room to scare the birds. Didn't work.
Sexton tells the story of a couple stopping in the parking lot of the Grange and casing out the building. It turns out they were on hand at the Grange in a year in which the graduations for Alsea High School and Monroe High school were held jointly.
“People say that this is a big job,” Sexton said. “But I really think this is a building worth saving. It could be really beneficial for Benton County.”