Looking out over the upper floor from the stage toward a fireplace on the opposite side of the room, Jay Sexton can envision a revived community center with family celebrations and company retreats gathering within its walls.
Downstairs in the dining hall, he can imagine a growing membership sharing a potluck feast in historic surroundings with an improved and more functional kitchen. And if he glances through a back window over the rest of the property that in full encompasses 1.96 acres, he can hear the sounds of a quaint evening performance of local musicians while visualizing couples dancing and children playing.
That’s the future of the Willamette Community and Grange Hall as seen through the eyes of its president. Sexton and the rest of the Grange volunteers continue to work hard to bring the old structure back to life, complete with a major roof renovation.
“Grange can be a social connection that doesn’t exist in very many manifestations in our culture today in that it’s nonsectarian and nonpartisan and it’s just people of an area,” Sexton said. “Granges try to avoid sectarian and political conversation, but it’s community — and how to work together to help the community.”
Sexton experienced such a revival with Marys River Grange in Philomath where in recent years, No. 685 rebounded from near death to develop into a strong, engaging contingent with 100-plus members.
“I think we can follow the same path with this,” said Sexton, who remains active with the nearby Philomath grange, an organization he first became involved with roughly 10 years ago. “We’re a little behind the 8-ball because the building is in a little worse shape but I think that we can move forward with people’s interest. And as this building becomes more usable, I think it’ll be easy to gain membership.”
The old Willamette hall, located about 10 miles southeast of Philomath and straight south of Corvallis on Highway 99W and Greenberry Road, dates back nearly a century and over the past couple of decades had fallen into disrepair. The connections to the structure run deep with many in this rural area of Benton County. It’s not uncommon for Sexton to hear stories of weddings and high school graduations that occurred there in past years.
One day while in the process of erecting the roadside marquee, an older gentleman pulled over in his vehicle and stopped for a chat.
“He comes over and talks to me and said, ‘I’m glad somebody’s doing something with this building,’” Sexton recalls. “‘Me and my family used to come here all the time for events when I was growing up. Here’s a hundred bucks. Keep up the good work.’”
It’s those moments that drive home the appreciation that many folks have for the Willamette Grange and serves as a motivation moving forward. Some people wondered if sinking a lot of money into the building was worth it, that it was too far gone and a new, metal structure could do just fine as a community center.
“In a sustainable way, anytime we can save something that exists, I think we’re being good stewards of the planet’s resources,” Sexton said, sharing his views on saving the building. “This has a lot of historical, interesting connections to the community. It’s location is excellent in that people don’t want to always have to go to Corvallis if they want a small get-together.”
Marys River Grange in Philomath has rented its space to a variety of groups, even serving as a venue for organizational retreats.
“This gives you another flavor — something that gets you out of your box,” Sexton said. “But fundamentally, it’s a real cool building and it’s not in as bad of shape as it seems. I just think it’s worth saving.”
Saving a building
The Willamette Community Hall and Grange building dates back to the winter of 1922-23 when the Georgian Revival-style structure was constructed by Fred Seedenburg, a popular architect and builder in that era. The hall features 4,750 square feet of space and has seen a lot over the past 99 years.
Evidence of deterioration can be seen all over the building but at this moment, Sexton and Co. are focusing their energy on raising funds to go toward the $80,000 it will cost to replace the roof structure.
“We’ve got $20,000 from the Kinsman Foundation, we’ve raised about $5,000 and we have a half-dozen (grant) applications out,” Sexton said, adding that a major foundation in the area will revisit the grange’s financial needs when the organization raises at least 50% “and we’re getting closer to that.”
Sexton also knows of commitments from private individuals who have indicated they will help. Last year’s formation of a foundation with 501(c)3 status no doubt helps attract donations, which can be done online through a GoFundMe.com page.
The grange has received grants and donations to replace rusted water pipes and install a new water pressure tank for its well. Repairs to stairs and bathroom flooring have also been done and a temporary, plastic cover was purchased to cover the roof and protect the interior from leaks.
“Right now, the plastic is supposed to last three to four years,” Sexton said. “This is its second winter and that last wind storm took a piece of it off.”
Sexton said the roof damage dates back as far as 1950 when a 53-inch snowstorm hit. At the time, work was done in response to the damage but it did not solve the problem in the long run.
“In the early 2000s, the tops of the walls on the second floor were a foot out from the bottoms of the walls,” said Sexton, explaining that cables were put in to keep them in place. “But that is not a permittable fix for a building because the cables have too much flex. You can do it with iron rods but right now, the building is stabilized.”
A $5,000 grant awarded through the Siletz Tribal Charitable Contribution Fund paid for an engineering study to determine how the work should proceed.
“Basically, the two options were putting in those metal rods, which would change the appearance of the space from its original look, or, take everything from above the tops of the walls off and replacing it with new, engineered trusses that would be lighter and stronger,” Sexton said, adding that the latter option would not change the exterior or interior appearance.
The engineering study also identified insufficient support for the roof in the corners. In conjunction with that work, about 4 tons of plaster and lath were removed from the ceiling.
HELP THE CAUSE The Willamette Community and Grange Hall has organized a GoFundMe campaign with a goal of raising $2,500. As of Jan. 31, the organization had reached 40% of that goal.
Just last year, the Willamette Community and Grange Hall Historic Building Foundation was officially established with 501(c)3 status. As a result, donations to the foundation are tax deductible. Click here to visit the GoFundMe.com page.
Further damage from fire
An electrical fire that occurred in 1956 also contributed to the building’s damage. An electrical panel on the first floor burned up through the wall.
“The neighbors had lost their electricity and went outside and noticed smoke coming up from the back and so fire engines from Corvallis got special permission to leave their district and a fire engine from Philomath got special permission to leave their district and they put the fire out,” Sexton said.
Evidence of the fire can be seen with charred beams that despite the appearance, remained strong and were left in place.
At some point, a false wall was constructed across the back of the stage, Sexton said. When removed, three windows could be seen.
“Originally, those center windows would open and you could step out onto the portico,” Sexton said. “There was a flagpole that pierced the front of the roof that went up like 20 feet and the ropes came down and were on a cleat on the outside of the building.”
The portico above the main entrance is also among the upcoming projects.
“The portico is rotten and it’s sagging and we put up some bracing to make it safer,” Sexton said. “We have a contractor, we have a bid, we’re all ready to go but we’re waiting on the permit and will probably do that in the next couple of months.”
The portico restoration will include using as much of the original wood as possible and small fencing on top that had been lost through the decades will return the structure to its original look.
“We’re looking forward to that as kind of a statement as the entry into the building,” Sexton said.
The flooring remains in fairly good shape but needs to be reconditioned. Work to seal entryways for birds has been done. Chimneys were cleaned and assessed.
“Doing replacement of the structure and then replacement of the roofing will put us in a stable place where we can start working on electricity, plumbing, getting the kitchen in better shape for use, eventually the plaster and bringing this all back,” Sexton said.
Grange members have also put in a lot of work with other tasks, such as removing dead trees from the property and clearing blackberry brambles along the building.
Sexton and the Grange membership hopes to see the hall substantially renovated by 2023. The organization will celebrate two major anniversaries with the building’s centennial and 150 years since Willamette Grange No. 52 was established.
“If we do the roof, then we’ll be (fund) raising for Phase 2, which would probably be electrical,” Sexton said. “And then we’d want to be doing the plastering and that would bring this into pretty much full function.”
Grange No. 52 established in 1873
The Order of Patrons of Husbandry, better known as the Grange, was founded in 1867 as a fraternal organization to represent the interests of American farmers. The movement spread quickly in the aftermath of the Civil War and soon arrived in Oregon.
The Willamette Grange was the 52nd organized in Oregon with its establishment on Nov. 17, 1873 with 30 charter members representing 18 pioneer families. John Harris was the first master.
Charter members built the first Willamette Grange Hall on the east side of Muddy Creek and it was destroyed by fire in April 1899, according to a newspaper account. A second Grange Hall was then constructed and it was also lost to fire in January 1922.
Seedenburg constructed the current building during the fall and winter months of 1922 and according to an anniversary story published in 1948, was used for the first time on Jan. 20, 1923.
The Willamette Grange has the second-oldest hall among the five that remain active in the county. The Summit Grange building dates back to circa 1912. The other three buildings with dates of construction are Fairmount Grange Hall in North Albany (1930), Marys River Grange in Philomath (1933) and Hope Grange in Alsea (1944).
The hall has hosted a few activities here and there, although it’s been mostly silent amid the pandemic. In recent months, a cider-pressing event took place outside in October and there have been small group tours — all performed with social distancing and mask-wearing. “Pumpkin Paloosa” was staged in mid-November.
This spring, the site will host a couple of educational events on “bees and trees” and “seeds to supper.” Cider-pressing should be returning in the fall, followed by the pumpkin event, Sexton said.
Sexton hopes to see Willamette Grange No. 52’s membership grow. He said that in just the past year, the group grew from 15 to 29 members.
“Mostly people can see that vision,” he said. “They can see that building being better.”
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