Musings on the G.A. R. Hall
By David Corbin
Since the Scituate Historical Society acquired the GAR Hall in early 1997, much has been accomplished. Beginning with a cleanout of the interior of the building, which filled three dumpsters, our work was then directed to the grounds where seven trees were removed and countless barrels of leaves and small branches were raked away from the stone wall that defines the property on three sides. Later in 1999 with proceeds from our fund-raising efforts and the carpentry skills of Dana Green, we removed the main hall floor to reveal a portion of the building's ancient frame. The entire floor system was soon brought up to modern day building code standards and the original wide-pine floor from 1825, long hidden by a later maple floor, was to be our first accomplishment in what has proven to be a long list of preservation efforts.
As part of my job as project chairman, I make it a point to stop by the hall at least every other weekend to check on the property. This generally consists of a once around the building walk to checking doors, windows, picking up trash, cutting back saplings, and watching for any signs of additional deterioration on the building. All of this usually takes no more than fifteen minutes and I'm soon on my way back to Hanover and home.
Sometimes on a quiet weekend morning when nothing too pressing is scheduled for the day, I take a scenic ride down Route 123 to Scituate. As I pull into the driveway of the GAR, my eyes focus on the beautiful canopy that for over one hundred years has protected the front door and countless visitors from New England's harsh weather. Though worn by time and the elements, its fine detail, especially the star emblem of the Grand Army of the Republic on both sides, give me pause to think of all of Scituate's citizens of the past (some well known while some recalled only by faint memory) who passed beneath its wooden shade.
Upon unlocking and opening the front door, I am greeted by a combination of cool air and the odor of mildew and aging paint. This contrasts sharply with the aromas of recent improvements. Walking across the main hall I enter the kitchen and flip on the light to the attic. Heading upstairs I soon enter the back room where, according to a lifelong resident who wishes to remain anonymous, a group of Scituate's citizens would gather for poker games that in some cases continued into the wee hours of the morning. Climbing the ladder I enter the attic through what was once the original back wall of the building when it was the Baptist Meetinghouse (1825-1869). Still framed in its original Gothic-Revival style is the westward looking window. It serves as my access to a tribute to post and beam construction. Barely audible is the sound of passing traffic along Country Way as I silently survey the sturdy lines of oak and chestnut joined together by rough cuts and wooden pegs. Though most of the beams show evidence of a saw mill, there are some that show the markings of being hand hewn. To study the post and beam construction of the GAR is to hear the banging of hammers and to visualize the ages old use of block and tackle. With a little imagination you can hear Zeba Cushing, housewright, shouting directions to his workers as they raise beams into place.
Slowly descending the attic ladder I observe among the dust and cobwebs clutter from the past - empty boxes, kitchen items, old cloth, coffee cans containing old nails and screws, carpet scraps, and broken glass. But attics have been known to yield a treasure or two, and in this case we found six of the original window shutters that once graced this building, stage sets from past performances, and a small wood and glass wall cabinet that somehow survived the years. Over by the chimney perhaps was the most interesting find of all. Scrawled in pencil on a section of roof plank is the declaration, "W.L. Brown built this chimney March 23, 1887.”
Moving downstairs I pass into the kitchen where the remnants of what were improvements made by the Scituate Grange No. 389 Patrons of Husbandry in 1961 are found. With the exception of the George W. Perry Post 31 GAR and the Charles E. Bates Camp 88 Sons of Union Veterans, the Grange used the hall longer than any of the numerous organizations that met within its walls. Though owned by the Town since 1953, the Grange did their best to keep up appearances whether it was a fresh coat of paint or new linoleum in the kitchen or restrooms. The efforts of forty years ago have long passed their service. As I pass through the kitchen into the hallway leading to the stage door, I recall a late autumn afternoon in 1967 when a host of ghosts, goblins, and witches were announced on stage to the applause of parents and siblings.
Outside on Country Way the sounds of passing traffic continue as I pull up a seat on the main hall floor. Sipping my coffee I hear a loud car stereo pass by and fade into the distance. Total quiet returns to my surroundings as I study the newly restored wide-pine floor that dates back to the Baptist Meetinghouse of 1825. Standing up I begin to retrace the footsteps of the Curtis, Cushing, Damon, Jenkins, Turner, Merritt, Vinal and many others so familiar to us. The floor of this building is a history lesson in itself.
Sitting back down in my chair I look again at the stage and try to visualize what took place upon its planks. I can almost see a cold February night in 1890 when pupils from the High School staged a benefit to raise money for a new school flag. That evening's entertainment included recitations from Miss Nellie Torrey "Widow Bedott's Poetry,” and Miss Grace Neely "An Obstinate Music Box". Also included in that night's program was a piano duet by Miss Sadie Simmons and Miss Neely followed by a debate, the topic "Ought Canada to be annexed to the United States?" In support of this argument was Misses Hattie Cottle and May Towne. Against annexation was Percy Mann and James Turner. Following the debate Edmund Manson Junior stepped up to the podium to give his declamation "Tacking the Ship Offshore.” After the program ice cream and cake were served. Proceeds of that evening netted the school $33.00. A financial success!
Still focused on the stage I try to imagine the stage footlights of candle and tin on the evening of April 7, 1907, when a sold out audience watched a traveling minstrel show perform music from the land of cotton and riverboats. Ninety years later, tickets from that show would be discovered in an upstairs desk drawer. In addition to recitals and musicals audiences would be introduced to the European travels of Professor Henry Turner Bailey or taken on a dugout canoe along the Congo in Darkest Africa by Colonel C. Wellington Furlong. In later years local historian Edward Rowe Snow would stir imaginations with his famous folklore and fact of old New England.
As I get up from my chair, I survey the gumwood fluting and medallion trim that encases the stage and windows now believed to
have been added by the G.A.R. soon after they purchased the building in 1883. Studying the paint chipped walls I can see the portraits of Civil War veterans whose piercing glance once followed curious children around the room. On Memorial Days long past, Milton Litchfield, Charlie Nott, Israel Damon, John Towne, John Prouty, Frank Lee, and other aging survivors of the Civil War would gather at sunrise to raise Old Glory high above the roof line. As the early morning dew began to dry on the barrel of the cannon out front, the men would move inside the hall to vote on some last minute G.A.R. business.
With business concluded each man gives a quick brush off of his uniform and "fall in" for inspection. Poor old George Emerson, suffering from Osteoporosis once again volunteers to carry the flag in the parade. With all ready and with the order to "left face march!" the Boys of 1861 proceed out of the hall and into the warm morning sunshine. After the parade a reception is held at the hall with many folks present. Among those in attendance are Mr. and Mrs. Thomas W. Lawson. Later Mr. Lawson will address the assembled veterans on the subject of plans for a beautiful park and soldier's monument on land he had recently acquired from the town.
Looking at my watch I realize that my visit to this historic treasure must end for the time being. I read somewhere once that it is said a building is made of more than mortar, stone, and wood but that it is also made of countless memories that are created within that sustain a structure and fuel the resolve of those who wish to keep it so. As I step out into a present day morning sunshine, I pause to make sure the door is locked. Soon I'm driving back down Country Way toward Greenbush and beyond that North Hanover. Moving along with the traffic I think of the future of the GAR Hall and with its memories yet to unfold.