WHALLONSBURG - Couples twirled, moving with impressive symmetry as Gary Finney made illustrious calls for allemandes and promenades.
This scene of an old-time square dance was one quite common to the Whallonsburg Grange Hall decades ago, and thanks to a community-wide effort to renovate the facility, its one of many activities that have brought people back there.
Finney and his band, the Upstate Boys, began playing at the the grange hall three years ago, shortly after Whallonsburg Grange #954 donated the historic building to the Town of Essex with the stipulation it be used to entertain and educate the community.
Today, square dances at the Whallonsburg Grange Hall often draw upwards of 80 people.
"It's been a wonderful pillar for the reintroduction of the grange to the community," said Ted Cornell, who serves as project manager for the Whallonsburg Civic Association, the organization charged with overseeing the building.
But square dancing is just one of many activities happening at the grange hall, and as renovation efforts continue, this sleepy little hamlet on the banks of the Boquet River is fast becoming one of the most popular local venues for community events.
The grange hall has regularly hosted a wide gamut of art and cultural activities in the past year, including regular showings by the Champlain Valley Film Society, rehearsals and performances by the Boquet River Theatre Festival, and a collection of historical lectures called the Lyceum Series. It has also been the site of many fundraiser events.
"I think it means so much that its traditions are being brought back to life," said Cornell, noting how many local residents still remember the days when the grange hall regularly hosted dances, bingo, and various meetings. "That sense of renewed purpose, renewed possibility, renewed enjoyment, is the greatest satisfaction."
Those familiar with the grange can also see the extensive work that's been done to give the building new life.
With support from the Town of Essex, Essex Community Fund, and Friends of the Whallonsburg Grange Hall, new heating and electrical systems were installed, making the building suitable for use. Donations from the community have totalled more than $60,000 toward renovation efforts.
"We, at the same time, have been the beneficiaries of an extraordinary amount of volunteer labor," said Cornell. "I would say that has been in an amount greater than the financial contributions."
Last June, volunteers removed a drop ceiling, revealing the grange hall's upper level and expanding the proscenium of the stage. Volunteer contractors have pitched in with some construction and landscaping projects.
The addition of a back-up heating system has made the facility available for use during the winter. The grange hall has also been nominated for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
"People are astounded at the amount of work that's been realized," Cornell said.
Future plans include the addition of a well and renovation of the building's kitchen to bring it up to Department of Health standards. Two more bathrooms will be added to the building, as well as a new septic system, for which professionals have volunteered their excavation services.
The next phase of work will take place during a volunteer work week April 12-19, where volunteers will continue painting and patching up the main hall, adding linoleum in the bathrooms, and hanging signs around the building.
Anyone interested in volunteering as part of the renovation and clean-up can contact Cornell at 962-4386.