Community rallies to resurrect relic of vaudeville, masquerade

Philip Anselmo

You can nearly smell the nostalgia as you open the door to Cheshire Grange Hall — though it could be the mothballs. It could be the brass polish.

“I remember when this was a rockin’ place,” Fred Goodnow says. “Then, I was born in 1941.”

Goodnow is the guide to this antiquity, the interpreter of its dusty mysteries. He flicks on a flashlight and pokes the beam through the door, past the cobwebs and the upended davenports.

His light sweeps across the dark and dank room, illuminating the long lost: a multi-band Solid State radio the size of a car hood, an old barrel press turned into a lampshade, a rusted woodstove speckled with bird dung, a neglected mannequin rouged and bald and draped in moth-eaten black silk.

Yellowed muslin hangs from the windows like winding sheets. Dust motes catch the dulled sunlight and turn it gray. Even the cold is stale, and it stings.

But the grange, in the heart of the hamlet on Route 21, wasn’t always a crumbling storehouse for dilapidated antiques. In its heyday, it was a social nexus, a place where folks learned and got loans, danced and fell in love. These walls — now held plumb by metal lines and rusted turnbuckles — have been upright since 1874.

“This place is older than me, and I’m older than dirt,” Goodnow says.

'Sense of the 1920s'

Posters of the old masquerade balls and variety shows are still tacked onto the wainscoting. A cartoonish urban backdrop is still slung over the back of the stage, where the walls are covered in chalk graffiti, oaths of love scribbled on beadboard half a century ago.

“What you see in there now is interesting,” says Ed Varno, director of the Ontario County Historical Society. “Take the canvas on the back wall. It’s classic vaudevillian theatrical scenery. There’s advertising on there. There’s humor in it. You get a real sense of the 1920s in there.”

Goodnow is more than just a guide. He’s also the grange’s savior. Or he hopes to be. And he isn’t alone. Residents all over Cheshire have taken up the cause. Later this month, they will gather at the Cheshire firehouse to recruit even more volunteers to save the old hall.

“A lot of the tedious, time-consuming work is done, all the bureaucracy,” says Goodnow, who has already acquired a $50,000 state grant. “Now, we’re ready to go.

“But whether we move forward or abandon the project will be dependent on interest,” he says. “If we don’t have people willing and ready to get involved, this won’t work.”

That’s the reason for the meeting later this month.

“We’re calling it a vision meeting,” he says. “We’re seeking commitment. We’re not looking for finances. We’re looking for involvement from the community to help us do this.”

Deeply personal

Goodnow’s interest is fueled by more than just a desire to save a community treasure. It’s deeply personal.

His father was an aeronautical engineer, a fruit farmer, a beekeeper and an amateur musician, he says. He sang and danced and orated.

“He had more interests than 10 people,” he says.

In the 1940s, the grange was a venue for minstrel shows, and Goodnow’s father was the “end-man,” the closing act who told all the best jokes and sang the last tune. He was the icing on the cake.

“I was born in 1941,” says Goodnow. “In 1942, he was diagnosed with leukemia. He was one of the first radiation experiments at Strong (Memorial Hospital). They kept him alive for about six years.”

In 1947, with barely the strength to lift his own bones, Goodnow’s father got up on the stage to close out one last minstrel show.

“He brought down the house singing ‘Old Man River’ and ‘Roamin’ in the Gloamin,’” he says. “Ten days later, we buried him. I was 6 years old.”

Focal point of yesteryear

The National Grange of the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry was established on December 4, 1867, in Washington, D.C. Individual grange halls started to sprout up all over the country almost immediately after.

In a history of the grange compiled by Canandaiguan Gilbert Smith, the organization is described as a “fraternity of agriculturalists ... dedicated to improving the condition of farm families.”

Remember, says Smith, farms were spread out, and neighbors were often quite distant from one another.

“It is hard for us in a world of instant communication to comprehend the isolation of many farm families in the late 19th century,” wrote Smith.

But more than just a place to gather, grange halls were the points of contact for an influential, national organization.

“The Grange was a significant force in post-Civil War America, championing regulation of monopolies, the reduction of middle-men, temperance, women’s rights and the provision of government services to rural America,” wrote Smith.

Granges were a place where farmers could be educated or get insurance, socialize or do business. Programs they developed were then used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for the social programs that he launched in the state and later in the nation, Varno says.

“This little building in Cheshire has a historical significance that goes beyond its facade,” Varno says. “If you go back and see what actually happened there, you’ll find a social network in place that wasn’t exceeded by any organization other than the church.”

Contact Philip Anselmo at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 322, or at