To the Editor:

For as long as I have been serving in ministry (since 2010) at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Bridgewater, I have wondered about the fate of our neighboring building, the Grange Hall.

Owned now by the Town of Bridgewater, it has slid into disrepair.

A few years ago, the selectmen, moved by necessity, had the building condemned and locked down.

Since that time, our neighborhood has buzzed with speculation. Might this 19th century building on the green at the center of town be restored? Might, instead, a replacement building be constructed onto its footprint?

Alternatively, might it just be time to level the old building and replace it with a garden?

Initially, I did not sense that it was right to hold a public opinion on the matter. My wife and I live in another town 12 miles away.

True, I remain the Episcopal priest charged to shepherd St. Mark’s congregation next door to the hall. The Grange folks are sufficiently close and friendly that we now house their meetings, events and storage.

When their building was still accessible, we shared from time immemorial our well water and septic systems.

Still, clergy come and go, and I do not own land or personal property in the Bridgewater community. Better, I thought, to stay out this discussion; I did not have a “dog in this hunt.”

Last week, I received a phone call from a member of the State Historical Preservation Office in Hartford. Our church leaders had written to them about our fear that indecision on this matter might cause the Grange Hall to be surrounded by chain-link fencing becoming an attractive nuisance for an indeterminate period.

[The Christian Scriptures memorably asks us, “Who is my neighbor?” The parable of Jesus reaches well beyond next door. I discovered my loyalties becoming awakened, ancient duties being summoned and my own integrity getting challenged.]

I am now finding such a sidelines-attitude unsettling. I feel like the prophet Jeremiah. When he attempted to stay silent there was “something like a burning fire shut up in my bones” with which he was “weary with holding it in.”

I am a beneficiary in our own town of New Preston of life in a house with roots running back to the 18th century. The spirit and love of historic preservation by earlier generations of my wife’s family has helped preserve a home that speaks beautifully of another age with its ennobling struggles, and in turn provides me with treasured traditions in this challenging time when history is often neglected.

This is, after all, a time in which the marketplace tends to dominate and prevail. Instead, might we let it be a time of responding to a “farm to table” ethic rather than one of redundant functional efficiency.

I am puzzled that we hear little or nothing in Bridgewater about private efforts to restore this historic hall. One has only to drive around and about the town to realize there are all sorts of homes whose market value dwarfs the estimated cost of a Grange Hall restoration.

When other nearby towns maintain town commissions on historic preservation (gate-keepers charged with protecting our collective past as expressed in its buildings), there does not seem to be as much of an effort to take up such a challenge.

Might there not be under all our noses enough local wealth to rescue a building that has played such a key part in the town’s history to restore it?

Farming collectives such as The Grange and other agricultural associations are not as robust as they used to be, yet there was a time when they were necessary agents in public life.

Unfortunately, as small farming has become more and more marginal, especially on our rocky New England terrain, buildings emblematic of farming efforts and their historic legacy have become expendable.

Absent a structure such as the Grange, the attractive farming crossroads of Bridgewater at its green can quickly dematerialize into just another weekend bedroom community without a vital symbol and center of gravity emblematic of its past.

There remains the hope that small towns might retain more of their founding identity and integrity.

Are there friends of historic truth who live in Bridgewater? Might a restored Grange Hall include a room or two to house some agricultural artifacts and narratives about farming from the past?

And are there folks with a margin of financial wherewithal to step forward before it’s too late?

The Rev. Robert

Woodroofe

Missional Priest at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Bridgewater