HOULTON, Maine — Grange Halls once provided a place for not only farmers to gather but also served as community hubs, hosting dances and many other social events to alleviate the isolation of farm life dating back to the late 1800s.
Today, many of those halls have found new purposes or have been long forgotten, sitting empty to slowly deteriorate or even being demolished — including the former Houlton Grange. But now there is a permanent reminder of the Houlton Grange, thanks to the generosity of a former resident.
A 12-foot by 18-foot tapestry, which at one time hung in the halls of Houlton Grange No. 16, was discovered in a small antiques store in Wetherford, Texas.
Jamie Millar, a Houlton native who is senior vice president for Under Armour and lives in Baltimore, Maryland, said he became aware of the decades-old curtain’s existence thanks to friends on social media. He bought it and had it shipped to Houlton earlier this week.
“When I saw it on social media, I thought it was the coolest thing,” Millar said Friday afternoon from Baltimore. “So I called the people who had it, and they were shocked that I wanted to buy it.”
Millar said the store owners agreed to sell it to him for an undisclosed amount after he explained why he wanted it and what he planned to do with the curtain. The storekeepers could not recall how it came to be in their possession, he said.
“My dad was all things Houlton,” Millar said. “And really, my mom was, too. They always taught me that if I can help, I should.”
His father, John A. Millar, was a prominent businessman in Houlton and was instrumental in bringing hockey to the area. The town’s civic center bears his namesake, and his son, Jamie, is doing his part to keep Houlton moving forward, even if it is from a distance.
“I left Houlton in 1977, but I have always stayed active as much as I can in supporting the community,” he said. “I have been blessed, from a career standpoint, where I can do these types of things.”
The curtain officially belongs to The Aroostook County Historical and Art Museum in Houlton, but museum director Henry Gartley knew the item was much too large to be properly displayed at his facility.
The massive canvas has been placed inside the County Co-Op and Farm Store at 53 Main St. in downtown Houlton.
“I opened this thing up, and it just kept going and going,” he said. “I am going to say this piece was probably made in the late 1930s, probably 1938 or ’39, based on some of the businesses that are on there.”
The stage curtain at the Houlton Grange preserves the names of prominent businesses in 1930s Houlton. Some of these companies are still in business, such as the Houlton Pioneer Times and Houlton Farms Dairy.
But many more — like Almon H. Fogg Company, George S. Gentle Insurance and Tingley’s Bakery — have closed.
Houlton Grange No. 16 was organized on April 16, 1874, with Charles E. Gilman elected the first master. By 1879, membership had declined to just 13 members, and a vote to surrender the charter was held. That vote failed 7-6 and the Grange continued for many years.
In fact, its popularity bloomed and by 1924, the Houlton Grange was acknowledged as the largest one in the world, with a membership of more than 1,000 people, Gartley said.
Sue Bushey, a volunteer with the County Co-Op, said the curtain was perfectly suited for the downtown business.
“This store is one of the most historical places here in the downtown, so it really seems to fit nicely with the other items here,” Bushey said.
An easel featuring a brief history of Houlton Grange is near the entrance to the Co-Op, and includes a couple of historical items like a receipt from the former Houlton Grange Store, as well as a financial statement from 1920.
There are only 99 remaining Grange Halls in the state — and just one remaining in Aroostook County in the town of Ashland, according to the Maine State Grange website.
In a history of Maine’s Granges, written by State Historian Stan Howe, the origins of the Grange in Maine extend back to the Farmer’s Clubs, which were organized in the 1850s. Each club debated agricultural and household issues while both men and women had their separate gatherings. The clubs began to decline after the Civil War and were soon merged into the granges that would attract many of Maine’s rural population.