Curtain call for Colrain’s Memorial Hall?
COLRAIN — In its heyday 100 years ago, Memorial Hall was a hub of town activity: Its first-floor stage and auditorium was the setting for every eighth-grade Colrain schoolhouse graduation, for countless dances, basketball games and theatrical productions, while the upstairs provided meeting rooms for the town’s Civil War veterans, the Women’s Relief Corps and the Sons of Veterans.
But after being vacant for decades — and up for sale with no buyers — town officials are planning to have the building demolished.
Nevertheless, town historian Muriel Russell is sounding the alarm, in hopes of attracting those like herself, who want to see the building remain standing. She is asking those who would like to save the building — or at least the tower-like cupola — to contact the selectmen and let them know how they feel about it.
“Veterans Memorial Hall was built to commemorate Civil War veterans and anyone else from Colrain who served in the military,” said Russell. “They (selectmen) voted, so it may be too late to save the building, but we should do our best to preserve the tower. That tower has unusual architectural features and the design was especially chosen by the women of Colrain.”
“We should continue to honor the veterans of Colrain by saving and restoring the tower,” Russell said.
She said a few residents she spoke with over the weekend have suggested moving the tower portion of the two-story building to West Branch Cemetery, to the Pitt House property, near the historic museum, or leaving it on the current site, to become part of a mini-park after the rest of the building is taken down.
The veterans for whom the building was dedicated were the town’s men who joined the Union Army’s 52nd Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, according to a report Russell wrote for the town’s 250th anniversary. “They were to serve for nine months and were mustered in during Oct. 1862,” she wrote. “After marching from (Camp Miller) to Main Street in Greenfield, accompanied by huge crowds, almost 1,000 men left by train to New York. ... The 52nd was subjected to the hot southern climate and swampy conditions, so many men died of diseases such as dysentery. The 52nd spent much of their time marching from place to place in search of food for the Army, and were involved in skirmishes while on the march.”
She said they were also involved in two major battles at Port Hudson, La. Ultimately, according to Russell, of the 939 men who left Greenfield, only 773 returned a year later. Eighty-five had died of diseases, 11 were killed in action or died of wounds, 16 were convalescing or too sick to travel. Another 34 were unable to leave New Orleans until later, she said.
“We are still in the front of the advance, living in dens and caves of the earth, maintaining our incessant skirmish and occasionally losing men from the regiment,” James Hosmer of the 52 Regiment wrote, while under fire in Port Hudson. “We go unwashed, uncombed, unshaven, creeping and stooping with no baggage but the clothes on our backs, and they are torn everywhere by brambles, and sometimes by shot. ... This afternoon, there has been a flag of truce; during which they have buried the dead, and even removed wounded men, who have lain in the field since Sunday! It is now Wednesday.”
The H.S. Greenleaf Grand Army Post veterans group was organized in 1875 (named for the colonel who led the 52nd Regiment), and the Women’s Relief Corps followed a year later. One of the Women’s Relief Corps’ first projects was to raise money for a suitable Civil War memorial for the town. Through fundraising suppers, dances, bake sales and similar activities, they raised more than enough for a plaque in the town center, then called “Colrain City.” With some of the leftover money, they bought a plot of land in Colrain City, and plans began for a public hall, with moveable seating for 300, with meeting rooms for veterans groups.
Memorial Hall was dedicated in May 1895.
Today, the building is in very poor shape, according to selectmen’s Chairwoman Eileen Sauvageau. The foundation needs work, the roof is leaking, and it’s become a liability.
“Basically, there’s no septic system there, no parking places and no handicapped-accessibility,” said Sauvageau. “It’s been in disrepair for many, many years. It would be prohibitively expensive to fix.”
“The town has no use for it,” she continued. “This has been going on for years, and as far as I know, we have seen no group interested in it.”
Both Savageau and Russell think something should have been done years ago to stop the building’s decline.
In 2009, special town meeting voters agreed with selectmen to sell the 17 Main Road property for at least $125,000. But since then, there haven’t been any offers. In 2011 the price was dropped to $10,000.
“It would be great if Muriel could come up with the money for it, but we don’t want to see another case where buildings aren’t maintained,” Sauvageau said, referring to the town’s demolition of some empty town center buildings that had been condemned for at least 20 years. “If this building had been maintained, something could have been done.”
Sauvageau said Russell has been the only resident she knows who has expressed interest in saving the building.
At annual town meeting this spring, voters agreed to spend roughly $70,000 from 1986 Community Development Block Grant repayments to pay for demolition of town-owned buildings. She said $60,000 of that was earmarked for Memorial Hall.
“If the town wants to save Memorial Hall, they will,” said Sauvageau. “If it’s important to the town, I’m all for it. But that hasn’t been the case. Everyone else I’ve talked to thinks it should be done. They feel that it’s too bad, but yes, it should come down.”
Sauvageau said the Historical Commission has asked to remove some items of historic interest from the building before it is demolished. She said some large doors and stage backdrops have been taken out of the building and stored.
Bids for demolishing the building are due into the selectmen’s office in August.