BROOKS, Maine — No matter how plain the walls or how austere the furnishings of the Harvest Home Grange on Route 7 in Brooks, there is something special about the place.
It could be the quality of silence inside the main room of the 188-year-old wooden building, which seems a world away from modern conveniences and distractions such as televisions, computers and telephones.
Or it might be the fact that the grange hall, which was built by early Quakers to be a meetinghouse, is again welcoming members of that congregation for the first time in nearly 100 years.
“As soon as we met here for the first time, there was a Quaker feeling about the place,” Lindy Davies of Jackson, a member of the Belfast Area Friends Meeting, said last week at the Grange. “A lot of people felt that the place was happy to have Quakers back.”
Davies and other local Quakers recently began renting space in the newly spruced-up grange for Sunday meetings in the summertime. It has been painted a cheerful yellow on the inside and the broken windows all have been replaced, thanks to Grange members and a contingent of workers from the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center in Belfast, a program that aims to help prison inmates ease their way back into society.
“It’s a wonderful space,” said Leslie Umans of Brooks, who is a member of the Harvest Home Grange and also attends Quaker meeting. “It was quietly here, waiting for the return of the Belfast Area Friends Meeting.”
The Religious Society of Friends, or Quakerism, began as a religious movement in England about 1650. Early Quakers believed that they could “experience God directly in their lives” without the help of the clergy, according to the Friends World Committee for Consultation. Although Quakers differ widely in their individual religious beliefs, members have long been known for their support of social justice — including abolition and women’s suffrage — and their opposition to war.
Early Quakers have had a long history in Maine, in part because they were often persecuted by Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and so settled in Maine.
“Massachusetts was dangerous to Quakers,” Umans said.
University of Maine history professor Richard Judd wrote that there were a “sprinkling of Quakers” in Maine by the mid-17th century, before Maine became part of Massachusetts, in his book, “Maine: The Pine Tree State from Prehistory to the Present.”
Quakers in Brooks originally had attended the monthly meeting in China, which is more than 20 miles away — not necessarily an easy journey in the days of horseback travel and unpaved roads. So, they built the meeting hall — which, according to Umans was the first religious meeting place or church built in Brooks — and then formed their own monthly meeting in 1837, along with Unity and Albion.
At that time, there were about 200 members of the meeting, Umans said.
“There were a lot of Quakers in Maine,” she said.
Some of those first Quakers are buried outside the Harvest Home Grange in the adjacent Friends Cemetery. Umans, Davies and Jean Goldfine of Swanville, another member of the Belfast Area Friends, recently walked through the rows of worn gravestones, moving quickly past the larger markers with more elaborate decorations and carvings. Quakers wouldn’t be buried beneath those stones.
“One of the Quaker tenets is simplicity,” Davies said.
Smaller stones jutting up from the green grass were more interesting to the modern Quakers. Those graves do not have the names of the month carved into them, but instead mark months with numbers in order to avoid using Roman terms. Quakers did not want to be associated with Roman tradition, Goldfine said.
The trio stopped to take a closer look at one grave, first noticing the name — Peace Moulton — and then the date. Peace Moulton died on the 11th day of the fourth month — April 11 — of 1861.
“Peace Moulton,” Goldfine said, with some excitement. “If that’s not a Quaker name …”
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she said.
The Brooks Friends Meeting sold the Meeting House, the surrounding property and “as much furniture as possible” to the Harvest Home Grange in 1919 for just $500. The grange — a fraternal organization designed to promote agriculture — used the building for meetings and other activities. The original wooden benches used by the Quakers remained in the building, and are still there today.
“It’s really lovely to sit where other Quakers have sat,” Umans said.
On Sundays, members of the Belfast Area Friends Meeting gather together in silence in the old meeting hall. It is called an “unprogrammed” meeting, with no leader or pastor. Often — but not every week — someone will speak.
“There’s a sense that one is led to say something that will benefit the meeting,” Davies said. “People are encouraged to try not to say it — to hold it back.”
While some Quakers say that they feel “led by the spirit” to speak, others choose not to define what is doing the leading.
“We all have our ways to experience it,” Goldfine said. “It doesn’t matter. We don’t have to agree.”
They recalled a time at meeting when Goldfine felt led to sing part of a song that seemed to deeply resonate with the others.
“It somehow met a need that I had,” Umans said. “It was an amazing moment.”
“That’s the mystery of it,” she said. “Sometimes something magical happens.”
While some aspects of Quaker meeting have changed over the centuries — it formerly was much more based on the Bible and more Christian — not all has changed.
Quakers of the past would recognize certain parts of the modern meetings. The simplicity, the honesty and the social justice concerns remain the same, Umans said.
And they would surely recognize the deep, peaceful quiet of the old meeting hall in Brooks.
“It’s quiet, and there’s space, or opening, for inward meditation and contemplative experience,” Goldfine said.
According to Davies, the incidental noises of the world — rushing traffic or whining insects — seem to disappear during meeting and become less important.
“One doesn’t even hear those noises,” he said. “They can fall away … It seems to me that Quakers are connoisseurs of silence.”
Belfast Area Friends Meeting is held at 10 a.m. every Sunday, and all are welcome. Harvest Home Grange is located on Route 7 in Brooks, a quarter-mile past the intersection of routes 7 and 139.