I recently took a walk up Kennebec Road in Hampden to meet some people in a freshly restored 1828 church building. The story they had to tell was an uplifting combination of history, hard work, community collaboration and flowers.
Like many old church buildings around New England, Harmony Hall has served a variety of roles since its construction in 1828 — meeting space, performance hall, basketball court, exhibition center and empty shell. Susan B. Anthony once delivered a fiery speech there for the Maine Suffrage Convention of 1898, and in its tower hangs one of only 142 Revere bells left in the country (as of 1978). In spite of its rich history, however, the label of empty shell might have been the permanent fate of the old building if not for the dedication of its current owner — the Hampden Garden Club.
One doesn’t generally associate garden clubs with architectural preservation, but part of the agreement when the garden club took official ownership of Harmony Hall nearly 50 years ago was a long-standing commitment to preserve and maintain the historic building. In fact, the club had already been playing this role since 1937 with the permission of the dwindling Village Improvement Society, which had used and maintained Harmony Hall on and off since the late 1800s.
When I arranged a 9 a.m. weekday meeting at Harmony Hall with representatives of the current garden club, I did not expect the committee of seven that greeted me outside the building. It quickly was evident that the last five years of major restoration work have been a communal labor of love. There were several past club presidents there to meet me, including Pat Totman, who introduced me to current co-president, Pat Kerfoot, and three other women, Phyllis Bartlett, Joan Kirk and Anne Bennett. Then I met the father-son team of Josh and Aaron Peppard, who just finished the exterior painting of the building.
“Josh is also a garden clubber,” said one of the ladies.
“Oh! How many men are in the garden club?” I asked.
“You’re looking at him,” said Josh.
Some of the group were relatively new, but cumulatively, they represented over a hundred years of membership. They were a wealth of information.
“We’re one of only two garden clubs in the state that own a building,” said one member.
“In 1939, they paid $15.49 to repaint the entire building,” said another.
Costs have risen significantly, so much so that in the 1990s, their goal was just to paint one outside wall. This time, though, they committed to a complete overhaul.
“Joan was the instigator,” several women said.
“Well, it’s been a work in progress forever,” said Joan. “We had a lot of community support.”
I listened to their stories of the club’s history, going back to the 1960s when they used to meet for high tea.
“Back then we dressed up, didn’t we Pat?” said Phyllis.
Today their gatherings are more educational and utilitarian — they hear a guest speaker, work on a plant sale or maintain one of their seven town garden plots. No more white gloves for this garden club, unless it’s to reenact some of the building’s history.
“I remember I was Susan B. Anthony in 1998, and I had to give her speech,” said Pat T. “I was very proud to have played that role.”
Joan remembered another event where they dressed in period costumes and waved white
hankies to express appreciation.
“It was considered brazen to clap hands and carry on,” she said, with an amused smile.
Every May, club members invite local fourth graders to visit the hall, learn some local history, listen to a ringing of the famous bell and receive educational tips related to gardening.
“We gave a talk about ticks last time. That was very popular,” said Anne.
Their biggest job in recent years, however, has been the complete restoration of Harmony Hall. Since the building was designated a historic site in 2007, they were eligible for grant money.
“The Historic Preservation Commission gave us two nice grants for window restoration and painting,” said Pat K. Other sources helped cover the costs of some unexpected restorations. “At one point, we realized a belfry window was broken. I almost fell out of it.”
Between the grants and enormous support from local businesses, individuals and club members, they raised about $55,000 to restore Harmony Hall. They plan to hold an open house in appreciation next spring.
“This job was pretty neat,” said Josh, “It had been all one color. So many architectural details all came out with the painting,”
And while his son Aaron was on a lift painting the tower, he snapped a photo of the Revere bell, generally inaccessible for close inspection.
Like many community organizations, Hampden Garden Club would love to see new, younger membership swell their ranks. They share a rich sense of purpose — educational programming, hosting of community events, gardening work and a lifetime mission to maintain their beautiful Harmony Hall. They started that stewardship in 1937.
“And God help us, we’ve been at it ever since.”
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at email@example.com.