Masonic Hall Renovation Goes Forward on Danville Green
By Sharon Lakey
It takes a commitment to keep a town’s history alive, and Danville’s Masons of Washburn Lodge #92 appear to be in it for the long haul. The big, brick building on the Green has been their home since 1894, but it has been a graceful presence there since 1831.
At first glance, the building looks like a church, so it makes sense when one learns that the Calvinist Baptists, who formed in 1792, built it for their congregation at a cost of $3,100. One of the founding members in the Calvinist Baptist Church in Danville was Charles Sias, the first captain of the first military company in town. In our Society’s historical records, a note reads that in the church a “revival took place from 1833 to 1836” but also relates “the church disappears from the minutes of the Danville Association in 1852.” The building stood empty until the Washburn Lodge purchased it as their new home in 1894.
The Masons, of course, have their own interesting history that dovetails with the building. Just before the Baptists built their church on the Green, Danville became the hotbed of the Anti-Masonic movement, and the old North Star led the charge. Danville’s William Palmer, the first and only governor in the nation to run on the Anti-Masonic ticket, was elected Governor of Vermont in 1831, the same year the church was built.
The movement was so strong that by 1834 almost every Masonic lodge in Vermont had rescinded their charters, and Danville was no exception. Having been granted their original charter as Harmony Lodge #14 in 1797, they surrendered it in 1829 and were declared extinct in 1849. But 20 years later, the Anti-Masonic movement forgotten, they reformed as Washburn Lodge #92 and met on the top floor of the present Balivet house on the Green. Seeking a more permanent home, they purchased the abandoned church on the Green at public auction for $285. The brothers completed extensive renovations in the late 1890s, replacing the windows with stained glass and adding a domed ceiling in the main hall. There they enjoyed many years of activity.
But, as all homeowners and organizations know, it takes a strong commitment to keep both alive. Dennis Larrabee of Walden and Buck White of Barnet, both present members of the Washburn Lodge #92, met to discuss the past and present plans for the Lodge. “At one time, the Masons in St. Johnsbury had 500 members. They’re down to around 40 now,” said Dennis. “At one point, we were down to around 70, too. We had to consider whether keeping such a large building was practical.
“The building committee looked at all the options,” shared Dennis. “There are a number of builders among the brothers, and we considered building new or joining with the St. Johnsbury Lodge. But in the end, we decided to stay on the Green, our home.” In a newsletter published by the Washburn Lodge in 2007, a writer explains the reasoning behind the decision: “What is our Lodge building to us? It is our PRESENCE in Danville…We have been given a gift by the Brothers who came before us. We have a wholly owned, architecturally unique brick building in very good repair located On the town green.”
According to Dennis, who is a retired construction analyst, there had been a minor upgrade in the 1960s when it was voted to put a cement floor in the basement and build a new kitchen. But in 2007, the Lodge began in earnest to renovate and upgrade the building. “We planned this in three stages,” he said. “The first stage was to renovate the basement, replacing the old kitchen with commercial grade fixtures. We also poured a new floor with an integrated heating system, so the basement kitchen and dining could be heated all winter. Also included in stage one were plumbing and electrical repair.
The cost of these improvements was a big commitment for the Lodge—they took out a $90,000 loan to complete the work. Forty thousand still remains on that loan, but they are making their payments every year. “We have a great team of cooks,” explains Dennis. “Last year we catered a large wedding out at the Curtis Vance Memorial Orchard.” We also cater banquets, weddings and host Bingo every week from 5:30-9:00, along with a light supper. Bingo saved us,” said Dennis.
The second stage in the renovation began earlier last summer. When the paving was being completed around the Green, Dennis was asked for input and he was able to get the pavers to include some nice parking near the building. They also put in a handicap ramp at the front entrance. Both front doors were taken down to wood and repainted by one of the brothers. “This spring we are scheduled to replace the metal roof, complete masonry repairs, add new granite stone for the window sills and paint the bell tower, sills and roof trim,” explains Larrabee.
Continuing this phase of the renovation, the Lodge is seeking, and has received, historic preservation grants. The Freeman Foundation and Preservation Trust of Vermont awarded the project $30,000. Another $1,000 was awarded by the Pleasants Fund in Greensboro, VT, which will go towards the painting of the tower. A grant under review for $2,000 would provide funds for the labor of painting the tower and roof trim. Larrabee’s Building and Supply will furnish all the paint for the project, but that is high work on the tower and will require a professional painter.
In stage three the windows will be addressed as well as the possibility of getting the vaulted ceiling back into the second floor hall where Lodge meetings are held. According to Buck White, “the ceiling is still there, but it is covered over,” noting there has been some water damage. He has been in the belfry area, photographing the structure of exposed beams and joinery that was part of America’s early 19 century architecture.
In a centennial printed program held on Saturday, June 21, 1969, Worshipful Master, Everett H. McReynolds wrote, “It is with great brotherly friendship that we gather on this day to celebrate our 100th year of Masonry.” In reading over the list of past Masters printed in the program, one sees names that are strongly connected to Danville’s historical past as well as those coming forward into the present. Because Masonry is a fraternal society, and one that keeps its rites secret, it is no wonder that it would raise a few eyebrows, but Buck points out, “The Masons are not clothed in darkness, and it isn’t a cult. My dad never asked me to join. Instead, he waited for me to tell him I was interested. When I did, he was pleased to introduce me. I had to ask for a petition to join, and that is how I became a Mason. As far as I know, we’ve never blackballed anybody.” To be viable now and in the future, the organization continues to reach out to the community. Eighteen local organizations were supported with either monetary donations or use of the Lodge facilities and equipment last year.
On Sunday, April 7, Washburn Lodge #92 extended a public invitation to all citizens to see the work that has been done on the building, including details about what is to come. Early visitors enjoyed coffee and doughnuts; a light lunch was served around noon. There were guided tours, led by the brothers, who took visitors through the building and answered questions.
To view a photo album of the building and the intended projects, click here.