PALERMO — The pause that followed Gary Dyer’s question stretched into a space that seemed to last both just a few seconds and an eternity.

Dyer had just outlined a proposed fix for the foundation of the Branch Mills Grange in this northwestern Waldo County town to a couple dozen Palermo residents. Grange members were the minority in their own house, but they opened their meeting Thursday evening to the public because the issue of the foundation is critical to more than just the Grange members.

For a number of years, the only access to Branch Pond has been the road the Grange put in that runs along the side of its building down to the water. No official right of way formalizes the arrangement; it’s simply a convenience the Grange offered its neighbors.

But the cost of preserving that convenience is more than the Grange can bear. The last couple of winters brought frost heaves that have damaged a section of the foundation, and rather than face the liability issues that accompany allowing the public to use the road next to a building that may become unstable, the members were voting to close the roadway to the public on Nov. 1.

Dyer, who was with the town’s Fire Department when it operated out the of the basement of the Grange hall, had put together a plan that estimates the cost of fixing the drainage problem at $7,500 to stabilize the building to keep it open. He said maybe it was time for the town to support the Grange as the Grange has supported the town for many years. Dyer, the president of the town’s historical society, said the four-story building housed the Town Office, Town Meetings and school graduations were held on the stage in the auditorium, and dances brought town residents together for social outings.

“I never was a member of the Grange, and I have great memories of the Grange,” he said. “I was going to go to the contractors in town and ask for their help, but I have a question: Do you think the Grange is going to last? I would hate to see all this work done and see the Grange sell and the building be torn down.”

The Branch Mills Grange faces the same problems as other traditional social organizations. Since its start in the post-Civil War era, the Grange has provided a mechanism for families to promote the well-being of their communities and of agriculture. Although there are areas in the country where Grange membership is strong, in Palermo its members are aging and there is no apparent next generation to take it on.

After giving a rundown of the Grange’s finances — $1,100 in the general fund and a couple of accounts whose now nearly non-existent interest is supposed to support the Grange — Master David Parkman said, “You get old after a while, and you get tired. We don’t have the backbone of membership we used to have.”

On paper, the Grange in Palermo claims about 40 members. The membership roll shrank after the names of members who had died were eliminated, but that also cut down the dues Branch Mills owed to the state Grange. Seven members are required for a meeting, and they don’t always have that.

“We are living on our public dinners and our raffles,” Parkman said.

Joel Miller sat in the back of the room Thursday, keeping his young daughter occupied while the meeting flowed around them. Miller was conspicuous by his youth; his was the only adult head in the room not liberally sprinkled with gray hair. The first-generation farmer had been to several Grange meetings and had toured the building before.

“I like having the Grange in town, and knowing it’s active is reassuring to me,” he said. “I am not fully versed in the mission of the Grange, and I think perhaps young folks are confused on the mission of the Grange.”

That’s something Kay Khalvati came ready to address. With a stack of applications in her hand, Khalvati, who is a member of the Chelsea and Freedom Granges, said membership is where the solutions lie.

“There are many reasons to join the Grange, not the least of which are the people,” she said.

Parkman agreed that the key to keeping the Grange open is membership. He shepherded the Grange through another membership crisis a decade ago, but he’s not sure how much interest remains.

“We want to get some help, but people are busy,” he said. “Let’s face it: We’re old-fashioned. Today people don’t know who their neighbors are unless they can text them.”

By the time the meeting broke up, the decision had been made to close access to the pond starting Nov. 1. Instead of the boulders originally proposed to block the road, Grange members agreed to use a gate or a chain to preserve access for public safety and emergency response personnel.

The question of the fate of the Branch Mills Grange remains open, as members and residents consider whether Dyer’s plan is worth pursuing.

Miller was one of the people at the meeting who picked up one of Khalvati’s applications. He and his family moved to Palermo last fall to start their farm, where they grow produce and hay. He said he’s picked up an application before, but he hasn’t yet filled it out.

On Friday, Miller said he’s interested in the values that the Grange represents, but part of his hesitation comes from his desire to understand the Grange’s mission better, and part of it is economic. He and his wife are working out the details of their budget and their schedules. His wife works evenings as a nurse and the meetings tend to be in the evening, which is a conflict with his daughter’s bedtime.

If the Grange hosts a work party to fix the foundation, he’ll sign up for that. “If people can get their hands on a project like that, they become invested,” he said.

“We appreciate the history of the Grange and the organization as a whole, and we appreciate the history of the building in town; and we’d like to see both continue.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ