FAYETTE — A group in Fayette is working to revive the town’s once vibrant community hub: Starling Hall.

The hall, now nearly 150 years old, was first known as The Starling Grange when it was built in 1879. For years, it gave members of the small farming town a place to socialize.

The Grange, known as the Patrons of Husbandry, was organized in Washington, D.C. in 1867, and came to Maine in 1873. It was formed nationally by Minnesota farmer Oliver Hudson Kelley, who believed that farmers needed a national organization, similar to a union, to represent them. Farmers would come to Grange halls and discuss cooperative activities such as insurance, or railroad and banking regulations.

Starling was the state’s first Grange Hall.

In 2016, it was officially added to the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places.

Joe Young, president of the volunteer group Friends of Starling Hall, said in a 2015 video produced by Standing Oak Media that almost 95% of the town consisted of farmers and farming families during the hall’s heyday in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“95% of people lived on the farm,” he said in the video, “so you don’t get a lot of social interaction unless you have a place to go when you’re off hours. This is where they got together, and this was the social hub of the town. There’s no question about that.”

The hall was expanded in the early 1900s to accommodate the influx of guests, and housed both social and municipal activities. The town library moved to the building in 1953, and in 1987 the hall was deeded to the town.

Recently the building closed after a failure to meet numerous building and life safety code requirements, according to Young. A 2015 assessment by AMES Associates, now known as Artifex Architects and Engineers, identified numerous areas of concern that would need to be addressed in order to bring the former facility back into compliance.

Additionally, members of Friends of Starling Hall determined that the entire building should be moved further back from its current location immediately adjacent to Route 17, which results in plows piling banks against the front entrance.

The building was moved approximately 35 feet back in late 2017, which involved installing a new foundation with basement level-access to the ground level. The project also illuminated the need to create structural reinforcement for carrying beams, to replace 40 feet of rotting sill, and to reconstruct the front entrance to meet current code requirements.

$32,407 of the town’s Starling Hall reserve account was used to pay for concrete work, and the Friends of Starling Hall paid $40,000 for moving expenses.

A 400-foot well with a static water level less than 20 feet from the top was installed for $10,115. Local electricians Gerald Epperson and Paul Lachance, both retired with over 35 years of experience in the field, volunteered their time to install a new electrical entrance pole, meter and shutoff, and to lay underground electrical entrance cables to a new 200 amp entrance in the basement. They also installed an additional conduit to allow communications cables to be accessed underground.

The organization only paid for the electrical materials, which cost $3,419.

After engineers outlined the necessary construction, FOSH negotiated a contract with S.J. Wood Construction of Winthrop to complete the installation of steel carrying beams and posts, concrete work for the basement floor, support piers, infill holes in the foundation for carrying beams, and a new entrance foundation and basement entry door.

FOSH volunteers, with the assistance of local contractor Dana Whitney of Renovations and Restorations, constructed a new entrance with steel doors and panic hardware to reflect the original hall’s double door design. This work totaled $111,035, with $100,000 covered by a bond approved by the town in 2019, and the remaining $11,035 coming from FOSH accounts.

Engineers also provided conceptual plans for an addition to the hall which would include handicap accessible bathrooms, covered stairs with access to all three floors, and an elevator. Altogether the fees for their services totaled $6,457.

With over $200,000 raised so far, the group still has a long way to restore the building. Young said on Thursday that they still need to raise about $600,000 to complete the project.

Gents and Ladies signs on lids of second floor privy in Starling Hall in Fayette. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“Much of the work we have done so far does not address issues identified in the report, but what we consider necessary for the long term good of the building, and to ensure its usefulness to the town as a community center,” said Young.

The group is working to raise $51,000 this year. Short-term goals that include $3,000 for three basement windows, $2,000 for two entry bay windows, $30,000 for a heating system, $1,000 for insulation and weatherization and $15,000 for a handicap entrance.

Looking ahead, future work includes replacing the building’s siding and roof.

A myriad of fundraisers have been held, and FOSH has monthly events planned from next March until the end of 2022.

Community member Lori Beaulieu was inspired to become a FOSH volunteer after seeing the “Save Starling Hall” sign outside the building.

“I retired in my early 50s,” she said. “I was a general manager for JCPenny in Rockland. My store closed and I sold my home and moved to Fayette, just down the street from the hall, in 2018. I found myself driving by the hall several times a day, noticing that big, beautiful old building and the sign that sat outside. I knew I wanted to be busy and do something for my community and I was curious about this building.”

Unfortunately, the group lost their 501c3 status in 2020 and is now unable to apply for grants. According to the organization’s 2020 annual report, electronically filed tax returns for the past three years were not recognized by the IRS, despite being filed and accepted. The report states they were later rejected without notice.

Local CPA Michael Carlson has since volunteered to help the group regain 501c3 status and has submitted an application for reinstatement.

Though the road ahead is long, members of the community have strongly supported the building’s return.

Beaulieu said the group’s summer barbecue, yard sale and auction was well-attended. In October, they sold out during their harvest dinner within 35 minutes.

“The building is there, its bones are great, and I have heard from so many community members who attend the fundraisers we’ve held how, when they were small, they danced or sang in plays held there as children themselves,” she said. “The town doesn’t have a place to gather, and this would be a fantastic community center and a place to rent out for events or for groups to meet.”

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