Turkey Hill Grange was a hotbed of activity and activism in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Farmers and other rural Belleville residents met for potluck dinners and agricultural debates, style shows and political speeches, baking contests and stage plays, sports games and 4-H meetings.
“Back in the ’40s, they had a lot of dances here for servicemen from Scott Air Force Base,” said current board member David Donley, 81, of Belleville. “They supported the USO (United Service Organizations) very heavily.”
In recent years, the decline of family farms and increase in other entertainment options have affected the grange, but its 180 members still are going strong with community service.
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“Last week, we did the Easter Egg hunt with Belleville Parks and Recreation,” said president Dick Frette, 76, of Swansea. “And we give dictionaries to third-grade students at the schools in Belleville.”
The grange also hosts barbecues, chicken dinners and other fundraisers. It sponsors American Heritage Girls and Busy Bee 4-H clubs, maintains a drama program and sells produce and homemade jelly at Old Town Market in Belleville.
Farmers wanted a voice in getting their products to market because wealthy families owned the railroads. The grange also lobbied to get electricity and rural free mail delivery to farms.
Jane Helms on early grange politics
“You can see the pride people have taken in this building,” said David, a retired Air Force meteorologist.
Still intact are the original cherry floors, pine woodwork, panel doors, coat rack and ticket booth on the main level. The large stage has a colorful vintage curtain that advertises local businesses.
“Those are the ads they sold to pay for this building,” said board member Jane Helms, 76, of Belleville. “This is a special curtain. There aren’t many in the country in this good a shape. It’s priceless, really.”
Downstairs, the hall has a banquet room and kitchen available for rent and a drive-up window for food sales.
Turkey Hill invites the public to a Heritage Day and Open House from 1 to 4 p.m. April 29 with tours, historical photos, displays, refreshments and a dedication ceremony at 2 p.m.
“Have you ever driven past that building on the corner of Green Mount and Route 15 and wondered, ‘What goes on inside the grange hall?’ Well, here’s your chance to find out,” a publicity notice teases.
Roots in agriculture
The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry was founded in 1867 in Washington, D.C., as a fraternal family organization with roots in agriculture.
Local halls began popping up all over the country as places where children and adults could get to know their neighbors, develop talents and skills, work on charitable projects, educate themselves and affect legislation.
“Farmers wanted a voice in getting their products to market because wealthy families owned the railroads,” said Jane, a retired English teacher who still lives on a farm. “The grange also lobbied to get electricity and rural free mail delivery to farms.”
The organization was forward-thinking in that women held leadership roles from the beginning.
“In fact, there are four offices that can only be held by women,” Dick said.
“We only went to town once a week or every 10 days because gas was rationed (during World War II),” she said. “But we made sure we got to grange meetings. That was where you saw your friends and neighbors.”
Nineteen charter members formed Turkey Hill in 1874 and met in private homes, according to Susan Burian, an historical researcher and grange member who prepared its application for the National Register of Historic Places.
By 1881, the grange had 117 members. The Eckert family sold an acre of land for $1 to build the first hall, a two-story frame building. The lower level became the first public school in St. Clair County.
“(In the early days) grange meetings were all-day affairs, with business meetings in the morning, followed by a basket lunch and an afternoon program of discussions, essays, debates, music and lectures,” Susan wrote.
The original building was destroyed by fire in 1904. It’s believed sparks from a coal stove may have ignited. The young man who lit it each morning to warm up the school was killed.
The grange’s second frame building was torn down in 1936 to make way for the new brick hall, designed by Ruback & Weisenstein, prominent architects also commissioned for Belleville Township High School and Belleville Public Library.
“The (Classical Revival) design is interpreted in a quiet classicism that reflects both simple elegance and the democratic ideals that the grange promotes,” Burian wrote.
Hall construction cost $18,000 with a significant amount of volunteer labor. A 2004 addition created a handicap-accessible entrance and bathrooms.
Voting with marbles
Turkey Hill has kept several early artifacts, such as elaborate officer medals, a vintage baseball uniform and a wooden ballot box with a hole in it. Marbles were used instead of paper to vote on families who wanted to join the grange.
“A white marble was a ‘yes,’ and a black marble was a ‘no,’” David said.
He first belonged to a Pennsylvania grange as a child. His family farmed, but many other members were coal miners and schoolteachers.
“The grange isn’t just about agriculture,” he said. “We’re a family-oriented, community service organization with a special interest in agriculture, and if you don’t have an interest in agriculture, please don’t eat again. That’s my line.”
Besides being Turkey Hill president, Dick is business manager for Union United Methodist Church in Belleville. His family farmed for a while, but that’s not why he joined the grange.
“I joined because Dave Donley twisted my arm behind my back on a church mission trip (20 years ago) until I agreed to it,” he said, laughing.
All grange programs are open to the public, with meetings on the second Fridays. Bylaws require them to “recreate, educate and motivate.” New members are welcome.
The grange has three major fundraisers: A chicken dinner each spring, a ham and peach dinner in August and a Wurstmarkt in October. Barbecues are held from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursdays May through September.
“It’s a great organization,” David said. “We don’t allow any alcohol or smoking, and nobody uses profanity. It’s very family-oriented.”
At a glance
- What: Turkey Hill Grange Heritage Day and Open House
- Where: 1375 E. State Route 15 in Belleville (at Green Mount Road)
- When: 1 to 4 p.m. April 29
- Activities: Tours, historical photos, displays, refreshments and a dedication ceremony at 2 p.m.
- Information: Visit www.turkeyhillgrange.org or call 618-234-8227