On Swan’s Island, there is a grand, old three-story building that stands proudly along the side of Harbor Road. For Swan’s Islanders it is a place that holds precious memories. That place is the Odd Fellows Hall.
Today, there are very few active members left in the Swan’s Island chapter of the International Order of Odd Fellows and they struggle financially to pay utilities and to maintain and upgrade the building. In 2000, the members borrowed money to replace the siding and windows on the Odd Fellows Hall, leaving them with a mortgage to repay. The Hall, as it is affectionately referred to on the island, is more than 100 years old.
Three years ago, major damage was occurring inside the building due to a badly leaking roof. Sonny Sprague, an island resident, understood the urgency of getting a new roof on the building before too much damage occurred and the building would be lost forever. That summer, Sprague made public and personal appeals in an effort to raise the money needed to replace the roof. By the end of the summer, the funds needed were raised and the roof was replaced at the cost of $45,000. Sprague’s efforts netted more than what was needed for the roof, an indicator of people’s love for the old building. The additional money was used to install a fire escape from the second floor and for some upgraded wiring, plumbing and carpentry work.
On the island, there is a special feeling about the old building. Sprague says, “The Hall has character.” It evokes special memories for those who grew up on Swan’s Island, representing a time when music and dancing were weekly and sometimes nightly events. In its glory years, the building was used year-round for many different purposes. Now it is used only during the summer months.
Seventy-six year-old Randy White has fond memories of the Odd Fellows Hall. He remembers his eighth grade graduation, which took place on the second floor of the Hall. In 1950, White, and four classmates, graduated. During a visit to the hall recently, White’s memories came flooding back to him, “The graduation here at the hall was the big event of everyone who went to the schools. We all went to different schools on the island, but when graduation time came from the eighth grade we all came together in this Hall for that graduation ceremony. So it was a very special time for each of us.”
The Hall was built in 1909 when Freeman Stanley, a carpenter from Rockland, submitted a bid of $5,485 for its construction. Plans were approved to construct a building 40 feet by 85 feet, three stories high with a 20-foot stage area on the second floor. It is said that one of the primary requirements of the Odd Fellows’ members was that the building be larger than the two-story hall erected on Swan’s Island by the rival Redmen’s Lodge in 1908, just a year earlier.
Stanley finished construction with help from members of the Odd Fellows Lodge and on October 26, 1909, the Odd Fellows Hall was formally dedicated. Dignitaries arrived on the steamboat from Rockland and marched from the harbor up to the Hall to the accompaniment of the Rockland Military Band.
For more than 100 years, the Hall has served the community in a variety of ways. Dances, graduations, wedding receptions, breakfasts, suppers, theatrical productions, musicals, Halloween haunted houses, Christmas parties and town meetings have all taken place at the Odd Fellows Hall. In 1922, a room in the front of the Hall began to serve as the Town Office and continued to serve that purpose until the mid 1960s.
Currently, there are many events that take place at the Hall during the busy summer season. John MacKay, a summer resident from Florida, has continued the work of the late Gene Jellison, who formed the Hockamock Players, a local theater group. Each summer MacKay assembles a group of talented and enthusiastic performers and presents musicals, dramatic plays, and comedies. MacKay even shot a dance scene for a movie at the Hall two summers ago. The second floor of the Hall boasts a wonderful stage and seating area, perfect for theatrical and musical performances. “When I first started coming to Swan’s Island it was apparent that the Hall had been the center of activity for a long time, but over the years it had suffered from neglect. My aim is to increase the use of the Hall again,” said MacKay. MacKay not only directs productions at the Hall, but he has volunteered hundreds of hours, along with his wife Paula, making improvements to the stage area, the lighting, and the sound system in the Hall’s second floor. “I look forward to coming up to the island every year to continue to improve the Hall and promote its usage,” MacKay added.
Dances at the Hall have been sporadic over recent years, but this year, Island Institute Fellow Kate Webber has been committed to organizing a series of contra dances. Webber invited off-island musicians and callers to provide the music and the instruction for the dances. “It is good to see the hall filled with music and dancing again. It reminds me of old times,” Sprague said. Webber also started a new island band, “Noah’s Ballast.” The band has delighted audiences by their many performances on the island including several at the Hall. Each summer, the Hall hosts the Sweet Chariot Music Festival, an eclectic gathering of musicians, now in its 24th year. For three consecutive nights, the music festival draws hundreds of music lovers—islanders, summer visitors, and schooner passengers, who come together in the Hall to enjoy a mix of sea shanties and folk music.
Through fundraising appeals, dances, Sunday breakfasts, potluck suppers, proceeds from the Hockamock Players and other events, and the support of the Town of Swan’s Island, the Odd Fellows Hall has seen dramatic improvements in the appearance and usefulness of the building in the last few years, but there’s still a long way to go. Volunteers have tackled much work inside the building. A cleaning weekend orchestrated by MacKay revealed much of the building’s past uses—hundreds and hundreds of bingo cards and chips, Halloween and Christmas decorations, furnishings, old lumber, and more had to be lugged down several flights of stairs, outside and into a pickup truck and hauled to the island dump. Once everything was cleaned out, it was easier to assess the condition of the building and prioritize the needs.
There’s no doubt that the Odd Fellows Hall has played an important part in Swan’s Island history, but what’s in store for the future? Sprague, along with help from others, is working to raise the money necessary to complete the renovations needed to ensure that the building is safe, attractive, and functional and that it will serve Swan’s Island for at least another 100 years or more. An additional $130,000 is still needed to complete the work at the Hall.
The Odd Fellows Hall is a very special part of the Swan’s Island community. It is a place where people gather for events; islanders, summer people, and visitors. Sprague says, “It’s the one place where everyone can come together—all of us.”
Donna Wiegle is a freelance contributor living on Swan’s Island.