Greenfield Hill Grange Fair showcases firmly rooted traditions
Updated 8:52 am, Thursday, September 20, 2012
The annual Greenfield Hill Grange Fair on Saturday was a nod to Fairfield's agricultural history, featuring live chickens, a gardening lecture, a display of antique farming tools and competitions of submitted entries in gardening, baking, and arts-and-crafts categories.
Eric Fiske of the Fairfield Community Garden at Drew Park offered a lecture on multi-season gardening, encouraging people to plant lettuce, kale, beets, baby spinach and other cold weather-tolerant vegetables that can be planted late in the season and still produce a yield before the winter arrives.
"You can't plant squash or tomatoes but most lettuce likes the cold weather," Fiske said, in particular black-seeded Simpson and red sails varieties. Brussels sprouts are also hardy, he said.
Jim Golias and his brother Steve, both of Fairfield, entered some of their home-grown produce in the fair; Jim earning several second-place ribbons for his sweet banana peppers and husky red cherry tomatoes, and Steve got a few first-place blue ribbons for his green bell peppers, green beans and eggplants.
"I was always interested in gardening. You put a seed in the ground and see it develop and grow, and then you eat the harvest. There's nothing like a garden tomato," Jim Golias said.
Georgia Sayers of Fairfield and her daughter Kayleigh, 8, admired the entries, which included hand-sewn quilts, hand-made pottery, hand-woven baskets and home-made jam. "We like visiting fairs around town and seeing some of the prize-winning fruits and vegetables, and it's a beautiful day," Sayers said.
The well-attended grange fair offered no hint at the dwindling numbers to its membership in recent years, not just in Fairfield but across the state and nation, as rows of corn and other vegetables are replaced with rows of houses.
"In Fairfield County granges are declining because of the decline in farming. There are six granges struggling and limping along (but) we're still alive and kicking," said Geno Piacentini, treasurer of the Greenfield Hill Grange Fair.
"Years ago it used to be more of a farm organization. Now it's more social activities," said Barbara Standley of Trumbull, a member of the Harmony Grange in Monroe. She and friend Alice Salvas of Monroe attended the Greenfield Hill Grange event to support its members.
Standley and Salvas said they have been grange members for more than 50 years.
"We're getting older and not many are coming in (as members)," Standley said.
One exception is Emma Gleysteen, 14, of Fairfield, a new member of the Greenfield Hill Grange 133. Emma took a high profile role at the fair Saturday setting up two fenced areas to display her Ameraucana, Buff Orpington, White Cochin and other chickens. Emma allowed young children to hold her 3-week-old chicks and provided information informally on raising chickens. Maggie Buck of Southbury offered a scheduled lecture on the same subject.
Piacentini said the Greenfield Hill Grange is trying to attract more rentals to raise money, which would be used to make improvements to the grange hall. It was built in 1897, four years after the Greenfield Hill Grange was established.
According to the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation website the Colonial Revival grange hall "is a well preserved example of a vanishing rural building type ... The grange contains an assembly room, dining hall and second floor theater."
Wooden wainscoting, pressed metal sheathing on the walls and ceiling, and decorative egg-and-dart ovolo molding are among many of the original vernacular details of this building, the website says.
"People want to see this old grange preserved. It's been exciting for them to see life in this building today," said Karen MacDonald, Piacentini's wife.
Teddy Coley, 83, of Weston, a member of that town's Norfield Grange 146, said he's been coming to the Greenfield Hill Grange hall since he was a kid. "We hired a band and had dances here all during the war (World War II)," said Coley, who remembers a time when about 125 people would come to the Fairfield grange hall for regional meetings. As the numbers dwindled the existence of the local grange was called into question.
About four years ago, the Greenfield Hill Grange almost closed, MacDonald said, but there is a real effort to revitalize this local grange and others throughout the state, she said.
Members are clinging to the organization's past while embracing the future. "We honor historic traditions but we're also progressive. We're involved in legislative and consumer issues," said MacDonald. "The grange is for fellowship and fun but there are also projects that we work on," she said.
"What does this mean for our time and our place?" asked Beth Bradley, vice president of the Greenfield Hill Grange. Bradley envisions the local grange as a place to promote and support sustainable living initiatives and green practices. "This is the place where we should be doing this," said Bradley, who also entertained the crowd as a guitarist and singer with the Dini Band, one of several groups that performed at the event.
Bradley thinks the mission of the grange can be repurposed, perhaps by integrating the efforts of several local groups including the Fairfield Woods Library branch seed bank and the Fairfield Community Garden, bringing the grange into the 21st century without letting go of its rich agricultural past.
"I'm hoping we can make something special here," Bradley said.
Amie Hall of Fairfield, a Square Foot Garden certified teacher, said that concept fits right in with the original mission of granges. "The grange halls take us back to our roots and where we came from. It connects us with the land, our farmers, our food, and, most importantly, it builds community.
"It's about human connection and what we can learn from each other," she said.
Coley said he was encouraged by the turnout at Saturday's fair, which he thinks helps to introduce children to agricultural practices of the past. He is also encouraged by the number of people who are tending their own gardens, putting up preserves and doing things by hand.
"We're going back to a self-sustaining community," Coley said.
"I'm glad we're getting back to our farms here in Connecticut. You go to the grocery store and everything is pre-packaged. You wonder where it came from. I'm a farmer at heart," said Cathy Hessel of Fairfield.
Those interested in joining the Greenfield Hill Grange are invited to attend a meeting. Meetings are held the third Monday of every month at the grange hall, 1873 Hillside Road. Visit the local grange page on the National Grange website for more info -- www.grange.org/greenfieldhill133