The fire that destroyed Wescustogo Hall in North Yarmouth on Friday hit dozens of families hard, but it may have caused the biggest heartache among members of the Devoe family.
Gary Devoe, 76, who lives in Portland now, helped clear the land for the Wescustogo Grange Hall in the early 1950s with his grandfather. His father contributed time and equipment to the construction. His sister Joyce Devoe Lawrence Larby, 81, held the first wedding reception there in 1953.
Larby said she remembers when the Saturday bean suppers there drew hundreds of people. Devoe remembers those bean hole suppers — when the kettles of beans cooked all day in a hole in the ground on top of rocks heated by a fire started early in the day — with something less than misty-eyed nostalgia.
“I was picked out to dig the damn thing,” Devoe said, volunteered by his father to start digging at 6 a.m. and get the huge kettles of beans in the ground by 7:30 a.m. Late in the afternoon, Devoe said he helped his father pull the kettles out, using a winch on a truck, and then headed into in the hall, where the supper was dished up for hundreds of residents seated at long tables.
“Then I had to go downstairs and serve,” he said. “If there was anything left, you were lucky.”
Wescustogo Hall was destroyed by the fire Friday. Fire officials said they don’t believe the fire was suspicious, but said the heat was so intense, they may never determine the cause.
There were once dozens of such halls in Maine, built by chapters of the National Grange, which was founded after the Civil War to promote farming and support rural communities. Many that still remain are on the National Register of Historic Places and have often been converted into community centers.
Larby said her memories of the hall in North Yarmouth are strong and include the bean suppers and an annual day of games, contests and performances, usually in August. After she married and started to have children, she looked forward to the cutest baby contest.
“I had six children and they all won,” she said from Washington state, where she moved 14 years ago to be closer to her children. “People would say, ‘You don’t want the Lawrence family entering anymore; they win all the prizes.’“
Many people looked forward to the Saturday bean suppers all week, she said, even those who worked to prepare and serve the meals of beans, biscuits and homemade pies.
“Everybody pitched in and helped. You had to. Somebody was always at the sink, washing dishes for the next seating,” she said, and there were usually four or five seatings.
The hall became a community gathering place, Larby said.
“We had our Grange meetings there, we had our (talent) shows, there was bingo played there, wedding receptions. All kinds of things done in that hall,” she said.
Larby said the last time she thought about the hall was last month, when she came back to Maine for a sister’s funeral and was looking for a place to hold a reception after the service.
But she was told the hall was being renovated and wasn’t available, Larby said.
Devoe said his memories might not be so fond because the family moved when he was 13 from Portland, where the family lived while his father worked in the shipyards during World War II, to a farmhouse on 12 acres in North Yarmouth.
“I was a city boy, and they brought me out to the country and I wasn’t too happy about that,” he said. And, to keep him busy, his father was always “donating” his son’s time, to do things for the Grange or volunteer for the town fire department.
But he also remembers singing at the Wescustogo Hall. And his name, along with others who contributed to building the hall, was embroidered into the curtain that hung in front of the stage.
“To see history like that go away, it was heartbreaking,” he said.
Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: