The History of Citizens Hall
In the early 1880’s West Chesterfield’s Unitarian Female Benevolent Society raised money to build a citizens hall for social and communal gatherings. For more than a century it has been a special host to weddings and strawberry socials; quilting bees and girl scout meetings; basketball games and groups of women “stitching for the cause” through two world wars. Bands have enlivened its rooms with music. Countless dancers have swept across its floors. And from the first, it has been a home to live theater. Townspeople have filled the hall’s upstairs ballroom for productions staged by local theater groups, and troupes who arrived in horse-drawn buggies to present their shows from the neighboring towns of Hinsdale, Spofford and Guilford. And, when Vaudeville hit the road, entertainment from the big city found its way to Citizens Hall’s tiny stage. Since its completion in 1886, the building has been a rich, unifying presence in the region.
So pivotal a role has the building played in community life throughout its history that each succeeding generation has willingly taken on the responsibility of keeping the building in sufficiently good shape to fulfill whatever function the times demanded. For almost 100 years, this commitment went unbroken.
In the 1930s Citizens Hall was deeded to the Ladies Benevolent Society of West Chesterfield to use for charitable purposes, and has continued in its charge ever since. As years passed, the Society’s membership dwindled and use of the building decreased. As a result, repairs and maintenance ceased, and, sadly, Citizens Hall fell into serious disrepair. In 1975, a group formed to raise funds and rally the local citizenry to repair the building in preparation for the nation’s bicentennial celebration. The results were a new slate roof, pointing of the chimney and repair for some of the interior’s water damaged walls and doors. Unfortunately, the renovations were not sufficient to restore this once vital gathering spot to its former position of communal prominence, and for the next decade the building experienced further decline.
In January,1987, a local citizen learned that Brattleboro’s Actors Theatre was looking for a new home, and as an avid patron of our work, arranged to introduce us to Citizens Hall. The rest, as they say, is history. When members of the company arrived for a tour, both the front and back doors were open on broken hinges and snow drifts filled the building from one end to the other. Most of the windows were shattered and interior doors were destroyed or missing. The hand-painted stage curtain was ripped, and there was serious moisture damage throughout the building. Nevertheless, what we saw was the Citizens Hall’s potential . . . as the new home for the Actors Theatre.
The first problem we faced was finding the money to repair the damage and make the building even minimally habitable. One enthusiastic Board Member tackled the problem, and in less than two weeks single-handedly raised $4,000 in three year interest-free loans from twelve loyal patrons. Relying only on volunteers, we went to work and spent the entire summer and much of the fall of 1987 repairing doors, replacing more than one hundred window panes, cleaning and emptying the building, and adding plumbing to bring water into the facility for the first time in its history. Finally, we installed the seating, sound, and lighting equipment we had previously placed into storage. By October, Citizens Hall was ready for its first production in many a year. Our opening performance of “The Real Inspector Hound” fell on a frigid October night in our uninsulated new home. Fortunately, our audience’s enthusiasm for live theater proved more than a match for the challenge presented by the elements, and during intermission they headed for their cars to gather blankets, mittens and hats to bundle up. The show went on, (looking something like coach seating on the Siberian Express), and so began our fruitful, decade-long tenancy in Citizens Hall. Over the next three seasons we repaid our loans through box office receipts, then continued to use our own funding to work with local fire and safety officials to bring the building up to code.