Volunteers remembered at Union Hall dedication

Volunteers remembered at Union Hall dedication

Image Credit: Teri Stein

Every town should be so fortunate as to have a museum like Port Washington’s Union Hall. It holds memories of the town from its canal days to its Purple Riders and even personal items donated by residents.

The three-story building was finished in 1879 and originally served many purposes. The first floor held the fire department, mayor’s office and jail. The second floor contained a stage area for traveling shows, dances and local graduation ceremonies, and the third floor was rented to the local Port Washington Mason Lodge #202.

The Village of Port Washington owns Union Hall, and the building is listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings. It is cared for by the Port Washington/Salem Historical Society, a group that has been working on renovations of the third floor and the spiral staircase for the past two years.

The staircase is the centerpiece of the building that takes visitors from street level directly to the third floor. It is rumored to have been built at a cost of only $35.

The restorations were featured at a recent open house at Union Hall.

At the dedication ceremony, hometown veterans were honored, the local Boy Scout Troop #429 led the Pledge of Allegiance and PWSHS President Michael Conaway gave some thoughts on the project.

When the original building was built, the third floor was rented for 99 years by the Port Washington Mason Lodge #202. In 1977 the masons moved to a new lodge in Gnadenhutten, and with no one occupying the building, it fell into disrepair.

“At that time all the furnishings were removed, and in the subsequent years, the roof failed, the ceiling tiles fell to the floor, the water leaked into the 100-year-old carpet and plaster crumbled off the walls. Birds came in the missing vents, and simple neglect made the third floor into a complete disaster,” Conaway said, covering the items the group restored.

The room was a bright green when they started, but once the plaster was repaired, it was repainted white.

The roof was the first item to be repaired, and then the members had a challenge moving materials in and out as the third floor is only accessible by the spiral stairway and a set of metal steps on the outside of the building.

“That's when I and other members started carrying down 5-gallon buckets of plaster,” Conaway said of the clean-up.

There were smaller rooms in the back of the third floor that had lower ceilings put in by the masons.

“To get to the original look of the building, those were torn down,” Conaway said.

In stripping the old paint off the windows, they found clues to who had crafted the windows, which were all restored, and boards that were taken down that were marked as having come from riverboats on the canal.

The names discovered written on the window frames were not covered over in the restoration.

Past and current PWSHS volunteers were honored including the late Bruce Hibinger, who passed away unexpectedly in September. Hibinger was involved in the Port Washington/Salem Historical Society since the 1980s and was instrumental in the restoration of building.

Ann Wenzel, a member of the PWSHS, paid tribute to Hibinger during the dedication.

“As we sit here in this room, he surrounds us with his work. He purchased and hung the chandelier at the top of the stairs; sourced, cleaned and repaired, and installed the ceiling tiles above us; painted; replaced gutters; and pretty much touched every inch of the space,” Wenzel said. “It's a funny thing: This building and the pursuit to preserve our history never ends, but the caregivers in this quest come and go.”

Wenzel named other members of the historical society who had a hand in caring for Union Hall prior to their passing including Erma Sullivan, Loretta Couts, Bill Sagrilla, Lloyd Bender, Ryan Freeland, Jim Steinbach and Sarah Little. She was saddened to now add Hibinger to the list.

“The loss of Bruce is epic both in our hearts and within our organization. It will not take one but many to fill his spot, and I challenge those here today to step forward as the torch passes again,” Wenzel said. “Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘It is not the length of life but the depth of life.’ Bruce was taken from us too soon, but we certainly felt the depth of his convictions, faith, generosity, compassion and skills.”

In addition to his work on Union Hall, Hibinger also served the community as mayor and on council at Port Washington.

At the dedication, Danny Welsch, secretary of the Port Washington Lodge #202, spoke about the history of the masons in the area. Port Washington Mayor Tom Gardner presented a plaque that read, "Erected 1879, restored 2021. This landmark place is dedicated in honor of those tireless and inspired volunteers who created a new beginning from ruins and gave fresh life to this building for coming generations. May the future years be kind to these hallowed halls and to all who enter here, seeking a glimpse of the riches of Ohio’s past. Port Washington/Salem Historical Society, Nov. 7, 2021."

The volunteers won’t be resting long. They have plans for the first floor of the building, where floorboards were once covered by water during the flood of 1913, and they are always adding and changing displays.

Anyone who wishes to visit the museum may stop Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon when volunteers work at the building or call Conaway at 818-359-4422.