Setting the Stage: The Westport Grange Historic Painted Curtain
Posted on May 25, 2023 by Jenny ONeill
Do you have information, photos, personal memories/memorabilia relating to the Westport Grange #181 or Watuppa Grange #365? Please contact Westport Historical Society to learn more about our effort to document this community organization.
Nearing its 100th birthday, Westport’s largest work of art, the historic painted stage curtain at Westport Grange # 181, has received some much needed TLC.
With funding from the Westport Cultural Council and an anonymous donor, paper conservators Chris Hadsel and MJ Davis of Curtains Without Borders have carefully cleaned and repaired the 8 ft. x 16 ft. historic painted curtain at Westport’s grange, keeping the patina appropriate to its age. Their goal, according to Hadsel, is to make the curtain “whole and readable, removing stains where possible, but not to make it look brand new.” Compared to stage curtains of a similar age which are often damaged by water, faded, or torn, the Westport grange curtain is in fairly good shape.
“The Westport Grange 181 is proud to display our restored curtain as documentation and preservation of this important part of Westport Grange and New England history,” Barbara Smith, President of the Grange noted:
The curtain now hangs at the back of the stage in the grange.
Paper conservators Chris Hadsel and MJ Davis travel throughout New England to repair historic painted theater curtains that hang in town halls, granges and opera houses. Chris has identified more than 400 curtains but, she notes ”no two curtains are the same.”
According to paper conservator Chris Hadsel, “these curtains were the primary artistic features in the cultural life of almost every village and town in northern New England. They also have interest as early examples of business support for the arts.”
Made of sailcloth, the Westport Grange curtain is known as a “grand drape” as the design includes painted stage drapery around the border. Hadsel notes that it is one of the smallest “fly curtains” (the mechanism used to raise the curtain) that she has found.
The curtain is not easily categorized, perhaps best regarded as a hybrid piece of art, somewhere between folk art, theatrical scenery, and advertising medium — a symbol of the significance of the grange and Westport’s agricultural heritage.
The curtain played a role during Grange rituals which often required a “big reveal” as part of their ceremony. Furthermore, the grange and its stage, was once a popular center for dances and other entertainment in an era when there was little else to do.
Dating from the 1930’s, the curtain displays ads from businesses in Westport, Fall River, and New Bedford. Its creator, Robert H. Chapelle (1890-1969), lived in Fall River where he worked as a sign maker and as a scenic painter in theaters. (Thanks to Robin Winters, Westport Public Library for this research).
The ads represent businesses possibly owned by Grangers. The cost of the curtain and its installation, approximately $175 – 200, was covered by money raised by each ad space.
In 1951, Westport resident Samuel Hadfield (1909-1978) updated the ads, overpainting several of them. Sam and his wife Marie lived for many years at Westport Point. Several other paintings by Samuel Hadfield including this mural of Westport Point still survive.
Several of the businesses advertised on the curtain are still in operation today, although the five digit ME (Mercury) telephone number will no longer reach them.
The Westport ads include:
Potter Funeral Service
Lees Oil Service
Albert E. Lees Inc.
Frank Slocum Auctioneer
Carlton Macomber General Auto Repairs
The central scene on the curtain depicts the customs house at the small port of Torbole on Lake Garda. “Casa del Dazio” is one of the most picturesque corners of Garda Trentino and one of the most photographed and painted by artists from all over the world. The building has been restored and is open to the public on special occasions. (https://www.tonellihotels.com/en/casa-del-dazio)
Such a scene may seem an unusual choice for Westport but romantic, fanciful European scenes, most commonly of Venice, were typical subjects for grange curtains.
This was not the only painted stage curtain in Westport. The Bell School also had a curtain, installed in 1909 when the building was known as Alumni Hall, functioning as a community hall. According to the Fall River Herald, the curtain was a “fine piece of scene painting representing The Head of Westport in 1950.”
The view included the river, a train shed, masts of ships, a steel bridge over the river, electric lights, and hydrants.
Another curtain, once located at Alumni Hall (the Bell School) appears in an image in the Westport Historical Society’s collection. The urban street scene included an ad for Cherry and Co, New Bedford.
In 1910 the Fall River Herald noted the arrival of a curtain at the Westport town hall, “painted especially for the hall and will be used principally by the Central Village Improvement Society.”
Sadly, unlike the grange’s curtain, these curtains have not survived.
“This project has highlighted how little we know about the history of the Westport Grange #181 and the Watuppa Grange #365,” said Westport Historical Society Executive Director Jenny O’Neill. “We would love to hear from members of the local community with information, photos or memorabilia that might help document the history of this organization.”
For further information about historic painted theater curtains, visit:
The Westport Grange and the Westport Historical Society seek further information about the history of the Westport Grange #181 and the Watuppa Grange #365. Members of the public are invited to share information, photos and memorabilia at a Grange History Day on Thursday August 10, 2023. Please contact Westport Historical Society to learn more about our effort to document this community organization.