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Preserving a useful Middlesex landmark

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Freeshade Community Center on Regent Road at Syringa is available to rent for events. Above, the board of directors includes, from left, Pete O’Neal, co-president Richard Tucker, treasurer Dick Kurtz, Joe Coberly (holding Ernie), Betty Lou Wright, and co-president Mary Tucker. Not pictured are vice president Catherine Ferree and secretary Ann O’Herron. (Photo by Tom Chillemi)

by Tom Chillemi

If Freeshade Community Center could talk, it would tell stories of happy times. From school recitals to reunions, and variety shows to square dances, this former school auditorium has seen and heard a lot in its 72 years.

It was in 1970 that a group of local residents decided to save old Syringa School’s neglected, vacant auditorium and stage, which was built in 1936 as a Workers Progress Administration project of The New Deal. The auditorium was an addition to the school, whose cornerstone was set in 1911.

The auditorium is still a community center in the purest sense of the word. Local folks working together have created a social place that is a throwback to times when people made their own entertainment. Singing, dancing, performing plays and variety shows in the intimate auditorium have been natural stress relievers that stimulate the mind, body and spirit—as no iPod or video can.

Members of Freeshade Community Center (FCC) are determined to keep their building lively and available for functions, said Anne O’Herron, who has been board secretary for 22 years. The building, with its large kitchen, can be rented for $100 for parties, receptions, dinners and dances. “It is a challenging time for organizations and people alike, but we’re determined,” she said.

The FCC has been the home of the Stepping Stones Square Dancers, who took over management of the building in 1999. However, by 2006 building expenses totaled more than rentals.

There was even a suggestion of selling the building, said O’Herron, “But the FCC board members and the relatives of former board members did not want to lose what they believe to be a county landmark.”

The boards of the FCC and the Stepping Stones have joined forces to put new energy toward making the historic building a vibrant part of the community again.

Richard and Mary Tucker of Urbanna became co-presidents and Dick Kurtz of Gloucester, also of the Stepping Stones, became treasurer. Catherine Ferree of Topping remains vice president and O’Herron of Topping continues as secretary. They started calling members of both organizations to become new members or to renew their membership at Freeshade, and now there are about 40 members, said O’Herron.

It appears the stage is set for Freeshade Community Center to get back on track. The bluegrass music starts again on the fourth Saturday in February. Square dancing is on the first and third Saturdays, and practice for round and square dancing is held each Thursday night. Contact Harold and Ann Carneal at 758-5421 for square dancing information.
Yoga classes may be offered in the future.

Working together

Many members have pitched in to do whatever is necessary to keep Freeshade available, said O’Herron. Mary Allen and Paula Revere, nieces of Vernah Revere and Mabel Wiggins, who were mainstays of Freeshade since its early days, with assistance from cousin Betty Wright, took on responsibilities in the cleaning of the building and grounds, and chairing most of the fundraisers and bake sales that have taken place the past two years.

They also helped Ann Tucker paint and rejuvenate the two bathrooms in the building. Dick Kurtz cut the grass for a number of years, and now member Joe Coberly has taken over this responsibility.

A group of men, including Kurtz, Coberly, Richard Tucker, Brown Sibley, William Wright and others worked this summer to repair damage from vandalism, convert the baseball backstop into a locked fence to protect utilities in the back of the building, and add sensor lights.

Pete O’Neal made and painted the new sign. Amy Wright held an art show at the building and also conducts yoga classes.

Freeshade members are involved volunteers who try to have a good time in the process, said O’Herron. Covered-dish dinners often precede meetings to give members a little time to get acquainted.

Membership dues are just $40 per family or $25 for singles per year. A one time rental of the building is $100, with a discount given to members. For information regarding membership or donations, call Mary Tucker at 758-0290 or O’Herron at 758-4801. For rental information on the building call Mary Allen at 758-4110.

Related Story: Memories of Freeshade

posted 12.23.2008

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