By Alice E. Gerard
During World War II, Island residents feared the town would be attacked by enemy planes. Because of that fear, people crawled through a trap door at the Grand Island’s original Town Hall on Baseline Hall that led to the cupola, which was the highest point of the building.
The people standing at the cupola’s windows were “looking for planes, enemy planes,” said Town Historian Jodi Robinson.
Today, the cupola is the only part of the original Town Hall that survived after the building was demolished in 1968 and replaced by the structure that currently serves as Town Hall. It survives because, when the building was in the process of being demolished, Walter Kelly, founder of Kelly’s Country Store, asked if he could have the cupola. According to his grandson, Kevin Kelly, “He wanted to put it on Country Store property because he thought it would be nice for people to see part of history for Grand Island. There’s a lot of history behind that.”
Walter Kelly had a vision for a display on the property of Kelly’s Country Store, Kevin Kelly said. The plan was to include the cupola, an old one-room schoolhouse, and a white oak as parts of the display. “He got the schoolhouse moved from … I think it was Staley … and the cupola at the same time. He wanted to build a whole other little town over here. It never came to fruition, unfortunately. So now we have our fall festivals and things like that, so we kind of do it that way instead.”
“When my grandfather actually moved the cupola and the schoolhouse and he planted that white oak to show Grand Island because, at one time, Grand Island was all white oak. They made the masts for the clipper ships and the barrels for the molasses and rum. So, he actually planted a white oak back in 1970. And there it is now. She’s a slow grower, but she’s still doing good. I think that was one of my grandfather’s visions was that he always knew that to look back to the past was important to people, especially here on Grand Island,” Kelly said.
Over the years, however, the cupola fell into disrepair, despite efforts to display it as a piece of local history.
“My grandfather built a berm in the back, and we just displayed it in the back of the property. Through the years, it has deteriorated, and we had gotten some estimates, and they were pretty high. So, I called John and say, ‘Hey, do you want this cupola?’ ” Kelly said.
Supervisor John Whitney said, “I’m really glad that we took the initiative and we took this cupola over, because it was basically going to be lost to history if we didn’t.”
The cupola is now in the Town Highway Department’s garage, undergoing restoration. When it is complete, it will be restored to the condition that it was in when it sat on top of the original Town Hall.
According to Town Highway Department employee Steve Dickenson, who is acting as lead carpenter for the project, even though the cupola was in “rough shape” and “on its last legs,” “it’s got good bones.” Dickenson said “good bones” means that “the structure underneath was good. The pieces added to it were not as good. The pieces that were getting hit by the weather were rotting and rusting.”
Dickenson explained, “I started doing the framing on this and the carpentry maybe about three months ago, which would be late December, but we can’t always devote our attention to this because we have to plow and take care of the roads and do this and that. Which is why I had to take pictures and keep coming back to them so that I would put it back together the way that it was.”
Matthew Brown said that, as the assistant carpenter, he has been sanding the wood, as well as organizing the materials and unloading the wood, and that it will be painted white, the original color of the cupola.
The process of restoring the cupola is wonderful, Brown said. “I like to see the pictures that (Dickenson) has. I can’t remember everything because we don’t work on it every day. He said, ‘great bones on this thing.’ It wasn’t falling apart. Just the outside was bad. I used to build homes. This is like putting cabinets together. You have to take more time. It’s nothing that I haven’t done before. Steve ordered all of the wood, and has taken it over pretty well.”
In addition to the carpentry work, the cupola’s metal roof is also being rehabilitated. Mike Carlson, an experience metal worker who works for the Highway Department, said the process of rehabilitating the roof began with figuring out the gauge of the metal, which he discovered was 24 gauge, a thick gauge of metal. “I did all of the metal work, replaced the rotted-out steel. All of the trim. Top, bottom. I brought my metal brake in, and we just bent and formed all of the missing pieces and put it back on there.”
This is Grand Island’s original Town Hall, which was demolished in 1968. All that remains of the 100-year-old structure is the cupola. (Photo courtesy of Town of Grand Island Historian Jodi Robinson)
In 1968, the original Town Hall was demolished and was replaced by the structure that currently serves as Town Hall. (Photo courtesy of Town of Grand Island Historian Jodi Robinson)
Grand Island Highway Superintendent Richard Crawford said the cupola restoration is important to the history of the town because Grand Island has very few surviving historical structures. It’s “one of the best yet, when you think about the things that have been left to us. Most things either burnt down or were just torn down or destroyed. Fortunately, Mr. Kelly from Kelly’s Country Store had the foresight to save it. A little bit of negotiations with Kelly’s Country Store, and they turned it back over to the town.”
Robinson agreed: “There’s not a lot of historic things besides River Lea in Beaver Island State Park. There’s not a lot of historic buildings. There’s old farm houses. There’s old barns. But it’s not like you really go to visit. You could drive by. There wasn’t a lot of people here. There are some houses from the 1860s, but there aren’t a lot of them. So, having the cupola and restoring that is major. We’re hoping that it could be placed right in front of the current Town Hall, where it was located back in the day, so it would be facing Baseline Road. So, it would be in the location it was originally. Then we’re hoping to get story boards up in front of it, a little walkway up to it, lights shining on it. Besides River Lea, that would be pretty much the only thing that you can go visit.”
Crawford explained, “This project has been going on with the blessings of the Historical Society and also our town’s historical committee, the Historical Preservation Advisory Board. In the early discussions with them, we made the overture and pitched to them that we could rebuild a facsimile of that with the very talented men that we have in the Highway Department.”
The Grand Island Historical Society has also been working closely with the Kelly family on preserving Grand Island history. “We’ve been in close contact with the Grand Island Historical Society with the schoolhouse. They’ve come in here during our fall festival, and they show Grand Island history right there in the schoolhouse. It’s been a pleasure to work with those folks,” Kelly said.
Once the restoration process is complete, the next decision will be where to place the cupola. According to Crawford, “Our hopes are to put it in a very accessible location in town. Town Supervisor John Whitney and I have talked about a couple of locations. We’re not ready to say where it’s going to go, because we’ve got some preplanning to do at this time; but I think that, when that decision is made, it will be an actual addition and asset to the history of the Town of Grand Island.”
Whitney agreed. Of the location for the cupola, he added, “That hasn’t been decided yet. We had discussed a couple of different locations for it to memorialize the former Town Hall. If you look in the summertime, when we get a hot, dry summer, you can actually see the foundation, and it burns out the grass in front of the existing Town Hall, on the Baseline Road side, where the building physically sat. That is still evident. So, one thought is maybe to place it there. And then, in discussing it with Dick Crawford, he suggested possibly moving it to DeGlopper Park because, in the 1940s, that was used as a lookout for planes, because there was a fear that we might be attacked during World War II. So, I think that’s a pretty good idea. I’m sure that there will be other ideas to come forth as well.”
Whitney said, “If it does end up where DeGlopper Park is, we could put up a pedestal, with maybe a QR code with some information regarding the former Town Hall – when it was constructed, when it was demolished, some history of it – like I was talking with you about the lookout points and that the cupola was actually a lookout point. That sort of thing. We’d have to delve into the history a little bit more, maybe talk to our senior Island residents and see if anyone could put more information to it.”
Adding story boards, which would be similar in form to the story boards that are found at the walkway from the parking lot to the front door of River Lea in Beaver Island State Park, is an expensive process, however. Robinson, who has been a member of the town’s Historic Preservation Advisory Board, said discussions are being held about fundraisers to pay for the signage. “We were talking about maybe seeing if Kelly’s could do a chocolate in the shape of a cupola and that we could have different people selling it. Most of those story boards are anywhere between $6,000 and $7,000, as far as we know.”
Funding for the restoration of the cupola has been provided by the town, Whitney said. “We allocated the funds to do it. It’s already been taken care of and paid for.”
Whitney described the project as a ”collaborative effort. We’ve got a lot of talented guys that do a lot of great work, and they were able to get the metal for the flashing and put it on the brake and form it and all of the carpentry work that they’ve done. New windows. It’s really coming together well. We’re actually taking about (putting) something on the top, like a spiral, maybe 12 inches tall. If they can’t find that to purchase, they may just make it. They can turn it on a lathe, and it will come out fantastic.”
He added, “I’m really glad that we took the initiative, and we took this cupola over, because it was basically going to be lost to history if we didn’t. I think that what our guys in the Highway Department, namely Steve Dickenson, have been doing is fantastic. I was over there yesterday, looking at it, and it’s really coming along well. It’s looking great, and I can’t wait to see it when it’s finished.”
When asked how she felt about the project, Robinson said, “I feel great. I think it’s just one of the best things we’ve done. I’ve been on the advisory board for seven years, and I think that it’s one of the biggest things we’ve done besides getting an historic preservation ordinance. I think that this is super cool. This is what history is all about, is having things you can go look at, touch, and know the history behind – as opposed to just reading it in a book.”