The complete restoration of the Hartland Music Hall by its caretaker, Don Thompson, 68, has been a labor of love for 26 years.
Walking through the music hall today, many people would have no idea the amount of time and effort one man put in to help return the historic location back to its former glory.
In the late 1980's, after seeing the rundown condition of the building that was once the social epi-center of Hartland, Thompson devoted decades to helping restore an important piece of Hartland's history for future generations to use and enjoy.
Renovated in the 1930’s by J. Robert Crouse, the was envisioned to be the cultural center of the Hartland Area Project. Sparing no expense, Crouse invested $50,000 dollars into transforming the former church into a state of the art facility in the small town.
“He (Crouse) had the best of everything,” Don Thompson said. “The lightening system that he put in here in 1932 would rival anything that Detroit had- Fox Theater and all that.”
For decades, the music hall was exactly what Crouse set out for it to be and the building was well maintained and cared for until around the 1960’s, according to Thompson. Then, when a shift in the culture occurred, the hall suffered from years of neglect, vandalism and misuse.
“It was state of the art everything that he (Crouse) put in here and to have it all destroyed is really just a shame,” Thompson said.
The Restoration Begins
Thompson and his family moved to Hartland in 1976 and for many years he was focused on his appliance business in Ann Arbor. It wasn’t until his children participated in a Christmas play in 1986 that Thompson got his first glimpse of the music hall.
Curious about the building, Thompson began exploring and asking questions about the history and maintenance. The Hartland Music Hall is owned by the schools and is funded through money set up through a foundation Crouse had created years before.
After studying the structure and history, Thompson offered to volunteer his time and was given permission to start some repairs in the late 80’s. The first project Thompson took on was re-finishing the stage, but even he had no idea of the treasures he would find as he slowly began bringing the building back to life.
According to Thompson, "gaudy" paint colors and paneling styles of the 70's and 80's covered the music hall, hiding not only the floors and walls, but all the original woodwork as well.
The solid wood doors, also original to the building, were of the best quality, but when Thompson dug them out of depths of the building, they were practically destroyed. The original brass, such as door handles and vents, had turned black from years of neglect.
It was the organ, however, the crowning jewel of the hall in Crouse’s time with over 1000 pipes, that was almost unrecognizable. The organ, which comes with the family legend that Henry Ford had also wanted the instrument, but Crouse was able to get the organ "out from under him" was installed for $12,000-- an almost unheard of price at that time.
Under all the paint that had been carelessly spilled or splattered on it over the years, Thompson was able to restore the piece which has been the focal point of the music hall for almost 80 years.
Bringing History Back to Life
“I probably have 40,000 hours of time in this building,” Thompson said. “No one except people who have been here back in the early 80s would understand what has been done since then because there’s nothing that looks the same as it did in 1985 or 86.”
Referring to himself as a jack-of all trades and history lover, the music hall became a passion for Thompson. Over the years, Thompson said he took on the big projects, with some help, such as refinishing the floors, replacing all the chairs and stripping off and then repainting the walls. Along the way, Thompson has touched every single inch of the building as he discovered it's secrets and history along the way.
“It’s a great feeling,” Thompson said. “It’s exciting for me. History has always been something that I’ve enjoyed- no matter what kind of history it is.”
Even the smallest details weren’t overlooked with Thompson spending hours of his day researching blueprints or searching across the county for replacement locks systems for doors that were built in the 30’s. Many days his wife would bring his lunch to the hall where he working on weekends or at night on projects.
In 1988, Thompson helped start the Adopt-A-Chair program where the community was given the opportunity to sponsor a new chair for $100.
“It was amazing how many people that had something to do with the hall or had grown up here or gone to school or graduated from here or whatever, bought a chair right away,” he said.
Eventually, through a community effort, all 236 seats were adopted and paid for and nameplates were made up and then personally added to each chair by Thompson.
The Caretaker of Hartland Music Hall
With the restoration process complete, as the caretaker, Thompson still continues to voluntarily maintain the building, making sure that the hall is looked after on a daily basis.
John Crouse and King MacBride, grandsons of J. Robert Crouse, say that their family is grateful to Thompson for stepping in to help restore the hall, a place that meant so much to their grandfather.
"It means everything to my family," John Crouse said. "We are so indebted to him and could never thank him enough."
Several other members of J. Robert Crouse's family agreed, describing the work Thompson has done over the years as "beautiful."
"This is a kind of a testimony to his (Thompson's) volunteer spirit in keeping this place alive," MacBride said. "Hartland and the wider community needs to know that."
The hall is open to rent for certain events such as weddings which gives some opportunities for Thompson and his small staff to receive some type of compensation. But, according to Thompson his work restoring and maintaing the special piece of history has never been about the money.
“There’s a lot of people who know that I’m kind of in charge of all this stuff and do this, but I would say the majority of people have no idea I do this,” Thompson said. “I do it because it’s my return to the community. The community has been good to me, I’ve had a very good life here in Hartland.”
Don Thompson is part of our "Greatest Person" series for Hartland Patch. If you know someone who does great things for the community and should be highlighted, send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.