Still centers of farm community, Granges adapt in a changing world - Salish Current
March 13, 2024
Still centers of farm community, Granges adapt in a changing world
Adam M. Sowards

The good times have long rolled at Grange halls, where communities gather to dance or listen to music as well as hold informational sessions on farming techniques or political issues. Today, with shrinking membership, Grange halls adapt, providing space for art shows, farmers markets or even church services — still meeting community needs. Posters backstage at the Rexville Grange, outside La Conner, recall some of the good times enjoyed there. (Adam M. Sowards / Salish Current © 2024)

March 13, 2024
Still centers of farm community, Granges adapt in a changing world
Adam M. Sowards

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Have you seen a Grange hall recently?

Some of them sit on out-of-the-way roads or alongside vegetable fields. Others are nested in suburban and even industrial surroundings, or along well-traveled roads. While some look grand and inviting, others are plain and functional.

Grange halls throughout Northwest Washington represent rural communities and the farmers who work there, past and present.

“I think the hall is a symbol of that,” said Cathy, president of Rexville Grange outside La Conner, who prefers the privacy of an anonymous surname. “If it’s here, the farmers are here. If they start going away, then it’s kind of telling the farmers no one is thinking of them and that would be a tragedy.”

When Cathy joined the Grange three decades ago, Skagit County had 10 active Granges; now, there are five. Whatcom County has six; San Juan County three.

That could be a worrying sign, yet Granges continue to adapt and persist as they have since they were founded more than a century ago.

The Grange tells us something about how rural communities organize themselves. They continue to serve their communities, even as they struggle to adapt to aging populations and evolving needs.

‘Patrons of Husbandry’

The Washington State Grange is two months older than the state, established in 1889, although individual Granges, known as Subordinate Granges, formed earlier. The National Grange was started in 1867 as the Order of Patrons of Husbandry by a handful of employees working in the newly launched U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Rexville Grange was originally built in 1927 for $5,000. In 1946, the frame was raised and the basement level added for $14,000 — along with donated labor. It is the largest Grange hall in the state. Besides Grange functions, it can serve as a Red Cross shelter, and farmers store their equipment on the grounds when floods are predicted. (Adam M. Sowards / Salish Current © 2024)

Although it began in the nation’s capital, the Grange grew fastest in the Midwest. By 1873, more than 10,000 local Granges had been organized, hastened by a national depression. Two years later, membership topped 800,000.

Farmers found the Grange attractive for social, technical and political reasons.

Local Granges softened rural isolation. In some ways, not much has changed.

“The Grange traditionally has held a role of providing a location and opportunity for people to get together to share knowledge, to share ideas, perhaps to share expertise in activities related to” farming, said Andy Snow, president of Rome Grange, located on Mount Baker Highway east of Bellingham.

“Community, family, cooperation. I think that’s how it all started,” said Lew Gaskill, secretary of Ten Mile Grange just south of Lynden. “The farmers got together as a co-op and found that by working together they could be more successful than just individual.”

Farmers organized their Granges. Then they built their halls.

Not quite uniform, Grange halls do resemble each other, because they served specific, common functions. 

Long and skinny, the buildings typically have an open hardwood floor with benches along the wall, ensuring good space for dancing. A stage stands at one end. On a lower level, a large kitchen and meeting room allows people to share meals.

These activities supported — and created — families.

“The reason also they have the Grange is because farmers didn’t meet women, and women didn’t meet men,” said Cathy, with a laugh.

The Grange helped gather people who understood what it took to farm.

More than dancing and courting

Social activities seamlessly evolved into general community support.

Historically, Granges helped farmers market and purchase goods cooperatively to gain better prices. 

Lew (left) and Oren Gaskill met square dancing in a Grange hall; now, they are active as secretary and treasurer of Ten Mile Grange, south of Lynden. (Adam M. Sowards / Salish Current © 2024)

State Granges hired agents to negotiate purchases and sales, and local communities formed co-ops for this, too.

Granges’ economic role has decreased, but their purpose to support rural communities continues. 

The state Grange is “dedicated to improving the quality of life of Washington’s residents through the spirit of community service and legislative action,” according to its website.

“We advocate for what is best for the community,” said Oren Gaskill, treasurer of the Ten Mile Grange (and husband to Lew).

Local Granges are no longer typically places where farmers gather at the end of the harvest day to eat and unwind. But they remain community gathering places.

In the past, the Rome Grange has offered candidate forums and monthly pancake breakfasts. The Ten Mile Grange hosts dances and a church. The Rexville Grange presents art shows and a summer Shakespeare theater.

Most halls can be rented, which helps pay for the upkeep and keep the local Granges solvent, while providing places for weddings, memorial services and various community classes.

The Rexville Grange is a Red Cross shelter that housed 300 people when Fir Island flooded in 1991. When floods are predicted, local farmers park equipment there on higher ground.

Rome Grange hosts a farmers market on Fridays in the summer. 

“Much of rural Whatcom County is a food desert where folks do not have access to fresh foods that are an affordable price,” said Snow. This farmers market offers locally grown food at the edge of that food desert in Whatcom County. “If you can provide both a source of more fresh foods, but also a place for small, perhaps new artisanal farmers to sell their wares, you’re killing two birds with one stone.”

Knitting together and serving rural communities where they need it is the heart of the Grange’s past and present.

“The need is for community and trying to keep people connected are just as real today as they were a hundred years ago. Perhaps they’re different, but learning from each other, having meals together, lobbying together, knowing each other, getting to know each other so that in the event of an emergency, a disaster, a flood, that you actually might know your neighbor, you’ve had pancakes with them at the monthly breakfast — those are important things,” said Snow.

Political but not partisan

When the Grange started more than 150 years ago, it immediately agitated politically.

In the 1870s, its anger was directed at railroads and other businesses that seemed to farmers to be monopolistic and profiting unduly from farmers’ labor.

These intermediaries between the farmers as producers and the public as consumers charged high fees and profited without doing the labor themselves. This earned the ire of rural America.  

“The railroads were run by barons,” said Cathy. “They would squeeze farmers out of business by using unfair practices. So the farmers got together, and they were a very effective lobby.”

The Ten Mile Grange hall, like most, features a stage and open floor plan, functional for meeting, entertaining and dancing. Hall rentals help keep local Granges afloat financially and benefit local families and organizations who use them. (Adam M. Sowards / Salish Current © 2024)

A series of so-called Granger laws were passed in states to regulate railroads and grain elevators on behalf of farmers.

Eventually, in a landmark case, Munn v. Illinois, the Supreme Court found in favor of the regulations.

From the start, the Grange stood up for rural Americans at a time when industrialization and urbanization were accelerating and threatening to overrun rural America.

Today, rural residents know similar feelings of being underrepresented and misunderstood.

The Grange “provides a political voice to people whose issues are not being addressed by political parties,” said Oren Gaskill.

That has long included rights of women. It was the first fraternal organization to allow women and men to be on equal footing, said Cathy.

The National Grange favored women’s suffrage in 1893, after several state chapters already adopted it.

If women and men worked side by side on farms, the Grange reasoned, they deserved to vote side by side at polling stations. 

And today, the Washington State Grange supports the Equal Rights Amendment.

Grassroots political clout

The Grange touts its grassroots, nonpartisan approach and a focus on issues.

Local Granges come together to write resolutions when an issue moves members. They take it to the Pomona — what the Grange calls its county-level organization. If agreed to, it advances to the state level. If relevant and approved, it carries to the national level.

According to the state Grange website, “Our primary legislative objective is to represent the views of rural residents and the agriculture community.”

Local Granges reflect that same perspective.

“Around here, farmers belong to this Grange, and we are here to advocate for whatever they think would be important that is also good for the society and the community,” said Cathy.

They point to significant legislative achievements. According to local members, the Grange pushed for the universal cost of postage so distant rural residents were not penalized, rural electrification, yellow-painted school buses to increase visibility and Washington’s top-two primary system that the Grange argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The organization’s legislative policies are published annually in the Legislative Handbook, a handy collection that shows rural interests.

Its priorities for this year included opposing the removal of any dams in the Columbia-Snake River system, opposing riparian buffers that would take farmland out of production, repealing the state’s carbon credit auction program, repealing the capital gains tax, supporting “seasonal flexibility” for paying agricultural workers overtime and expanding rural broadband.

A vintage poster promotes agricultural activities and Grange principles. (Library of Congress)

High-speed internet today is analogous to the rural electrification efforts from the 1920s and 1930s.

They focus on issues, not parties, a strategy that can help mitigate today’s divisive politics.

It is steadfastly nonpartisan. 

“The Grange is politically active but not partisan,” said Oren Gaskill. “We do not support any political party.”

At meetings, discussions can touch on politics, but, according to the Gaskills, arguments move on quickly.

The Grange can also blunt the divisiveness of current politics by offering something more positive.

“I really, really do think that the downfall of this country and the deep political rifts that we have that are really quite toxic can be addressed by people getting together to have fun, to learn from each other, to share common dreams for their community,” said Snow. “The Grange still has … a very strong positive role in the reparative needs that we have as a society.”

Titles and rituals are gone but ‘aging out’ persists

The Grange has survived more than 150 years, but not without changes.

Officers in the organization went by the labels “master” and “overseer,” reflecting titles from British estates, not Southern antebellum ones. Recently, the Grange has encouraged members to change this language to “president” and vice president” to avoid connotations with “the heinous time of American slavery,” according to the National Grange.

The rituals, so important when starting in the 1860s, have faded in importance, too.

What will attract new members in the 2020s remains an important question.

Local Grange membership is low and concerns about “aging out” are widespread. Rexville Grange once counted 300 members, but today it hovers about 30. Rome Grange includes 42 paying members with about 10 being active. Ten Mile Grange has approximately 30 members, half of them no longer paying dues because fees are waived after 50 years of membership.

That longevity points to both the importance members have placed on their involvement and the reality that without an infusion of new members these organizations are vulnerable.

But the population that constitutes the Grange has always been vulnerable.

The Grange originated at a time when the United States was still majority rural but rapidly urbanizing. Farmers recognized their economic and political interests needed protection.

Today, that need continues even as communities, economies and politics are rapidly changing.

On Sundays at Ten Mile Grange, the Iglesia Christiana Ebeneser Church meets for Spanish-language services.

On the one hand, the founders in 1867 would likely not have envisioned their secret organization evolving to host such a gathering. On the other, they wanted a place for isolated rural Americans to find community. After 157 years, maybe not much has changed after all.

— Reported by Adam M. Sowards

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