Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association
Halcyon Grange in Blue Hill has a state-licensed kitchen and bulk storage bins for grain.


By Betsy Garrold
Photos by the author

What has sprung dance floors, a stage and nurtures local agricultural traditions? The Grange, of course.

In Maine the Grange is seeing a resurgence of interest and relevance. As Maine continues to grow a new crop of young, savvy farmers, the Grange is becoming not only a social outlet for some but also, harkening back to its roots in populist politics, a place to organize around the needs and concerns shared by farmers everywhere.

The history of the Grange begins in the mid-1860s when, after the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson commissioned Oliver Hudson Kelley to survey the condition of southern farmers. After his return to Washington, Kelley joined with six others, most with farming backgrounds, to found The Order of Patrons of Husbandry, the National Grange. Notable among the initial group of organizers was Caroline A. Hall, who, according to the Connecticut State Grange, told the founders, "Your organization will not succeed unless you give an equal place to women." The Grange stood out in this time period as an organization that stressed gender equity. William Saunders, one of the original seven, was superintendent of the propagating gardens for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The group used his Washington, D.C., office as its initial organizing space, according to the National Grange.

By 1874 the Grange had 268,368 dues-paying members nationwide, thanks in large part to increasing awareness among farmers of the need to take a strong stand against the railroads and other middlemen who were siphoning off profits from farmers’ work and productivity. Through the Grange, farmers created ways to sell their crops, establish grain elevators for storage and buy goods cooperatively. Many communities boasted Grange stores. The Grange had an unsuccessful attempt to manufacture farm equipment and had early attempts at cooperative banking, according to Dorothy W. Hartman and Oliver Hudson Kelley's history of the organization.

The 1870s saw a boom and bust cycle in membership. At its height in 1875, national membership exceeded 850,000, according to Hartman and Kelley, but even when numbers declined, the Grange continued to support forward-thinking political ideals, such as women's suffrage, direct election of senators and fighting the excessive influence of rich and powerful entities such as the railroads.

The Grange also helped establish Rural Free Delivery (RFD) of mail in the United States, the Cooperative Extension system and regulation of grain warehouses. The Grange movement gave birth to the Populist Party and the Greenback Party.

Now young farmers all over the country are starting to see the Grange as a great example of community organizing in rural areas. The Greenhorns, with a mission to "recruit, promote and support the new generation of young farmers," is one such organization. In a recent blog post, it summarized one of its programs: "Grange Future is a community history project undertaken by The Greenhorns, a young farmers network, to help interpret both the past and future of the Grange movement, not in a nostalgic or abstract way, but as an appropriate institutional format for contemporary users who are concerned with rebuilding our food system. For today’s young farmers the Grange is a kind of syllabus in community-scale organizing, regional development, cooperative economics and kinship-based policy advocacy."

Today the National Grange has “grassroots units established in 3,600 local communities in 37 states,” according to the Maine State Grange website. The National Grange website says it counts "more than 160,000 members across the United States."

Maine State Grange

The Maine State Grange president/master, Vicki Huff – the first woman to hold this position – is excited about the great work going on around the state to revitalize local Granges. She credits the local chapters with reaching out across their communities to address issues faced by rural citizens everywhere.

"I truly believe that organizations can work together and learn from each other,” she says. “Each would bring something to the table that educates and elevates each other."

This is the spirit of the Grange. Each local chapter has an officer called the lecturer who is tasked to "plan a program containing educational, inspirational, entertaining, musical and recreational components at each regular meeting."

Each chapter also has a legislative committee. These committees vary in their activity. Recently the Oxford Pomona #2 (the county level Grange organization in Oxford County) proposed the following resolution to the State Grange at its fall 2014 Annual Session: "... that the Maine State Grange will use its influence to urge the passage of legislation for Food Sovereignty in Local Communities allowing municipalities to determine whether or not to adopt state and/or federal regulations and/or guidelines in regard to small farm production of commodities to be sold within the jurisdiction of those municipalities." The resolution did not pass but may be offered as a resolution again next year. (MOFGA's position on "Farmer Autonomy, Consumer Choice and Science-based Regulation" is posted on its website.)

Another way the Grange is making itself more relevant to younger farmers – and becoming more self-supporting, rather than having its buildings fall into disrepair or be sold to private owners – is by developing licensed commercial kitchens in old Grange halls. The Blue Hill (Halcyon # 345) and Farmington (Chesterville #20) Granges have retrofitted or even gutted and constructed commercial, state-licensed kitchens that local farmers and others can rent to produce value-added goods. And in the spirit of the original Grange, the Halcyon Grange recently installed bulk bins to store grain for the community and help local farmers reduce their grain bills by buying in bulk and decreasing transportation costs.

Postage stamp commemorating 100 years of National Grange.

The Sangerville Grange (East Sangerville #177) is one that Huff says is "doing it well." It hosts meetings of the newly formed Maine Highlands MOFGA chapter and networks with groups from around Maine through its annual "Cultivating Community" event, which it will hold for the third consecutive year in April 2015. East Sangerville Grange also stages an annual coffeehouse series with local artists and Portland-based bands, such as the Toughcats and Ghost of Paul Revere.

Erin Callaway, the master of East Sangerville Grange, says she is excited about the links the Grange can make with young farmers moving into the area, through social events and through the community-building mission of the Grange. Callaway says the musicians love to play in their hall because of its great acoustics and an attentive audience that appreciates good music in such a rural location.

Maine has a long history of active Granges, as evidenced by Grange halls in various stages of repair throughout the state. Sixteen Maine Grange buildings are listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. At one time the Grange in Houlton (Houlton #16) was the largest Grange in the country, with more than 20,000 members.

Over the years, several Grange halls have been sold to private buyers due to their aging membership. That does not mean those buildings are no longer used as community centers. One of the most notable examples is the Machias Valley Grange Hall (Machias Valley #360), now run by The Beehive Design Collective as a design studio and community events center.

When the Orland Grange (Victory #538) decided to merge with the Halcyon Grange in Blue Hill for purposes of numbers and finances, the Orland hall was sold to private owners Gaylord Wood and Garie Blackwell-Wood, who are forming a 501(c)(3) and who told The MOF&G that they desire to keep the hall as active as possible in their small rural community. "The name of our organization is Bald Mountain Community Center, Inc.," said Wood. "We have a great board, articles of incorporation on their way to Augusta [in late October]."

Today the Maine State Grange is growing. At its recent Annual Session, Huff said in her address to the State Grange, "I have some exciting news. We are so very close in having a net gain in membership across the state." The 126 local active Grange halls in Maine house slightly more than 4,000 members.

Heather Spalding, MOFGA's deputy director, says of the association's relationship with the Grange, "MOFGA took shape in 1971 for many of the same reasons that the Grange took hold around the state way back in the 1870s. Farm families wanted opportunities to learn from each other, pool agricultural resources, organize for representation in the Legislature and in Congress, and just enjoy each others’ company. While MOFGA is much younger organizationally, we have evolved in similar ways and have benefitted greatly from the wealth of knowledge that long-time Grange members so generously share.

"With the exciting growth of the new farmer population in Maine, both MOFGA and the Granges have seen increased activities, educational opportunities and membership. Many Granges are hosting farmers’ markets on their properties – Washington, Topsham, East Vassalboro, Union, Bangor, Norway and Bowdoinham to name a few. Many of the vendors at these markets are participants in or recent graduates of MOFGA’s Beginning Farmer Training Programs. We’ve been fortunate that the Grange has allowed us to host educational workshops and presentations at its facilities around Maine.

"When MOFGA celebrated its 40th anniversary, we held parties in each of the counties. Many of the Granges opened their doors to us so that we could host the parties. One of those celebrations evolved into the formation of a new MOFGA chapter – The Maine Highlands Chapter – which meets regularly at the East Sangerville Grange. We are anxious to develop more chapters around the state, and it’s possible that we’ll be able to collaborate with many more Granges as these chapters take shape."

All of this is good news for Granges in general and for the rural Maine population. Besides, it would be a shame to lose the use of those sprung dance floors.

Resources

For more about the Maine State Grange, see http://mainestategrange.org/. A directory of “subordinate granges” (local/community granges, which are organized into regional groups called “Pomonas”) appears at http://mainestategrange.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/Maine-State-Grange-Directory.pdf. To locate a Maine Grange near you, call 800-464-3421.

Connecticut State Grange, "Founders of the Grange," www.ctstategrange.org/Founderspage.asp

Greenhorns, "Greenhorns at Healdsburg Shed," https://thegreenhorns.wordpress.com/2014/03/06/greenhorns-at-healdsburg-shed/

Hartman, Dorothy W. and Oliver Hudson Kelley, "Order of the Patrons of Husbandry – The Grange," Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, www.connerprairie.org/Learn-And-Do/Indiana-History/America-1860-1900/Grange-Movement.aspx

Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, "Farmer Autonomy, Consumer Choice and Science-based Regulation," www.mofga.org/Programs/PublicPolicyInitiatives/MOFGAPositionStatements/FarmerAutonomyConsumerChoice/tabid/2780/Default.aspx

National Grange, "Our Roots," www.nationalgrange.org/about-us/history/

National Grange, "U.S. House of Representatives Pass Bill to Halt Land Grab," www.nationalgrange.org/u-s-house-of-representatives-pass-bill-to-halt-land-grab/

About the author: Betsy Garrold lives and homesteads in Knox, Maine, "within walking distance of MOFGA's Common Ground." She raise apple trees, honey bees and, when the foxes don't get them, laying hens. She writes for several local publications.

 

 

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