Home on the Grange: Farm fraternity looking farther afield for members

You see them in every small community — weathered, wood-frame buildings standing at a crossroads.

Many show signs of age: peeling paint, cracked windows, weeds poking up through the parking lot.

But step through the door and signs of decades of vibrant activity surround you — red, white and blue ribbons won at county fairs, gold-sealed certificates of community service, walls of photographs of people who gave their time and talents to serve as leaders.

These are the Grange halls, icons of rural life for more than a century and now in danger of disappearing from the local landscape.

“We’re just floating on hope,” said Mary Lou Forsman, a member of Rhododendron Grange in Jefferson County.

Hearing a rumor that a Grange hall in Jefferson County was for sale prompted Katherine Baril, Washington State University county extension agent, to invite state Grange leaders to the Olympic Peninsula to address a public meeting on the future of the Grange.

Tom Winn, state education coordinator, and Rusty Hunt, state leadership director, also met with representatives of Granges in Clallam and Jefferson counties at the Gardiner Community Center.

The challenge: to attract new members so that the doors of the Grange halls stay open.

“We want to talk about the status of our local Granges — how we can recruit new members, aid the aging members to care for these important community buildings, and keep the Granges situated around the county as vital local resources,” Baril said in issuing the invitation to the public.

Once at the heart

Founded by a Minnesota farmer to improve the economic and social lot of farmers, the Grange was once the heart of every rural community.

In Washington, there were more than 1,000 in the 1930s and ’40s. Now there are fewer than 300.

Some are thriving — Sequim Prairie Grange in Clallam County has 300 members, Winn said.

And the Quileute Valley Grange, which years ago merged with the Forks Prairie Grange, has seen membership rise in recent years.

“We’ve gotten eight to 10 new members,” said Carol Young, an official with the Quileute Valley Grange, who said it is politically active.

“What we’re trying to do is fight the government land grab.”

With Grange lobbying representatives at the state and federal level, Young said the Quileute Valley Grange is focusing its forces on preventing the buying off of more land in the West End with federal funds.

However, other Granges — where the average member roll is 48 — aren’t as active.

Angeles Grange in Port Angeles is still operative “on paper,” according to Bob Robinson, Clallam County Grange master.

“They’re not very active. They’re down to a handful of members, and a lot of them are older members.”

“It’s pretty typical across the state,” Winn said of today’s Granges. “They’re struggling.”

In order to boost membership — especially among young people which most Granges have few of — Dry Creek Grange and the Sequim Prairie Grange have set up junior Granges where young people up to 14 years of age can sign up, Robinson said.

“One of the things they work on all summer is gardening, learning about getting their fingers dirty,” Robinson said.

Crescent Grange in Joyce has also set up an annual camp program for young people, to stress the importance of farming in today’s world.

“We were originally a farm fraternity,” Robinson said.

“But there are comparatively few farmers left anymore.”

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