Rural giant fading to gray
Aging Grange society struggles to fit in
By Nancy Lofholm
Colona - Chunks of plaster have gone missing from the Grange Hall ceilings. Vandalized windows are boarded shut. The 48-star flag hasn't been replaced. And the ceremonial sashes, staff and Bible of the Grange Order of the Patrons of Husbandry are locked away in a corner cabinet. They haven't been taken out in years.
But on a recent evening, a dozen mostly gray-haired Grange members gathered in one room of this endangered historic hall for a modernized, downsized and abbreviated version of a ritual that dates back nearly to the Civil War.
They shared potluck green-bean casseroles and baked chicken before getting down to a Grange business meeting. It began with a Grange Master's whistle for attention rather than the solemn patriotic and religious-themed rites of yesteryear.
On this evening - and at many of the monthly meetings the past few years - that business centers on a problem shared by a number of the 2,500 remaining Grange organizations in the country and the 60 in Colorado: How to save Grange halls from the rot of time and the march of development and how to make this dwindling, homey organization relevant in an iPod and "American Idol" world.
"People don't know what Grange is anymore. Kids think this is just an abandoned building. We need to put up some motion-sensor lights or something to let them know it's not," said Colona Grange Master Harry Loss as he pointed out frozen-in-time aspects of the Colona Grange Hall: The curtain sporting business ads with two-digit phone numbers. It hangs before a tilting stage where Grange members once showed off their talents in lively annual shows. The displays of faded pride in county fair ribbons collected decades ago for jams and pies and quilts. None have been added since the 1970s.
Ask 10 people nowadays what the Grange is and they look puzzled. "Something to do with farms," and "I've seen their halls," is as close as they can come to defining the oldest agricultural organization in the country.
But in its heyday in the 1870s and in its strong community presence into the 1960s, the Grange was a force to be reckoned with. It was heralded for improving rural life even as some called it a cult. It was appreciated for providing halls and social gatherings that put the heart in some small communities.
There are places where it still is.
"The Grange is the one thing that keeps us from being different from a suburb," said Sue Wilson of the Left Hand Grange in Niwot - at 133, the oldest highly active Grange in Colorado.
Other active Grange Halls in Colorado can be found in Wheat Ridge, Paonia, Idaho Springs and Conifer.
The Grange was formed nationally in 1867 as a social and educational organization that would allow farm families to band together to have a say in local and national politics. Grange founders borrowed some ideas from the rituals of Freemasonry. Grange members had an annual secret password - words like "successful," "education" and "freedom" - and a secret handshake. At meetings, members wore sashes draped from a shoulder like beauty queens'. They had staffs - often broom handles - with Order of the Patrons of Husbandry symbols stuck on top.
That early Grange was not all about pomp. Thanks in large part to the Grange's focus on rural social issues, the Rural Electric Association was formed and rural America got on the grid. Mail delivery was expanded from cities to the countryside. Railroad freight rates were made affordable for farmers. The Montgomery Ward catalogue was widely distributed so rural consumers could buy things not available locally.
And women were given the right to hold highest office and vote before they ever could enter voting booths.
"Our founder realized an organization for farmers would not survive unless the spouse was also included," explained National Grange Master William Steel, who works out of a nearly 50-year-old, 11-story Grange building a block from the White House. Nowadays, the Grange rents out nine of those floors.
Local groups in Colorado - some of which now meet at members' homes or around Village Inn tables - have recently taken on soil conservation measures, mineral rights and alternatives to mosquito spraying.
They also have provided EMT training, built heli-pads for rescuers, given square-dance clubs a home, bought dictionaries for grade schools, set up water tanks for firefighters, collected donations for tornado and blizzard victims, given aid to children with hearing problems and loaned out Grange halls for countless wedding receptions, family reunions and wakes.
"We try to fit in and help with whatever is going on," said Marge Sassman, secretary of the Colorado State Grange.
In spite of attempts to drop the Grange shroud of secrecy and to attract more youthful members with activities and scholarships, fitting in has been tough. The younger generation - busy with soccer games and honor societies - isn't joining the Grange in large numbers.
In the past 50 years, the Grange has lost well over half its million members. In Colorado, one of the more active Grange states, there are now about 35 Grange Halls and 60 clubs where once there were hundreds.
Pat Quick, who has been a member of the Left Hand Grange since a teenage crush drew her to Grange square- dance lessons in 1952, now caretakes one of the handful of Grange museums in the country. It is located in an old one-room schoolhouse not far from E-470 in Aurora and is filled with quilts, notebooks, embroidery work, dresses from an all-women's drill team, calendars and records from when the Grange also served as an insurance company.
Quick said she enjoys preserving the history of the Grange. She is not too sure about its future.
"Sometimes I feel like when I die," Quick said, "they better just shut the lights out."
Staff writer Nancy Lofholm can be reached at 970-256-1957 or firstname.lastname@example.org.