In some of the most obscure places, the band plays and ladies kick off their shoes and dance barefoot holding babies with their neighbors. This is after dinner, and perhaps a slice of homemade apple pie.

Later the kitchen will need cleaning and men and women, old and young, will roll up their sleeves to get the job done, making for an egalitarian good time in the midst of chaos.

Tucked around the bend of a small country road or smack-dab center stage in a plot of pastureland, the local grange halls still light up the night on occasion. Always with a kitchen, maybe neatly hung café curtains or an uneven gravel parking lot, narrow hallways and perhaps a wooden dance floor, grange halls speak of the days gone by that appeared to be so simple, yet weren’t. They symbolize civic society—the grass-roots gathering places that belong to “the people.”

Although membership has been fickle throughout the last half a century, local granges haven’t lost their charm and are once again attracting more members.

Farm Advocacy
An American concept brought to fruition in 1867, the Grange (or formally the Order of Patrons of Husbandry) is one of the oldest farm advocacy groups, organized with the intention of supporting the most basic of human needs—the right to a healthy and affordable food supply. Although grange halls are populated by a number of small farmers, membership was and still is open to any person interested in supporting agriculture, and not all of their events are strictly business.

“In the late 19th Century, farmers struggled to have their voices heard in the marketplace and in government,” explained Holly Hoods, curator for the Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society. Many would argue that the same is true today. Farmers in those early days of the grange were looking for political and economic strength in unity and cooperation, and the cause is still relevant.

“The Grangers (grange members) promoted many progressive ideas, including opposing ‘fraud and adulteration in human foods.’ At meetings in the late 1890s, they circulated Anti-Trust and Pure Food Law petitions, noting that they would be sent ‘to our Representatives in Congress, with the hopes of securing unadulterated food and protection from the various trusts of the land,’” explained Hoods.
Grange members also rallied for equal taxation and initiatives that encouraged agriculture to be taught in schools and colleges. Early Grangers obtained government funding for agricultural extension and demonstration work and convinced authorities to administer free rural mail delivery.

Grangers are still politically active but in a non-partisan way. Members discuss a wide range of issues that may be relevant to the local community or beyond. Each membership chooses the best way to serve its community and some discussions can be continued at the state or national grange level. For example, in January there was a state grange-organized rally and march at the state Capitol in support of legislation for 2015 genetically modified organisms (GMO) labeling laws in California.

The purposefully broad membership invitation doesn’t demand that one must be a farmer to participate in the grange fraternity, which is organized on national, state and local levels and is equipped with its own bylaws. Fans of farmer’s markets, organic and environmental movements and food labeling laws are just a sample of the population that recently migrated back to the grange halls. Some, however, never left in the first place and have spent 40 years or more dedicated to the organization.

Sebastopol Grange #306
“Five years ago there were just a handful of members, and now there are about 225,” said Evan Wiig, a member of the Sebastopol Grange #306, one of the fastest-growing granges in the area.

Located on busy Highway 12 with roadside appeal and easy access, the Sebastopol Grange is hosting more events than it has in years and is becoming a meeting place for a number of groups, including the Sebastopol Farmers Guild, of which Wiig is executive director. “There is a history of farmers putting halls together to organize and protect local communities from bigger interests,” said Wiig.

At the Sebastopol Grange, the collection of members is diverse. Different ages, backgrounds, interests and professions make up the crowd. “It’s a lot of younger folks that are repopulating the grange. But we are leaning on the older members for support and guidance,” said Wiig.

Bringing together young people, older individuals, families and everyone in-between, one of the main goals of the grange is to strengthen community. It’s a symbiotic relationship where younger members are learning from the older members about grange traditions and bylaws and the youthful grangers are contributing vital energy and fresh ideas.

Protecting people from the “industrial food complex” is an issue on the mind of more than one West Sonoma County Granger. Supporting the farmer’s markets, shopping local, and promoting sustainability and diversity are key values for some members, and it’s no secret that a room full of like-minded individuals can be a recipe for change. Reclaiming the grange and infusing it with some TLC has simply gone with the territory.

“The grange can be so much more,” said Wiig, who is excited about the increase in membership, the improvements to the facility and the wide range of events and activism taking place. Recently members held a meeting at the Sebastopol Grange to discuss what could be done to improve the site. The inside has already been cleaned up and improved, starting in 2012 in preparation for a state grange convention that was held there that year. “We’re continuing to look at the hall and examine its potential,” said Wiig.

Sebastopol’s openness and activism are attributes that Wiig feels are responsible for the surge in growth that the Sebastopol Grange is experiencing. “People here are still holding onto the idea that they can organize on a local level to create the world they want,” he said.

Windsor Grange
Sometimes it’s all business when Grangers gather to share ideas but more often than not, it’s quite social. A signature grange event that has withstood the test of time is the potluck. These aren’t the funky, tacky kind featuring overcooked casseroles, but rather cherished events that feature really good food and fellowship among neighbors, friends, farmers and the community.
Potlucks live on with strong attendance at local granges, like Windsor Grange #410. “We supply the meat, and everyone else brings side dishes,” said Josephine Rebich, a 48-year Windsor Grange Member whom others in the organization admire.

Rebich became a grange member in 1958 and has served as Grange Master in the past.  She values the community and youth-oriented services that the organization supports. “All my boys were cub scouts and my grandchildren participated in 4-H. I think it’s the social atmosphere that is attracting people to the grange. A lot of us are tired of watching TV,” said Rebich. Though the organization is not as formal as it used to be, she noted, “We do what is necessary to stay true to the form.”

The Windsor Grange Hall is also growing in membership, gaining almost a dozen new members last year. Improvements to the hall include a refurbished kitchen. “Two beautiful stoves, paint and new flooring in the kitchen is something that those using the grange will really enjoy,” said Rebich.

Dedicated grange members like Rebich are often treasured not only for their wealth of grange experience but their ability to link past and present. Like other local long-time grangers, Rebich is the keeper of historical photos and information, sharing with others the snapshots of local farmers building the establishment back in 1941. Not only did the local farmers back in the day donate their labor, but also lumber for the project.

“It (the grange building) hasn’t changed much over the years. It’s old-fashioned country style and full of charm,” said Kate Elsbree, communications chairman for the Windsor Grange. “Our focus in Windsor revolves around the community’s youth.”

Groups like 4-H and cub scouts are using the Grange Hall as a meeting place. Elsbree also reiterated that families and individuals do not need to be involved in agriculture to become members of the grange. As the granges shape up, it seems that more people are becoming familiar with the organization and its place in the community. With reasonable rental fees, individuals and groups are realizing the benefits of booking the grange as a venue for private or public gatherings.

Bodega Bay, Hessel and Windsor
Each local grange seems to have developed its own unique personality. While some are growing in members, others boast a crop of long-time attendees or have specific goals in mind.

The Bodega Bay Grange #777 is uniquely occupied by a mixture of individuals with a coastal focus. Not only are generations of fisherman involved with the organization but also scientists, community members, neighbors and others. As a community service organization, the Bodega Bay Grange aims to foster dedicated stewards of the coastal region. Grange membership allows them to align themselves with a larger state grange organization to further their goals and stand against bigger interests. For example, the State Grange is against fracking as a method for oil extraction and also seeks to support and protect the environment in other ways that local granges may find helpful to their professions or economies.

Education and youth involvement are also important to the Bodega Bay Grange; “Science Questions” by Suzy Montgomery as well as historical videos and audios on the website are proof of grange efforts in this direction. A signature event of the Bodega Bay Grange is its annual Cioppino Dinner that provides funding for local high school student scholarships.

The Hessel Grange #750, also located in Sebastopol, has a rich documented history. A determined bunch originally met at the old Eucalyptus school and then the upstairs of the Washoe House during the 1950 and 1960s. Rent was waived with the agreement that the Grangers would renovate the top floor of the Washoe House. Their stay only lasted a couple of years before they found themselves once again looking for another site to hold meetings. Land was finally purchased and the grange building went up, constructed from recycled lumber from a farmer’s torn-down barns.

Like Windsor, 4-H kids consider the Hessel Grange homebase and recently gifted the organization with message boards for the hallway and a coat of paint in the pantry. Improvements to the bathroom and the heating and cooling systems have also been made.

A Grower’s Exchange is a highlight for Hessel Grange members of all ages. It’s a popular event that takes place on Wednesday evenings June through October. Member Denny Hunt helped to get the program started in 2009, and it has been a tradition ever since.
“It’s fun for the kids and the adults, too,” said Hunt, who arrives weekly with his donkey that hauls a cart of homegrown potatoes. Trading produce is what the event is all about, but there are also members who make hats and other crafts for sale or exchange as well. “It’s a nice way for some to pass on the extra produce they may have in their garden,” explained Hunt.

Growing Deeper
In earlier grange days, secret meetings, oaths and special passwords might have been the norm. Today it’s different but history and tradition continue to color grange operations that might incorporate rituals and symbols based on the seasons. Often small farm tools are displayed and elected officers are in charge of closing and opening each meeting. There are seven degrees of grange membership, and the ceremony of each degree relates to the seasons and various symbols and principles.

Granges have a unique way of honoring the age-old practice of farming, and this is attracting newcomers. “We call the growth a ‘Grange Renaissance,’ a re-awakening to the importance of not only re-localizing our food resources, but also the need to rebuild ‘real’ local community connection,” explained Amy Crawford, Sebastopol Grange vice president, communications.

Enamored with local farming and passionate about the principle of sustainability and diversity in agriculture in Sonoma County, young and old, individuals and families, farmers and business people are bringing their energy and enthusiasm to the grange, where a platform designed to encourage Sonoma County’s agricultural roots to expand and grow deeper has been discovered.   SD