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The Seattle Times | Pacific Northwest
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Pacific NW Cover Story Sonia Krishnan

Beyond Potlucks

The Grange seeks a reason to be

The end is near, she can feel it.

There's no use believing otherwise, not when the truth shines clear as a mid-August morning. At 84, Boots Fischer has seen enough endings to know the signs.

Except this one hurts. Bad.

When the end comes, in December, it won't seem all that dramatic. Just another local Grange closing its doors. Look around North Bend and you'll see why. They used to call this town "rural" - but "bedroom community" is more like it now. Farmland replaced with sleek new developments. Young parents commuting to jobs in Seattle. No wonder the Grange, America's oldest agricultural association, suffers from shrinking membership here and most other places. Who's got the time? Much less the inclination.

For 28 years, Fischer did. Sallal Grange in North Bend was her political circle and community service outlet. She helped push for Initiative 872 to save the state's blanket primary. She distributed dictionaries to schoolchildren. In time, she learned that you accomplish more as a group, and the people who belong to that group band together like family.

But now her enemies - aging kidneys and a weakened heart - are gaining on her. She, too, is running out of time.

As master of Sallal Grange, Fischer hasn't greeted a new member in seven years. Old members have died. Of the 42 left, most pay the annual $28 fee and belong in name only.

"I tell you, that doesn't do us a whole lot of good," she says. "We need people's time more."

So here she sits, inside Grange Hall No. 955, rain pelting the clapboard siding. She peers at a stack of thick journals. The legal-size pages brim with handwritten minutes from the past 75 years. She will take the books home and transcribe each word on a computer. The history of Sallal Grange depends on this task.

Soon, she knows, these records will be all that is left.

Once, the Grange was the social and political nucleus of rural communities across the country. It began as a grassroots advocacy group to improve the lives of farmers.

"Grangers," as members are known, fought to bring mail delivery to rural areas, and waged bitter battles against monopolies, especially railroad companies, which charged farmers exorbitant rates to transport their grains and crops. In Washington, the Grange helped create the state's public utility districts.

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In the early decades of the 20th century, when more than a third of the country's population were farmers, the fraternal organization grew, evolving into a powerful lobbying arm as well as an entertainment outlet for locals. During the 1950s, more than 850,000 people nationwide belonged to a Grange.

But as television, then later the Internet, entered American households, participation in civic groups of all kinds began to decline. Granges started disappearing. In the past 15 years, Grange membership has fallen nearly 40 percent to 240,000 people. These days, fewer than 2 percent of Americans farm. Grange rosters are heavy with senior citizens. Some have merged with others to stay alive. Some simply fold for lack of interest.

Washington has 273 local Granges and 40,000 members. More people belong to the Grange here than anywhere else. There's no one reason why. Some say it's because this state has so many small farms, especially in Western Washington. Others credit a history of strong state leaders who championed populist causes.

Still, the slide has been steady, unrelenting. In 1987, Washington was home to 401 local Granges with an average of 150 members each. Now, 14 are left in King County. In Snohomish County, 16 survive; in Pierce, just 13."We're taking a hard look at ourselves," says Ed Luttrell, leadership/membership development director for the National Grange. "Part of the problem is that the Grange has not done a good job educating people about what it stands for. Granges can have a tremendous amount of power. They reflect the local community."

Some misconceptions may stem from its reputation as a secret society.

The National Grange traces its roots back to 1867 when farmer Oliver Hudson Kelley, working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was asked to report on farming conditions in the South after the Civil War. Disturbed by the dire situation, Kelley and six other men organized what became a vital force in American democracy, according to Grange history records. The founders modeled the Grange on Freemasonry, a system of private fraternal organizations that shared a sense of moral purpose. Masons practiced numerous rituals using symbols from the stonemason's craft. As such, the Grange operated with closed meetings steeped in ceremony. Members uttered passwords and learned special handshakes to enter Grange halls. They took oaths pledging undying allegiance to the Grange.

Some of the rituals remain today, mostly out of respect to Grange tradition. The symbolism borrows heavily from Christianity and agriculture. Before a meeting begins, for instance, the Grange master unlocks a case of small farm tools. An open Bible rests on the altar of the Grange hall. Officers also have specific roles in opening and closing a meeting. The steward carries a spud, an ancient implement used to eradicate weeds, as a symbol to remove dissention and strife in life.

By 1875, nearly 1 million members belonged to the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, as the Grange is officially known. The National Grange has taken on matters of global free trade, rural education, medical needs and transportation. No issue was too great or small if members felt it would better the lives of rural people. The Grange wasn't all business, though. Women belonged with equal status. Along the way, the Grange nurtured communal bonds, so much so that members call each other "brother" and "sister." Weddings, potlucks, even memorial services were staples inside Grange halls.

Now, that sense of community is dying, along with those whose names are listed on Grange rosters.

Early Grangers saw it coming. Albert Goss, past master of the National Grange, wrote in the 1930s:

"The question has been asked, 'How long will the Grange live?' I believe it will live as long as it continues to serve the welfare of agriculture and the nation. Whenever it becomes ingrown and selfish, and the members look on it only as a means of bringing them pleasure, entertainment or profit, it will fade away."

On a chilly March evening in Woodinville, past the horse stables and upscale wineries, Eric Clark feels a twinge of excitement.

Three new members will be inducted tonight into the Sammamish Valley Grange. And two are actual farmers.

"We haven't had that since, maybe, the 1960s," he says.

Clark is 36 years old and master of this Grange. At 6 foot 2, he sports hip glasses, a black leather coat and a bookish air. He can recall passages from Grange history books without hesitation. Three decades separate him from most other members.

Ten years ago, Clark, of Monroe, knew nothing about the organization. Then he got a job working for Grange Insurance Group in Seattle. Soon after, he joined the Sammamish Valley Grange.

He found the organization intriguing. It was active in political and charitable work. But he thought the meetings were arcane and cloaked in meaningless rituals. There was the 7 1/2-minute opening, for starters. Members sang three songs and marched; the secretary read aloud all of the correspondence.

"Seventy years ago, there was nothing better to do than listen to a four-hour boring meeting," he says. "The problem is that society changed, but the Grange didn't."

Yet, he saw potential. The Grange still had political heft. (Its fight to save the blanket primary, for instance, goes before the U.S. Supreme Court in October.) He saw the Grange as a vehicle through which people, if they cared enough, could effect change.

Besides, he reasoned, such institutions, rooted as they are in communities, create a stronger democracy. The conclusion seemed obvious: "We've got to save this thing."

First he condensed rituals that ate up the clock. As its twice-appointed master, Clark started running the Grange meetings like a City Council forum: with an agenda, briefings and timelines.

But meetings were just the beginning. Clark knew his crew needed a niche. He studied the surrounding community to figure out what would make the Grange relevant again. Perhaps, he thought, the answer would lie in a return to the Grange's agricultural roots. He had good reason to think so. Wineries and the growing demand for organic produce have breathed new life into the Woodinville countryside. While it's not the case in most metropolitan suburbs, agritourism is thriving here.

So Clark and other Grangers have been seeking out new members through local farming groups like the Sammamish Valley Alliance. They hand out brochures during the annual Woodinville parade, and have spent $8,500 to build a heritage garden educating visitors about the Grange. In the past eight years, Clark says, the Grange has drawn 25 new members.

Lynn Toyer, 63, and her mother, Elva, 81, are among them. As "court ladies," they sit near the other officers and sport the navy-and-gold Grange sash over pretty outfits. "Our job is to sit up there and look nice," says Lynn Toyer, giggling.

Sometimes the meetings get tedious. "Mom can hardly hear, I can hardly hear. When we raise our hands to vote, we don't know what we're voting on," she says. But she loves sewing sleeping bags for the homeless. And she's made friends here. Toyer, who's single, thought the Grange would also be a great place to meet "the one." "I'm still waiting!" she says. "Maybe he just hasn't joined the Grange yet."

This evening, the three inductees stand inside the Grange hall. They're all women.

Vanda Minea runs an apple orchard. Celeste Bishop has a small family farm in Snohomish, and Jan Hunt is a local environmental advocate. All are joining for different reasons. Hunt sees the Grange as a way to preserve land, and Minea and Bishop are pushing to ease government restrictions on small farmers.

The women wait quietly as the chaplain leads a prayer. There is a ceremony: The new members walk in a circle and march. They hold hands, pay tribute to the flag and repeat a century-old pledge.

Time seems to stand still. The women feel a sense that they have embarked on something important, something bigger than themselves. Minea's eyes redden.

"Welcome to the Grange," Clark says.

Dying Granges are the business of Rusty Hunt. He travels all over Washington to save them. It's his job, as membership development director for the State Grange, to listen for a pulse, however faint, and help revive it.

Troubled Granges must unravel the layers of their shifting towns to survive. Look around, he advises. Is it an older community? A younger community? Who are the movers and shakers? What do the people care about? What makes them want to live there?

"You're going to have to appeal to these folks, then tailor the Grange to them," says Hunt, 42. It doesn't always work. The Grange is up against cultural barriers. He knows a lot of people see it as a white, strictly Christian farmer's group. But for all its religious overtones, the Grange bills itself as nonsectarian and nonpartisan. He approaches the rich and poor. He's tried to tap immigrant farm workers in three counties. "Now that would be a huge, huge contingent," he says. Latinos have strong family bonds and value community - key qualities for Grange members.

So he gives them the pitch: Join the Grange. Gain a voice. Offer ideas and watch your issues take shape. But so far, no luck.

Over the years, Hunt has seen his share of Granges close.

"It's a tough deal when that happens. People have jobs, kids. They are so busy. Sometimes you have to accept that."

But it doesn't stop him. Even when a Grange is about to take its last breath, he still has hope. Sallal Grange is no exception.

This summer, Hunt is bringing a team into North Bend to knock on hundreds of doors. He will talk to the school superintendent and the mayor. He will read neighborhood bulletin boards. There's got to be something that can save this Grange. He's done it before, up in Port Angeles, when the Mt. Pleasant Grange was near collapse. He hosted a dinner for 200 people and signed up 32 members.

What he's realized is this: Not every person has to be actively involved to make a Grange work. Even a dozen dedicated folks can drive change. It's not all about agriculture anymore. Maybe the cause is helping the March of Dimes. Or feeding the homeless. Or fighting to bring computers to rural schools.

"It's basically finding that core group of people who see the Grange as a way to grab hold of an idea and run with it," he says.

He envisions a new melting pot-type Grange for Sallal. Members can - and should - come from every stripe. The future hinges on this. As long as people care about something, he believes, the Grange has reason to exist.

On a quiet stretch of road in North Bend, the emptiness echoes inside Grange Hall No. 955. Dust clings to the curtains; the concrete floor cries for a fresh coat of paint.

The hollow feeling is familiar to Boots Fischer and the four regulars who show up to monthly meetings nowadays. One more person, the 89-year-old steward, usually comes, too. But she bowed out after a recent fall that cracked her hip.

Tonight, Fischer wants to share something. Everyone here knows she's been combing through the old meeting books and transferring the minutes into digital format. She came across a passage from 1951, which highlights the opening of the Sallal Grange Hall. She stands at the wooden podium and begins to read:

"A total of 1,856 man-hours have been donated to date," she says. "All are very grateful for all the good work done ... we have a hall we can be very proud to call ours."

A sob catches in her throat.

"They worked so hard at this," she says. "Now the fire is gone."

Back at her home office, Fischer loses herself again in the Grange minutes. Typically, she can transcribe two meetings in one sitting before fatigue sets in.

Why is she doing this? they asked. And these were State Grange executives, of all people. Don't they see? Once Sallal surrenders its charter to the state at the end of the year, it must also relinquish these books. No, the chapters of the Sallal Grange story belong in Snoqualmie Valley, inside the historical museum. The thought of this gold mine collecting dust somewhere else pushes Fischer forward.

She's reached 1964 now. Funny how the handwriting tells a story. Different secretaries, different personalities. The one from the 1930s was a mess. Scribbled like you couldn't believe. But this gal from 1964, now, she was a people person. Just look at the delicate cursive and elegant descriptions.

"Brother Mitchell, with perfect imitation, tells the story of a man with a speech impediment on the bus," Fisher reads.

"You can just see it, can't you?"

Maybe this is what death is like, she thinks, a freefall through time. It is something she neither welcomes nor fears now. It just is.

She closes the book.

Outside, the sun fades behind the hills, bringing dusk sooner than expected.

Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or skrishnan@seattletimes.com. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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