On a recent visit to the corner store for a cup of coffee and a Boston Globe, I was brought face to face with a small army of roofers and carpenters scampering about on a small building next door. Many had volunteered their time and skill that day to fix the roof of a small, wooden building in need of repair. It was a community coming together to renovate a local icon.
You’ve probably passed this type of building dozens of times in a town or on a rural road near you and never given it a second thought. Generally it’s a small, restrained and un-ostentatious structure; and the fact that it hosts meetings for those involved in farming and helps to promote American values and honored traditions perhaps never crossed your mind.
On the other had maybe you’re a member or know someone who has joined the Grange.
That’s right. The Grange. Short for “The Order of Patrons of Husbandry” (Husbandry being a quaint term for “farming” and it also means “thrift” a word with which many of us are familiar.)
The Grange Hall I saw being renovated has been here for over eighty years. Wicwas Grange #292 – Meredith Center, New Hampshire. In the organizational structure it is a Fourth Degree Subordinate, and the largest in the state.
The national Order was formed in Washington DC in 1867 to, in their words…”unite private citizens in improving the economic and social position of the nations farm population.”
It took off from there and in a fairly short amount of time; almost all the country saw the opening of local Grange Halls. Over the years these meeting places and their members began to grow and, in a short time they expanded to include non-farm families and rural communities. The Grange was one of the first formal groups to admit women to membership on an equal basis with men.
But in the latter part of the last century, rural America fell upon hard times. The number of small family farms and farmers began to diminish, and this in turn affected many Grange Halls nation wide. The story was the same in many places. Non-use. Falling apart. Abandoned. However, here in central New Hampshire, community leaders and members had a vision of saving this building and turning it into a place for everyone to use and enjoy,
Barry Ladd, proprietor of the Meredith Center Store right next door to the Wicwas Grange Hall and current overseer has said it was almost torn down at one point. “We felt it would be shame if that happened and some of us got together to see what we could do to preserve this part of our communities’ heritage”.
From this initial vision the idea took on a life of its own as many local groups and civic leaders joined to help put this years “old place” back on the right track again.
Folks in the Meredith Rotary, and the Greater Meredith Program provided money and labor along with the assistance of local builders such as Mike Pelzer of Interlakes Builders, Larry Trombetta and many others in the area.
Along with the Grange Hall, The Greater Meredith Program also undertook a two year project to expand and improve the ball park and playground right across the road from the Grange Hall.
Because of this local effort, not only was the building it self saved and renovations begun, but the Grange member ship increased from seven to almost one hundred in the last three years alone. Grange #292 is now the largest 4th Degree Subordinate Grange in the state and this fall the national Grange Convention will take place down the road a piece in Manchester NH.
Steve Durand who is the current Grand Master of the Grange could not be more pleased or proud of the Town of Meredith and the Meredith Center community.
“They pulled together and have transformed this old building inside and out with a hundred and eighteen person capacity dining room capacity and kitchen as well as many needed outside and inside structural improvements.” he said. He added with a smile,"We're even going to refurbish the old horse troth and get that working again."
When the Grange was formed it included many mysterious terms and implements in its ceremony, some borrowed from “Free Masonry” or from the Bible and Greek and Roman mythology. And they originally met in secret.
Nowadays all meetings are open to the public, of course, but the Grange still acknowledges it’s rich history and tradition, along with some of its famous members, such as Harry Truman, FDR and Nirvana bassist, Krist Novoselic.
As of late, the Grange continues to support the causes of farmers, including issues of free trade and farm policy. In its 2006 Journal of Proceedings, the organization's report on its annual convention, the organization lays out its mission and how it works towards achieving it through fellowship, service, and legislation.
To quote from that journal, "The Grange provides opportunities for individuals and families to develop to their highest potential in order to build stronger communities and states, as well as a stronger nation.”
The organization supports only policies, never political parties or candidates. Although the Grange was originally founded to serve the interests of farmers, because of the shrinking farm population the Grange has begun to broaden its range to include a wide variety of issues, and, of course, anyone is welcome to join the Grange.