HARPSWELL, Maine — If the grange is a dying institution in rural communities, nobody told the members of Merriconeag Grange 425, who still gather and do good things for their neighbors 100 years after incorporation.
Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap awarded the officers of Merriconeag Grange a commemorative plaque Friday as the group that numbered nearly 40 celebrated their staying power with a catered lunch.
“The grange was once the most powerful political entity. Even the Legislative season was scheduled around planting and harvesting,” Dunlap said.
These days, grange membership in Maine and around the country has dwindled to the point that many, if not most, have closed.
“It’s not common for [a grange] to make it to 100,” Dunlap said.
Secrets and sea goddesses
Merriconeag Grange was incorporated on Feb. 5, 1913.
But it had been around informally for years before that, since Harpswell was primarily a farming community — and farmers on that coastal peninsular thumb relied on each other as much, if not more than, on the soil and the seasons.
The year 1913 was when the Wilson family built what would become the new grange hall on the foundation of Harpswell Academy — a private school that had been around since 1866 but closed due to a lack of students.
It seemed as good a time as any for those informal Grangers to step up and become Merriconeag Grange 425 by the seal of then Secretary of State J.E. Alexander.
By becoming a grange, the group took on the hierarchy and ritualistic organization of the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry envisioned by Oliver Hudson Kelley, a former Chicago newspaperman who moved to Minnesota Territory with his bride in 1849, beginning the journey that would evolve into a secret agricultural society that influenced everything from what seeds got saved from one season to the next to who got elected to the U.S. Senate.
While the power to shape the state of the nation may have diminished over the years, grange rituals — from the compass-point arrangement of seats around the meeting hall to how members rise through the degrees of rank — remain top secret.
Donna Frisoli, who joined the grange two years ago and attended Friday’s luncheon to videotape it for Harpswell TV — is still in the dark about many of the organizations rituals.
“There are initiation ceremonies. Some say there’s one where you have to ride a goat,” she said.
Tina Koppenhauer — a member of Merriconeag Grange for 52 years — is the “ceries” of the grange.
When asked what that position means, she explained, “Why, I’m a sea goddess, can’t you see that?”
“What happens at grange, stays at grange,” she continued. “It’s a good place to get together and if a neighbor needs help, why, we’re there to help.”
A prominent social force
“When I was a little kid I used to come here for Christmas parties and on Friday nights, they’d have dances,” said Nelson Moody, a relative newcomer to the grange and likely considered one of the youngest, at around 60.
Moody is treasurer of Merriconeag Grange and has been a member for the last six years.
“I heard the grange was in trouble and I’m pretty good at fundraising, so I decided to help them out,” he said.
What the Merriconeag Grange needs is not just new members, but young members.
“We don’t have enough farmers anymore,” Koppenhauer said.
In his address to the assembled grangers at the ceremony, Master Sam Alexander said it’s the hope of the grange that the “present-day interest in local food will hopefully help restore the fortunes of granges and their status as a prominent social force.”
Until then, for those who have made the grange the very heart of Harpswell community for 100 years, it’s one pancake breakfast at a time.
“Every time someone comes, we hope they stay,” Koppenhauer said. “And if they don’t, well then, we hope they’ll be back. We’re here if you need us.”