The inner sanctum of Halcyon Grange No. 345 in Blue Hill is a second-story room fitted out with a stage, simple wooden benches, an American flag and walls decorated with a portrait of George Washington and dusty blue ribbons from long-ago fairs.
This room is where the fraternal order’s secret meetings, rich with mysterious rituals, have taken place for more than a hundred years. But on a recent Tuesday afternoon, its doors were flung open — no secret passwords required — to grange members and non-members alike. And the sight of a roomful of people who came to the old grange hall to listen to a national expert talk about the future of farming filled grange master and Penobscot farmer Heather Retberg with satisfaction. It wasn’t too long ago that this grange, like many in Maine, was struggling with declining membership and a shaky future, she said.
But the Halcyon Grange, which now has a growing membership, a thriving commercial kitchen and a new, robust focus on local agriculture, is one of a few granges in Maine that are making a comeback.
“It makes me so happy, of course,” Retberg said. “We’re going back to the roots. We’re tending the soil of this organization.”
Longtime grange member Rona Gandy of Blue Hill said she has been relishing the revitalization.
“It has come full circle, almost,” she said. “This grange serves both the community and the farms again, like it did at the beginning. I think it’s wonderful.”
Old roots, new growth
The National Grange of the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry was founded in Washington, D.C. 150 years ago, during the chaotic time just after the Civil War. Farmers plagued by falling crop prices and concerned about railroad monopolies joined the new fraternal organization in droves to advocate for their own interests. By 1875, there were more than 850,000 members nationwide, who became a powerful political force. Grangers promoted the populist movement, cooperatively bought grain, fought the railroad monopolies and pushed for women’s suffrage. They also helped to create the Cooperative Extension service, the Farm Credit System and Rural Free Delivery, which allowed mail to be delivered directly to rural households.
“A big part of the reason the farmers came together was to be sustainable going into the future,” Retberg said. “It’s so parallel to what we’re doing now.”
In many ways, the national grange was ahead of its time, thanks to its insistence on women’s equality and its strong social and economic championing of small farmers. And nowhere was the grange movement more popular than in Maine, which had more than 50,000 members and nearly 600 active granges at its peak, with a per capita grange membership that was larger than any other state, according to the Maine State Grange.
During those years, grange halls were active, rollicking places that hosted meetings, Saturday dances, pie suppers and much more. But membership began declining after World War II and by the 1990s, granges were in big trouble. Members were getting older, and few younger people were interested in joining the old-fashioned organization. Today, as many of the ubiquitous grange buildings dotting Maine’s rural communities are repurposed or abandoned — there are only about 100 active granges left — it often seems like the grange movement has been left behind by the modern world.
“Right now, I see a crisis for the grange,” Walter Boomsma, the communications director for the Maine State Grange, said. “It’s a different world. How does this organization have value in this world? How do you find that without losing that heritage, those things that made us who we are?”
He said he is invigorated by stories of granges that are surviving, with members that have found ways to fill those old buildings with new life and purpose. Boomsma said the solution is not complicated, but it is also not easy to implement.
“When I see a grange that is successful, I see two things,” he said. “A passion for something and good leadership.”
Every grange is allowed to find its own focus, and the granges here that are succeeding have chosen passions as diverse as the food sovereignty movement, small farming, community benefit suppers, local music and drama productions, lakeshore ecology and conservation and more. But one commonality is that community engagement is always at the forefront.
“I think my hope would be that every grange find a way to be a viable, energetic resource for their community, however that community is defined,” he said.
For Boomsma, 70, the grange has become a big part of the way he has defined his own community. He and his wife moved to Maine from New Jersey after a vacation here more than 15 years ago, settling in Piscataquis County where they quickly joined Valley Grange No. 144 in Guilford. He said the organization provided them a positive, meaningful way to get involved with their new community. It has also let the real estate broker and consultant find a new passion: teaching.
“At Valley Grange, we don’t have a single farmer,” he said. “What we’re into is education.”
Toward that goal, every year grange members give dictionaries to all the third-graders in Piscataquis County and are enthusiastic participants in the Bookworm Program, which helps foster literacy.
“The good news is that the grange, perhaps accidentally, helped me discover how much I love teaching kids,” Boomsma said. “I’m grateful for that.”
Saving the building and the history
Another Mainer who accidentally stumbled onto the grange is Rick Watson, 60, the master of the Fairview Grange No. 342 in Smithfield, which sits on the shores on North Pond in Somerset County. Watson is the president of the North Pond Lake Association, and was only familiar with the grange hall because his group rented it out for meetings. In 2012, the grange approached him with a proposal to partner up with the lake association so they could get help with their building costs, which he wasn’t interested in doing. But the following year, things had gotten worse for the Fairview Grange, which was down to just a dozen or so members, all older than 70, who attended meetings in the 1986 grange hall — the original building had burned.
“They were going to close, no two ways about it,” Watson said, adding that if that happened, the whole property would revert to the Maine State Grange.
That just didn’t seem like the right solution to him.
“I didn’t know anything about the grange,” he wrote in an email to the BDN. “I just knew there had always been a grange in ‘downtown’ Smithfield, and I decided to get involved in trying to save the grange.”
He joined the grange and started brainstorming ideas of how to help the grange come back from the brink. Watson came up with the notion of using the grange’s property as a model to show shoreline best management practices to the public and also started recruiting people in the community to join the group.
“I told the story of the near loss, potential save, opportunity for a community center and of the possibilities I could see for a modern building with access to the lake and nice grounds,” he said.
By nudging people — and sometimes twisting their arms a little, he said — the membership began to grow. Today, it is at about 40 people, age 18 to 90, who have worked together to beautify the property and to promote the grange hall as a great place to hold birthday parties, family reunions, weddings and more. They have monthly acoustic music jam sessions and have hosted poetry readings, bean hole suppers and other events. The grange is in a much healthier place today than it was in 2013, he said, but the revitalization efforts haven’t always come easy to the old guard. Newer members aren’t necessarily as interested in the ritual and history of the grange as older members are — a reality that has caused some friction.
“It can’t be just about history,” Watson said. “You have to change, too, with the times.”
The Fairview Grange, with its new focus, lost some of the original members when it began doing things differently. Other granges have, too. Even Halcyon, which reached back to the historic roots of the grange movement when it began purchasing organic grain in bulk to resell to area farmers, and also when it started hosting monthly dances featuring live music and homemade pies. On a recent Saturday, the old hall was packed with people of all ages who feasted on baked goods and danced to the toe-tapping music of the Brooksville-based Soulbenders. Different music, different clothes but otherwise just like their 19th century grange forebears did.
“We have to get together and dance and eat pie and support each other this way,” Retberg said. “We go forward, but we look back to what makes sense.”