I don’t know that there’s power in a rural union, but I’m hopeful.
The Grange is a fraternal organization, like the Elks or the Odd Fellows, and its procedures (or, if you prefer, rituals) are largely modeled on those of the Free Masons. The Grange isn’t nearly so dark and mysterious — I doubt Dan Brown will be writing The DaVinci Grange anytime soon — but as a fraternal organization, the Grange does have different levels of membership and unusual titles for its leaders. The local Grange president is called the Master; the vice president is the Overseer. In the distant past, Grange members indulged in uniforms and marching in peculiar and complicated formations, but our local here in Moscow doesn’t seem to go in for that. Our focus is on rural economic development; dull, perhaps, and certainly not as sexy as the search for the Holy Grail, but I believe that the work of the Grange might be essential to preserving and expanding the vitality of our small towns.
According the the National Association of Counties (NACO), over 25% of the U. S. population lives in 2,192 rural counties. Over the past several decades, these counties have experienced a deterioration in their tax base, loss of population, loss of higher-paying natural resource jobs (particularly in logging and mining), and the withering of the rural infrastructure. Bad roads, poor schools, and inadequate telecommunications hinder rural counties and towns in their efforts to attract sustainable businesses and create economic growth.
What can the Grange do to aid in rural development? Quite a lot, if the spirit is willing. The organization is officially non-partisan, but let’s face it — the thirty-five states that have Granges are largely red states. The Moscow Grange meeting I joined wasn’t exactly packed out with blue-to-the-bone Democrats like me. In fact, the blue in the room was mostly blue rinse. I didn’t card anyone, but I don’t think I’d be stepping out on a limb by observing that my late friend, Phil Nisbet, and I were, at 49 and 39, the youngest people in the room — and Phil, damn and blast him, was a notorious Goldwater Republican.
I don’t note the ages of my fellow Grange members to be offensive or to suggest that the older members are necessarily tired, conservative, or out of touch, but Granges around the country have spoken of the need to attract younger members and new ideas. I’m all for bringing in younger members, and I’m a noted fan of new ideas, but what I’d really like to see is the Grange reminded of an old idea, one with deep and abiding roots: the American Progressive Movement.
During the Progressive Era, political giants walked the earth, among them, Theodore Roosevelt, Jane Addams, Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan, and Idaho’s Senator William Borah. The 17th Amendment, requiring the direct and democratic election of U. S. Senators, was passed and ratified, as was the 20th Amendment, Women’s Suffrage. (Historically-minded readers will notice that I’ve skipped over the 18th and 19th Amendments, Prohibition and the repeal of Prohibition. The Progressive Movement was hand-in-glove with the temperance movement, as exemplified by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. I prefer moderation, myself, and I strongly favor the . I suspect that Carrie Nation wouldn’t have liked me much.)
The Grange was born in the early years of this heady era. Founded in 1867 by Minnesota farmer and rural activist Oliver Hudson Kelley, the Grange championed education and the funding and improvement of rural schools. The Extension Service, Rural Free Delivery, and the Farm Credit System came into being largely due to grassroots lobbying by Grange members. Those of us who live in fine small towns like Moscow, Idaho owe a good deal to the old Grange, and it’s my firm belief that we can both repay that debt and help ourselves further by joining the Grange today and reviving much of that Progressive spirit.
The man who has done most to bring Moscow Local 452 back into being is the Grange President or Master, L. Roger Falen. Roger remembers the Grange of his rural Oregon youth as “a very vibrant organization. It was the heart of most rural communities. They normally had a large dance hall. In addition to dances, it was used for other social events and meeting. I was raised in the remote area of Owyhee County. The Grange was at Cow Creek, close to Jordan Valley, Oregon, [and] about 60 miles from the ranch. There was a room with a large mattress off to the side of the Grange. The kids were put to bed there, and the adults danced until daybreak.”
Roger continues: “The Grange was started to represent the farmers in bargaining with the railroads and large business interests. It wrote resolutions that were sent to state and national legislature. This is still done. Every year in the fall we summit resolutions to our Pomona Grange. They are voted on and sent to the State Grange Convention [which] either accepts or rejects them. Those that are accepted are presented to the state legislature or to the National grange.
The membership in most granges has been dwindling . . . . old timers pass away . . . and because of the increased mobility [of youth] today and the decreasing farm population, it has been hard to get young folks to join. The old Grange had a lot of pageantry and ritual. In order to atract new people, some [Granges have become] what is called an Action Grange — less ritual [and more involvement] in community projects.”
I like being a member of an Action Grange. I wouldn’t mind a bit of ritual — my grandfather was a Shriner and my grandmother is a member of Daughters of the Nile — but for the sake of the greater good, I’m prepared to sacrifice my chance at a beaded fez. Rural communities need Action Granges. We need an organizing home for active, vibrant, grassroots activists to agitate on behalf on our small towns. Given its history, the Grange is a good (and perhaps even the best) place to start.