September 2, 2013

The Grange in Maine struggles to remain

Declining membership is the big challenge for the Maine Grange.

By CLARKE CANFIELD/The Associated Press

DEER ISLE — At its peak, the Deer Isle Grange had close to 100 members. But this summer, the fraternal organization folded because it couldn't attract even seven members to its meetings, the number required to keep its state charter.

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Angela and John Brigance spruce up the landscaping at the West Bath Seaside Grange. Granges are the nation’s oldest farm and rural public interest organization.

Photos by The Associated Press

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The headline of a newspaper clipping from 1957 reports a large attendance for a function held at the West Bath Grange. Granges are the nation’s oldest farm and rural public interest organization and once had more than 60,000 members in Maine. Now there are about 135 community granges with less than 5,000 members.

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In an age when the Internet and television have replaced potluck dinners as a favored pastime, the Deer Isle Grange is the latest grange to go by the wayside. The Maine State Grange once had more than 60,000 members and was one of the most powerful lobbying forces in the state. Now there are about 135 community granges with just under 5,000 members, said Vicki Huff, master of the Maine State Grange.

Declining membership is the biggest challenge facing the Grange, the nation's oldest farm and rural public interest organization. Nowadays, it's hard to persuade younger people to join, she said.

"It's a concern for any fraternal organization," she said. "To keep things going, you need new members. To get word out to the community, that's sometimes difficult."

Nobody knows that more than Jeanette Taylor, who headed the Deer Isle Grange for 11 years before it shut down in July. That grange was started in 1888, but its membership this year had dwindled to just 20.

"But most of them are well over the age of 70, so it was hard to keep it going," Taylor said.

The national group, officially called the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, was the first nationwide farm organization when it was founded in 1867, advocating for the causes of farmers. Local chapters, or granges, popped up across the country, their grange halls offering places where farmers could hold community events, meet neighbors, compare farm prices and band together for the good of the community.

But since topping out in the 1950s, membership has fallen steadily. From 1991 to 2012, active membership fell from about 270,000 to 70,000, and the number of local granges declined from roughly 3,900 to 2,000, according to the National Grange.

The heyday for Maine granges was in the 1950s, said Stanley Howe, a longtime grange member who wrote a book about the history of Maine's granges.

"For years the Grange ran the Maine Legislature. It was a very powerful organization. Almost everybody belonged to the Grange up until the 1950s," he said.

But membership started falling when television became popular in the '50s, giving people something else to do with their time, he said.

The latest two casualties were the Victory Grange in Orland, which closed last spring and merged with a Blue Hill grange, and the Deer Isle Grange.

But not all is doom and gloom, with several new granges opening up across the country in the past couple of years.

In Maine, a new grange formed in Montville last summer, and a grange was revived in West Bath in June after being closed for a few years.

The West Bath Seaside Grange now has about 30 members, said John Brigance, 46, the grange master who helped get it off the ground. The grange, he said, will provide a place where people can get involved in the community by working together to help local organizations, schools and people in need.

The grange has a Facebook page and members as young as high school age. Still, it's difficult to recruit people, he said.

"In this day and age, to get people away from their television and computers for five minutes is a challenge," he said. "It's a challenge to show people it's still relevant."


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Additional Photos

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John Brigance replaces a lightbulb in the meeting room at the West Bath Seaside Grange. Brigance, the grange master, is hoping to recruit new members to keep the 110-year-old grange operating. “It’s a challenge to show people it’s still relevant,” he says.


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