As you visit the various fairs around our area this summer, take note of the strong presence of the Grange. As the oldest surviving agricultural organization in the U.S. you might think its focus is farms and the families who live and work on them. You’d be right, but you’d miss so much if you thought that’s all there is to it. We all owe an enormous debt to this historically progressive organization.
Born Out of Necessity As a Way to Heal
In the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the legislation that founded the United States Bureau of Agriculture (later to be the USDA). Its first Commissioner, Isaac Newton, outlined objectives for the Bureau that included, “Collecting, arranging, and publishing statistical and other useful agricultural information.” In the aftermath of the war, the Bureau sent a representative, Oliver Hudson Kelley, to survey the state of agriculture in the South. Kelley was a farmer from Minnesota as well as a clerk for the Bureau. He was also a Mason. It was this latter fact that made it possible for him to fulfill his mission. As a northerner, he was shunned and distrusted by southern farmers, but as a fellow Mason he garnered their cooperation. He was appalled by what he found. The agricultural practices employed were outdated, inefficient, and unsustainable.
Kelly conceived of an organization for farmers from the North and the South alike; one that would, in his own words, “Encourage them to read and think; to plant fruits and flowers, beautify their homes; elevate them; make them progressive. I long to see the great army of producers in our country turn their eyes up from their work; stir up those brains, now mere machines…set them to think, let them feel that they are human beings, and the strength of the nation, their labor honorable, and farming the highest calling on earth.”
On December 4, 1867 Kelley and six associates from the U.S. Bureau of Agriculture founded the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry. It was patterned, in part, after the Masons with secret and ritualistic practices. Where it differed from the Masons, however, was in its foundational attitude toward women. According to the National Grange, from the beginning “women were given an equal right to vote and hold office as men.” To bolster that stance, four offices are reserved expressly for women to this day.
The Grange is hierarchical in structure. The National Grange is at the top and is headquartered in Washington, D.C. in a building that is the only non-governmental facility in an otherwise federal block across from the White House. Next come State Granges, then county or district Granges known as Pomona Granges, and finally subordinate Granges or the local Granges we are all familiar with. In Skagit County there are five subordinate Granges: Fredonia, west of Burlington; Rexville near La Conner; Samish Valley, north of Sedro-Woolley; Skagit Valley, west of Sedro-Woolley; and Summit Park near Anacortes. The Pomona Grange for Skagit County has no separate facility but rotates its meetings among the various subordinate Granges.
A Legacy that Cannot Be Overstated
When the Grange was founded there was no unified voice among the 48% of America’s population who lived on farms. In 1860 farmers represented 58% of the entire labor force, but the average farm—of which there were 2,044,000—was just under 200 acres. Farmers were without power or influence. That position was made abundantly clear during the immediate postwar period when the price for farm products fell, but the cost for taking goods to market stayed cripplingly high. This was the era of the great robber barons, exemplified by privately owned railroads that enjoyed an unfettered monopoly on shipping, and often storing, farmers’ output. The damage to the American farmer was devastating and seemingly complete.
But that situation did not last because the Grange gave voice and power to that underserved population and, in time, far-reaching changes became the law of the land. Although there were missteps along the way and coalitions with other farmer groups that flared and rather quickly faded, the Grange is credited for instigating a remarkable number of progressive advancements that we take for granted today.
On the national level, the Grange had a major role in the passing of the Interstate Commerce Act that was the first instance of federal regulation on privately owned enterprises (the railroads) and worked to bring unfair shipping rates under control. The Grange is also praised for persuasive lobbying for Rural Free Delivery service that meant farm families no longer had to travel often very long distances away from their work to get their mail, or pay private delivery services to do it for them.
Other successful developments brought about, in significant part, through Grange lobbying include the Cooperative Extension Service, rural electrification, women’s suffrage, and the direct election of senators (each state’s two senators were originally elected by the state legislatures rather than by the voters).
By pooling together through the Grange, members—referred to as “Grangers”—were able to cooperatively purchase farm equipment and other supplies and develop financial resources such as early versions of credit unions and insurance. It should come as no surprise that the Grange laid the groundwork for what is now the Farm Credit System, a network comprised of 73 independent and customer-owned financial institutions that currently support in excess of 40% of American farm debt.
Few Granges Have Been More Impactful than the Washington State Grange
The first local Granges were established when Washington was still a territory back in 1873; the Washington State Grange was founded two months before statehood (1889) in response to the proposed new state constitution that was drafted with considerable favor to railroad interests. The new Grange was not successful in preventing passage or even amendment of the constitution, but according to historylink.org, “In the first decades of the twentieth century, the organization worked closely with organized labor, the Progressive Movement, and other allies to win woman suffrage, create a system of primary elections in Washington, regulate the rapacious pricing practices of the railroads, and give the voting public the rights of initiative, referendum and recall. In later years the Grange campaigned for tax reform, led the battle for the creation of public utility districts in rural areas, and strongly supported the federal Bonneville Power Administration…”
The Washington State Grange remains vigorous and involved to this day as is evidenced by the many causes and legislative actions it promotes in its 2019 Washington State Grange Legislative Handbook. It states, “Our primary legislative objective is to represent the views of rural residents and the agriculture community,” and to that end it is working for change and improvement in such areas as education, conservation and ecology, healthcare and safety, election procedures, agriculture and many, many others.
Just the Beginning of the Story
In the first 150 years of the Grange a lot has changed. No longer is 48% of the U.S. population in farming. It is currently under 2%. But what those 2% produce in food, fuel and fiber is staggering. It is to everyone’s benefit that the Grange not only exists, but also remains faithful to its core values. As the Grange itself says, “We propose meeting together, talking together, working together, and in general, acting together for our mutual protection and enhancement.”