A Change At The Grange Larger Farms Mean Smaller Membership
The old dance floor creaked as Bessie Storms went to turn on a light.
In a corner of the Grange hall sat a battered piano, veteran of decades of weekend socials, when young farm couples danced and children napped on the sidelines.
“Grand times, weren’t they?” said Storms, 82. Grange treasurer Ted Miller, 86, nodded.
The Plummer Grange is no more. The dwindling handful of active members voted in late January to close their Grange hall and merge with the Worley Grange, five miles away.
“I felt like I was going to a wake,” Storms says of that meeting. Like many rural Granges, Plummer’s had seen its membership shrink and grow older.
“In small communities, we’re definitely taking our lumps, there’s no question about it,” said state Grange master Arley Weaver.
Weaver is sensitive about stories saying Granges are on the decline - so much so that he’s uneasy about giving precise figures on Granges.
He did say that there are about 5,000 Idaho Grange members today, or fewer than half the membership during the Grange’s heyday in the 1940s. During that same time, Weaver estimates, the number of Idaho Granges shrank by about 30 percent, to 85.
“It’s just a change in the cultural structure of the state,” Weaver said.
For one thing, he said, farms have become larger and more automated, so there are fewer farmers. Granges were formed after the Civil War to lobby for farmers’ interests, such as rural mail delivery, farm cooperatives and rural electrification.
Storms joined the Plummer Grange when it was formed in 1930.
“In 1930, there were still a lot of small farmers around,” she said. “It was something for families to do.”
Like many other Granges in recent years, Plummer failed to attract young families.
“The young people weren’t interested in it,” said Betty Wise, who joined 22 years ago. “They had ballgames and TV.”
“There were only nine active members and only about five who would come to meetings,” said Storms. “Nobody came. We couldn’t do anything.”
Over the years, Storms said, her Grange also found itself competing with other farm groups for Grange members’ time.
“They have the cattle association, the pea growers association, the wheat growers association,” she said.
Still, Weaver maintains that Granges, especially in larger towns, are not dying out.
“We’re holding our own,” he said. “I think Granges will be around for the next 50 years.”
He said the Granges that are surviving - and in some cases flourishing - are those that stress community service and family functions. Many of the younger members, he said, aren’t even farmers.
In recent years, Weaver said, Granges have built a rural helipad for medical helicopters, held trash cleanups and raised funds for fire districts.
“It’s a chance for families to come together, for children to meet other children,” he said. “The Granges that are doing that are having success.”
In Plummer, members have bundled up the Grange’s records and taken them to Worley. The Plummer Grange hall probably will be sold.
The old building holds a lot of memories. Dorothy Russell, a member for 39 years, remembers the parties, the guest lectures, dances, bingo and card parties.
“I’ll remember the good times we had there and the things we had done,” she said. “We’re going to another Grange, and hopefully it will be as happy a group.”
Wise remembers the dinners, auctions and bake sales. She remembers the time Grangers helped install plumbing in the home of a farm widow. And the time they gathered the hay for a farmer who’d suffered an injury.
“We were young and ambitious and there were a lot of us,” she said.
Storms is saving her memories in a small cardboard box. It’s filled with newspaper clippings, Grange announcements, old photos - and obituaries.
“It kind of fell apart,” she said. “Maybe it got to be more of a chore than a fun thing.
“I can fill my time easily enough, but it’s losing the social part that’ll hurt me.”
She looked around the old Grange hall, then switched off the light.
MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition.
Cut in the Spokane edition.