Larry Lawton’s children dash and slide across the Grange hall’s polished wood floor until, like a clap of thunder, their father’s gavel sends them tumbling into their seats.
The other Five Mile Prairie Grange members - most old enough to be the children’s grandparents, even great-grandparents - smile at the youngsters, then turn their attention to Lawton as he starts the meeting.
Families like the Lawtons are the Grange’s hope for survival.
As the family farm and rural America are paved over, Grange leaders are scrambling to survive the 1990s by attracting suburban families who don’t own a John Deere, or even a pitchfork.
“It’s a Mom, apple pie and family-values kind of thing,” said Lawton, a Spokane dentist.
More than 1,000 Grange members are expected to meet in Spokane this week for the 130th national convention.
Lawton joined 20 years ago. His parents met at a Grange meeting and were members while he was growing up on the family farm in Washtucna, south of Ritzville.
“Grange was always there. I just always knew about it,” said Lawton.
Today, he lauds the organization’s enduring image as an oasis of neighborliness in a frantic world.
“I think the focus on community values might be bringing people back to the Grange,” he said.
With the theme “Today’s Grange: Meeting the Challenge” leaders will search this week during the meetings at various Spokane locations including the Convention Center, Opera House and Cavanaugh’s Inn at the Park, for ways to attract new members, and spur current members into action.
There are 300,000 Grange members nationwide. Washington is the largest Grange state, with 60,000 members. There are 4,240 in Spokane. Idaho claims more than 4,000 members.
“We are working harder to get younger families involved,” said Mary Johnson, Idaho state Grange master. “There’s a lot of competition for time. Families have two working parents, or maybe a single parent. We need to change to accomodate changing families.”
Bob Shea of Spokane is deputy master of the Washington state Grange.
His father, Ira Shea, was a pioneer in the organization, establishing 143 halls statewide between 1924 and 1935.
“The Grange has a lot of history, but it also has a future,” said Bob Shea.
Many Grange families go back generations, but their reasons for sticking with the organization vary.
Some are drawn by the opportunity to socialize, once difficult in a rural setting where miles separated farms.
Other members point to the Grange’s political clout, and a history of legislative triumphs like the establishment of free rural mail delivery, the formation of Public Utility Districts, improvements to rural schools, and the Family Farm Act.
Today, Washington Grange issues include taxes and the state Growth Management Act.
Along with guarding farm interests, the Grange is active in community service - doing volunteer work and raising money for causes like deaf awareness, bridge safety, and highway litter projects. Spokane Granges sponsor the Spokane Interstate Fair queen and her court.
“Granges will die if they’re not involved with community service,” said Shea.
For some Spokane Granges, death has already come.
In the 1950s, there were at least 24 halls scattered around the county. Today, eight remain active.
Although Five Mile Prairie Grange counts 250 members, just a dozen turned out recently when longtime members were honored.
“We used to do more things. We had an active junior Grange, we gave dances to earn money,” said Catherine Click, who picked up her 50-year pin that night. “For several years, in the 1950s, we sponsored a community crab feed. Everyone looked forward to it.”
Grange is also a fraternal organization - known officially as the “Order of Patrons of Husbandry”- steeped in ritual and tradition.
The Grange was started in 1867 by Minnesota farmer Oliver Hudson Kelley. It occurred to him that farmers needed a national organization to represent them like the unions that were forming to represent industrial workers.
Its structure is based on the old English estate. Instead of a Grange president, there is the master. Next is the overseer, and the lecturer, whose responsibility it is to provide an educational or entertainment program at each meeting.
There’s also a steward, gatekeeper, chaplain, secretary, treasurer and three “ladies of the court.”
Symbolic farm tools, elegantly molded from pewter, are displayed at meetings, reminding Grangers of their connection to the soil: the plow blade, spade, ax, pruning hook, hoe, knife and sickle.
Much of the ritual is secret. A password is needed to enter most meetings.
Central Grange, at Bigelow Gulch in the foothills of Mount Spokane, tallies more than 400 members.
Forty-four of them attended a recent Saturday night potluck dinner and booster meeting.
Louise Branson looks around the half-empty hall and shakes her head. She remembers the Grange meetings and dinners 30 years ago when the halls were bursting.
“Those were the best years for Grange,” she said.
Even the biggest boosters don’t expect to see those days again. But the Washington Grange has succeeded where other states have failed, adding 3,000 members last year.
Some credit a new, energetic state master for the growth.
Bob Joy, at 37, became the youngest state master in the organization’s 106-year history. He sees a bright future.
“Grange is just now coming into its real strength,” he said during a recent visit to Spokane. “The Grange isn’t dying, it’s growing.
“This organization gives people a chance to have an impact, it gives people a chance to participate in government.”
As for the graying of the Grange, Joy hopes to counter that trend by drawing young families.
“We need young people, we need young families coming to Grange,” said Joy. “We also need the older people. They’ve been down the road, they’ve seen where we’ve been. But we need the young people who have the energy to carry out our goals.”
Carol Evans, 45, an intensive care nurse at Sacred Heart Medical Center, is a third generation Granger, but finds few others her age in the crowd.
Evans shrugged off talk that Grange is disappearing. “There’s a lot of competition from school activities and other programs that keep families and younger people away from regular meetings,” she said. “Grange stands for a lot of good things in the world … and you don’t always hear a lot about those things out there,” she said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos
MEMO: See related story under the headline: Grange rituals offer lesson.