Long before there were televisions in every home, long before the Internet and social media, rural communities got their information and connection the old-fashioned way – in person at the Grange.
To preserve the history of one of those granges and make its history accessible to everyone, the Spokane County Library District partnered with the Moran Prairie Grange on a Washington Rural Heritage project.
Librarian Ree West spearheaded the digitalization project and an interpretive library display, which was made possible by a grant from Washington State Library with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
“The grant we’ve received is allowing us to digitize photographs and documents from the collection of the Moran Prairie Grange, and post them to the Washington Rural History Database, where anyone will be able to experience them online,” said West.
An exhibit featuring many of those photographs and documents is on display at the Moran Prairie Library through the end of the month.
West said most of the items were stored in the Grange basement.
“They were at risk of being lost because that’s not archival storage conditions,” she explained. “Artifacts from the Moran Prairie Grange provide a great window into what life was like in rural Washington state during the last century.”
For example, the red satin shirt with the gold trim on display at the library.
“The Grange typically held a couple of dances a month to fund their programs,” West said. “In 1939 Grange members formed their own band, the Red Shirts.
Current Moran Prairie Grange treasurer Valree Hubenthal Gayken knows the band well. It was made up of her family members.
However, she doesn’t remember her first Grange meeting.
“I was 6 weeks old,” she said, laughing.
She and her siblings spent much of their childhood at the Grange, which was built in its present location in 1940.
“I’m the third generation treasurer,” she said. “The Grange has been in our blood for generations.”
Unlike many civic organizations, women have always been able to hold office in the Grange.
“All the way back to 1914 and 1915, the Moran Prairie Grange elected women to the positions of Master and Overseer, and over the years following have had women in the other leadership positions,” West said.
During her research, she also discovered the Moran Prairie Grange was more than just a place to socialize. In fact, it was instrumental in bringing electricity to the South Hill and the Prairie and in the creation of the Palouse Highway. Photos show Grange members wielding a large shovel as they broke ground for the Highway.
“The 10-foot-long ceremonial shovel is still at the Grange,” West said. “I’ve spent some time reading the meeting minutes from 1935 to 1940, and it’s interesting to note that political activities take up more space in the minutes than most other Grange functions.”
In addition to political and educational activities, the Grange formed a Relief Committee to help sick neighbors, arranging visits and delivery of food and flowers. Grange members performed what would now be called welfare checks to community members who were suffering for a variety of reasons.
For Gayken, the Grange formed the social hub of her childhood.
“There were card parties and dances,” she recalled. “The kids had Junior Grange meetings and there were crafts, skits and snacks.”
And for many years the Grange hosted the Moran Fair.
“There was a rodeo, a grain sack sewing contest, a cake walk, a dunk tank,” Gayken said.
The Fair is no more, but each year the Grange hosts a Strawberry Festival. This year the event is May 19. Gayken said the free event boasts strawberry shortcake, strawberry lemonade and vendors offering vintage, salvage and handmade items.
She is thrilled by the SCLD’s initiative in facilitating the exhibit and the digitalization project.
“It’s worthwhile to restore and preserve,” she said.
More than that, she hopes to see the work of the Grange continue. Like many service organizations, membership is declining.
“In our heyday we had around 550 members – one of the biggest granges in the area,” Gayken said. “Now we have about 66 members. We would love to have new blood and people to come in and help us carry on.”
That’s West’s hope as well.
“It’s been a fun project,” she said. “The Moran Prairie Grange is a great organization, and it needs new members. Hopefully, through this project, community members will decide to join in on the fun.”