by State Historian Stan Howe
The origins of the Grange in Maine extend back to the Farmer’s Clubs, which were organized in the 1850s. Each club debated agricultural and household issues while both men and women had their separate gatherings. The clubs began to decline after the Civil War and were soon merged into another movement that would attract many of Maine’s rural population.
The Grange (officially known as the Patrons of Husbandry) was organized in Washington, D.C. in 1867. It grew slowly during its early years, but arrived in Maine by 1873. The following year, the Maine State Grange was organized in Lewiston. By the end of 1874, there were sixty-four Granges and approximately 2000 members. From the beginning, there was great interest in cooperative activities including offering insurance, advocating railroad and banking regulation, and promoting group purchasing. In 1876, the Order had grown to over 228 Granges with about 12,000 members.
At first, the hard times of the 1870s served as a stimulus to membership growth, but the numbers began to decline as the decade passed. Prosperity returned and good leadership such as that provided by State Master (and later Governor) Frederick Robie of Gorham came into being.
The Grange began to take strong positions on legislative issues and educational reform. Libraries and reading were encouraged in Grange halls as well as debates on a multitude of topics of interest to members. In many ways, the Grange served as an adult education resource for many Mainers.
The Maine State Grange began to confer the Sixth Degree in the 1880s. Also during this period, Pomona Granges (county level) came into being. While Edward Wiggin was State Master, the Grange raised funds for a Grange Cottage at Good Will Farm in Hinckley. This connection continues to the present with members donating thousands of pennies to Good Will Hinckley while supporting the Grange Cottage.
A dramatic period of growth was witnessed during the years under State Master Obadiah Gardner. The number of granges grew from 243 to 419; membership increased from 21,515 to 55,212. By 1907, Maine’s per capita grange membership was larger than any other state.
Legislatively the Grange supported prohibition and Rural Free Delivery. The Grange also advocated for strong local schools and increased funding for the University of Maine. The Grange worked with state governmental agencies to promote reform in Maine agricultural practices and protect the quality of fertilizer. In the Progressive era, the Grange supported the direct primary, recall and referendum, voting rights for women and curbs on monopolies.
By 1914 with the passage of the Smith-Lever Act, the Grange worked closely with the Extension Service to assist in familiarizing farmers and their wives with new and improved scientific methods of farming and household management. The Grange also developed a close association with the Farm Bureau, which along with the Extension Service and 4-H clubs used Grange halls for meetings and activities throughout the 20th century.
For many rural and farm women, the Grange became a social refuge, which allowed them to meet other women and escape, however briefly, the onerous work of the household. From its earliest days and long before the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. constitution in 1920, the Grange granted women equal voting rights within the Order.
During World War II, the Grange supported men and women in combat by paying their dues and sending packages of clothing and food. Granges were also encouraged to buy war bonds, support rationing procedures and collect strategic materials.
Following the war, the Grange growth continued. In 1945, the Maine State Grange purchased a state headquarters at 146 State Street in Augusta. Faced with a major outbreak of forest fires in 1947, the headquarters became a center for the distribution of food, clothing and supplies to those who lost their homes during that disastrous time.
In the 1960s, the Grange took an active role in supporting the Maine Conservation Camp at Bryant Pond, building Rogers Hall from funds raised at bean suppers.
Changes in insurance laws, the growing popularity of television, the decline of farming and other demographic and cultural changes began to affect membership levels of the Grange after 1960. While the Order is still a factor in many towns through its community service role, and its halls are one of the icons of the State’s landscape, the number of Granges has dropped to about 180 and membership is now approximately 8000. Many efforts are being made to revive interest in the Grange and encourage membership development with enhanced programming and membership benefits as incentives.
A Historical Summary of the National Grange
The Grange came into being in 1867 because of the vision of Oliver Hudson Kelley, a Minnesota farmer and activist. He had long held that farmers, because of their independent and scattered nature, needed a national organization that would represent them much as unions were beginning to do for industrial workers. Farmers were at the mercy of merchants for both needed farm supplies and for marketing their crops. Railroads and warehouse companies were taking advantage of farmers as well.
Kelley and some of his friends organized the National Grange (officially known as the Order of Patrons of Husbandry) as a fraternal group similar to the Masonic lodge. The early leaders were responsible for promoting cooperatives that had the potential of helping farmers economically. Effective lobbying efforts were undertaken early and this activity remains a bulwark of Grange service to rural America. Education of rural residents was championed by the early Grange and, due to Grange agitation, dramatic improvements were made in rural schools. The birth of the Extension Service, Rural Free Delivery, and the Farm Credit System were largely due to Grange lobbying. The Grange at all levels is strictly nonpartisan and does not endorse candidates for public office nor contribute to their campaigns.
At the national level, the Grange actively lobbies for causes that are in accord with organizational policy. All policy within the Grange originates at the local level and the organization remains as one of America’s best examples of democratic grass-roots activism. The primary legislative objective of the Grange is to represent the views of rural residents and the agricultural community. These issues include transportation, farm programs, rural economic development, education, health and safety concerns and many others. Each year the policies are summarized and published in booklet form.
Early in its history Grange leaders realized that social interaction was especially important to rural residents. For nearly 130 years Grange halls have existed as community centers where residents gather for educational events, dances, potlucks, town meetings, political rallies and other meetings. Junior Grange, 4-H, FFA, scouting and Camp Fire groups have thrived because of Grange involvement and each year tens of thousands of Grange members participate in numerous community service projects.
A wide variety of social, leadership and educational opportunities for members of all ages have been made available throughout the organization’ s long history. Members not only receive personal satisfaction from accomplishing something they enjoy, but they share in the greater reward of being an active part of an organized effort to bring people together for good times, constructive activities and honest, hard-working community building.