The Grangers, Then and Now

Recently an issue which has been occasionally popping up in my newspaper as well as my family research was on the front page of the Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA): The resurgence of the Grange.

Bennett Valley Grange Hall, Santa Rosa, CA
Bennett Valley Grange Hall, Santa Rosa, CA

The very word grange brings up good memories from my childhood. As a kid I remember occasionally attending social events held in grange halls in Sonoma County, the nearest of which was the Bennett Valley Grange. Dances were held there regularly as well as other social events and meetings. This morning I read that Bennett Valley is the oldest continuously operating grange hall in the entire nation, founded in 1873.

The topic of the Grangers, or the Patrons of Husbandry, has also come up in the family research I’ve been doing. A letter written in 1874 by Sarah (Little) Love, an Irish immigrant to and resident of Illinois, and half-sister to my great grandmother, Catherine (Foster) Clarke, mentions the growing Grange movement. Both Catherine and Sarah were married to farmers, and their letters frequently addressed topics that were important to their farming families.

Sarah writes:

As for the Granger’s [sic] they are doing very well and I think in a year every farmer will join them, if they know what is for their good. Eddie [Sarah’s son] went last Monday to one of three meetings and said they had a very good and large gathering. I think we shall join them.

This little snippet about the Grangers caught my attention and piqued my interest about the organization. I found several good sources of information. My favorite was a book written in 1874 by Ezra Slocum entitled The Patrons of Husbandry on the Pacific Coast. It is a rather amazing history of farming in general as well as a detailed history of the Grange in California. Slocum was a professor of agriculture at UC Davis and was involved in many of the early meetings.

Another book that has shed much light on the plight of the farmers is Rulers & Rebels, a People’s History of Early California, 1769-1901 by Laurence H. Shoup, a professor at UC Berkeley. Published in 2010, it is a Howard Zinn-styled history of the state in terms of capitalism vs. labor, class and race. Shoup describes the absolute monopoly the railroad barons had on transportation. By the late 1860s the owners of the Central Railroad—Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins—were creating a vast monopoly which included owning or controlling the docks in San Francisco, the granaries where the farmers’ wheat crop was stored until it was shipped, the steam ships, and of course, the railroads. By the early 1870s the farmers could not turn a profit on their wheat crops (the primary crop grown in California at the time) due to the extortionate storage and shipping fees. Even the price of the sacks required to ship the wheat was controlled by this monopoly, and you might imagine that the prices were not set to benefit the farmers. This scenario was being played out all over the nation. The Patrons of Husbandry, which had begun in England, got started in the U.S. in 1867, and was in essence farmers organizing against policies that were ruining them.

By the mid-1870s, the California Grange had succeeded in building their own storage silos, formed their own bank, hired an agent to work on their behalf to ship their crops to England, and formed various cooperative arrangements that saved money on sacks and implements. They encouraged a bigger manufacturing presence in the state so that they did not have to rely on goods made out-of-state, which were, of course, transported by the railroads, driving prices up. On a state-by-state basis the Grangers were eventually able to increase regulation of the railroads, but it was not until the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 that federal regulations were passed. All in all, the Grangers had a very positive effect on the economics of farming.

The Grange movement also had the goal of reducing the isolation of farming families by hosting social events and assisting farmers in keeping abreast of new techniques by hosting workshops and maintaining agricultural libraries. The Grangers were involved in getting Rural Mail Delivery put into place on a national scale so that farmers could receive mail at their homes rather than having to go in to town or pay private delivery companies. Women held equal places with the men in the Grange halls and were able to hold office, present policy papers, and take part in every aspect of the organization. Thus the Grange became the heart of many farming communities.

Lately I’ve been reading that the Grange has had a recent resurgence in Sonoma County. The Sebastopol Grange is one of many that has become very active with a new generation of young farmers. A visit to their website reveals that “The Grange isn’t just for farmers! Come to the Grange if you’re a supporter of local food and sustainability or a farmer or an eater…” In addition to the Farmer’s Guild meetings, events such as a Fermentation Workshop, and a film and discussion on permaculture were offered. I was heartened to learn that the Grange continues to hold a place in rural communities.

There is trouble on the horizon, however, as it turns out that these Granges have been operating apart from the National Grange under a reorganized California State Grange. Many small farmers in California and Oregon particularly feel the National organization has become too closely intertwined with industrial farming. The National Grange has sided with Monsanto, a chemical company which produces genetically modified seeds which it sells to farmers while prohibiting seed saving, requiring farmers to buy new seed every year. The National Grange is also strongly in favor of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) while the California State Grange was a primary force in trying to get a ban of GMOs on the California ballot. The national organization has filed several lawsuits against the California State Grange resulting in the state organization severing all ties with the national in 2013. Now the National Grange is threatening to take over the assets of the local granges, including the Grange Halls, and threatening to sue the reorganized California Grange for using the word “Grange” in the name. It’s a sad state of affairs that the organization that once stood for the small, family farmer against the monopolies of huge corporations has now gone to the dark side, aligning itself with giant agribusiness and corporate farming. At the same time I’m greatly heartened by the local efforts to organize around sustainable food and land issues in northern California and other regions, and hope that they will be allowed to continue in the true spirit of the original Granger movement.

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