Grange born from strife

A Walk Through History: Grange born from strife and promoted suffrage, temperance, community

Jul. 21, 2013   

Family, community and farming are the hallmarks of the Grange movement, which began in 1867 following the devastation in the South during the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson sent Oliver Kelley to tour the South in order to determine the condition of farms in the hope that the commonality of farming might help bring North and South together again. A Freemason, Kelley used his status to gain the trust of the defeated, suspicious farmers. Out of his work, the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry was born. The term “grange” came from the commonly used name for a feudal estate in England. Primarily an educational organization and a voice for agriculture, the group agreed on four tenets because there are four seasons — faith, hope, charity and fidelity. Local grange organizations were similar to the Freemasons in their ritual and practices.

Headquartered in Washington, D.C., and still a voice for the interests of farmers nationwide, the organization fostered local granges all over the West, including in Fort Collins. Empire Grange, No. 148, was organized in 1904 with 13 members. The first president was E.S. Merrifield, who had once been Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary. For a time, they met at a nearby schoolhouse.

A small, rectangular brick building at 2306 W. Mulberry Street, Empire Grange was built by its members on land donated by farmer Robert Maxwell, who was gratified that the building was constructed “without the aid of a dance or a whiskey bottle.” Leftover bricks from the recently built Great Western Sugar Factory were used for the facade. Members dug the basement by hand. Empire Grange moved into the hall in 1912.

An unusual feature of the Grange movement, for its time, was that women and anyone over 14 who was involved with farming could join, and women held several elected positions. Women’s suffrage was one of its causes; Susan B. Anthony made her last public appearance at a Grange hall. The organization also supported temperance. Youth groups engaged children from 7 to 14 in educational and social activities. Most granges held monthly potluck suppers for the whole family, community being a very important part of the group’s purpose.

During the years that a large membership afforded the organization a strong lobbying voice, the national organization succeeded in regulation of railroads as related to grain warehouses and establishing rural free postal delivery and, later, rural electric services, among other accomplishments.

Members took an active part on the home front during World War II with careful husbandry, recycling of usable materials and volunteering.

As did other granges, Empire Grange membership declined along with the number of farmers — now only 2 percent of the population. Recently, interest in urban and organic farming has resulted in an uptick in membership nationwide.

Today the modest little building, which features a wooden floor perfect for dancing, hosts the Storm Mountain Folk Dancers and other groups. Next door, the Mulberry Community Garden provides a reminder of the nation’s agricultural roots and of the Grange movement’s rich and influential history.

Barbara Fleming is the author of several books of local history. 

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