By Courtney L. Anderson
MERCER COUNTY — The Grange has been a force in America for nearly 150 years.
The fraternal farming organization, which has broadened its scope over the decades, has prompted political movement and strengthened small communities.
But with the number of farms dwindling and farmers getting older, Mercer County Grange leaders fear the group may not survive.
“The Grange’ll be dying off if we don’t get more younger people involved,” said Mercer County Pomona and Shenango Township Grange Master Harry Canon.
The sense of community promoted by the Grange is important to instill in young people, said New Vernon Grange Lecturer Helen Straub. Folks aren’t as connected to their neighbors as they once were and the family unit isn’t as strong as it was when farming was a way of life for many in the area.
Agriculture is still big business in Mercer County, with more than $60 million in income generated by folks who raise cattle, vegetables, grains or other products.
Nationally, the number of farms has been on the decline since World War II, though there’s been growth in small farms and very large farms in recent years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports.
There were 1,210 farms covering 172,000 acres in Mercer County in 2007, according to the USDA census. That’s down from 2,435 farms on 260,000 acres in 1959.
“Where there used to be four or five farms, there’s maybe one now,” said Frances Steese, chairman of the Pomona history committee.
As of March, there were about 220 Grangers in Mercer County with seven subordinate Granges, according to the state Grange organization. In 1932, there were more than 3,000. There are about 300,000 Grangers in 3,600 U.S. communities, according to the national organization’s Web site.
The county organization is called the Pomona Grange and still-active Granges are: New Vernon Grange 608 in Clarks Mills, Stony Point Grange 1694 in Delaware Township, Jackson Grange 1506 in Jackson Township, London Grange 1492 in Springfield Township, Shenango Township Grange 2057, Pleasant Valley Grange 1643 in Findley Township and Friendship Grange 1232 in the Greenville area, according to state records.
Over the years there have been more than 60 Granges in the county, Mrs. Steese said.
An active Granger at age 85, Mrs. Steese has been part of the organization since she was 12 and is a member of the London Grange.
“I was raised on a farm in Liberty Township, back when the farmers raised everything,” said Mrs. Steese, whose family is famous in the county for ice cream. Growing up on a farm was a good time, she said.
Mrs. Steese has been compiling information about the Granges for about 20 years. In her Pine Township home, she has scores of booklets, photographs and newspaper clippings.
“When a Grange closes, stuff usually landed here,” she said.
Granges used to focus on farm-related issues, but Mrs. Steese said that now anything that affects the community can become a cause.
In addition to regular potluck dinners and bake sales to raise funds for the Granges, Mrs. Steese said the groups also help when someone in the community suffers things like an accident or fire.
“Whatever need in the community that they can help with, they’re right there to do it,” Mrs. Steese said of the Grangers.
Canon said they hope to get new people involved to continue the tradition and mission of the Grange.
“We’d love to have people interested in gardening or farming join,” Canon said, adding that folks can get involved even if they aren’t farmers.
Mrs. Straub said people with all sorts of occupations are involved.
“It’s for anybody that’s interested in a grassroots family organization,” Mrs. Straub said.
“They have lots of fun things for the young people to do,” Mrs. Steese said, noting that once people give it a shot, they often keep coming back.
The local Granges have fielded baseball teams, bowling leagues and put on plays, Mrs. Steese said.
Mrs. Straub noted there are activities all year long, including camps and competitions. In the winter the Granges take turns hosting programs on topics such as technology and protecting the environment, she said.
And the Pomona group takes trips together and throws parties at holidays, Mrs. Straub said.
Some places are seeing a resurgence in the grassroots organization as new generations take on leadership roles.
For example, Krist Novoselic, the bassist in the iconic rock band Nirvana, is the Worthy Master of Grays River Grange 124 in Wahkiakum County, Wash. The group has a Web site and Novoselic recently took a stand against election processes in the state.
Busy schedules keep the Grange from playing an active role in people’s lives like it did in the past, Mrs. Steese said.
“Things at school and church take up young people’s time,” she said.
This is particularly true for families with school-aged children, Mrs. Straub said.
Through the Grange, young and old learn lessons useful at home, school and work, Mrs. Steese said. Participating in meetings helps with public speaking and they’re taught respect, charity and the importance of civic involvement.
The Grange youth actually started the Mercer County Grange Fair held every year in Findley Township.
The youth held the first farm show, as it was called then, in 1965 and the event grew to the festival with rides, exhibits, bingo and a variety of entertainment.
The fairs have hosted everything from drill team and dog obedience competitions to mustache and greased pig contests
Formed in 1867 to bring farmers together after the Civil War, the National Grange of the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry with rituals modeled after the Freemasons, the Grange was an instrument for change in many of the nation’s policies. It lobbied for the Farm Credit Act, rural mail delivery and against railroad monopolies. The Granges is still active in Harrisburg and Washington.
Rituals include those for conferring the seven degrees of membership, which correspond to the seasons on the farm and principles like faith and perseverance.
The rituals aren’t big secrets, Mrs. Straub said, but their details aren’t broadcast. It’s just like any social lodge, she said.
Mrs. Steese said the rituals aren’t as actively observed today, but it’s a “real nice ceremony when done well.” Mercer County youth won state Better Ritual contests several times since the 1960s.
“It’s not as intense as it used to be,” Mrs. Straub said. “We’re getting a little more modern. It’s not archaic like everyone thinks.”
Mercer County Grangers have held state offices and titles and have hosted the state session several times, most recently in 2005 with neighboring counties.
To join the Grange, pick up an application at the Grange Fair or contact any Grange member.
Meetings aren’t always open, but Mrs. Straub said folks can also stop by to ask questions.
“Anybody can come at any time,” Mrs. Straub said.
Regular Grange meetings are:
ä Jackson Grange — 7:30 p.m. the third Tuesday of each month at the grange hall.
ä London Grange — 7 p.m. the second Monday of each month at the grange hall.
ä New Vernon Grange — 8 p.m. the first and third Wednesday of each month from April through September and the first Wednesday the rest of the year.
ä Shenango Township Grange — 7:30 p.m. the third Wednesday of the month at different members’ homes.
ä Stony Point Grange — 7:30 p.m. the first and third Thursday of each month at the grange.