Franklin County grange members say modern groups less about agriculture, more about community

  • The Henry family stand in front of Greenfield’s Guiding Star Grange wearing traditional grange sashes, signifying their rank. From left to right: Ruth Ellen Henry, her daughter Karlena Henry and husband Dick Henry. Recorder Staff/Dan Desrochers

  • Members of the Whately Grange, above, gather at the Town Hall. From left to right are LaDonna Olanyk, Allison Bardwell, Adelia Bardwell, Paul Allis, Thomas Leahey, Marie Allis and Ruth Leahey. Below, Whately Grange members Ruth Leahey, left, and LaDonna Olanyk, lay out fabric to be sewn into a quilt. Recorder Photos/Dan Little

  • The Whately Grange banner at the Town Hall. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Whately Grange members Ruth Leahey, left, and LaDonna Olanyk, lay out fabric to be sewn into a quilt. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Members of the Whately Grange gather around the veterans memorial at the Town Hall. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • The veterans memorial at Whately Town Hall. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • The veterans memorial at Whately Town Hall. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Yo-Yo performer Eric Koloski demonstrates a series of tricks at last year’s Shelburne Grange Fair. Recorder Staff/DAN LITTLE

  • Shane Illinski, 3, peers into one of the many apron pockets of Pocket Lady Penny Novack looking for a small toy at last year’s Shelburne Grange Fair. Recorder Staff/DAN LITTLE

  • Ed Botchelder, of the Melha Clowns, makes a balloon animal at the 2016 Shelburne Grange Fair. Recorder File Photo

  • Tina Olsen, 73, of Brattleboro, Vt., dances with David Cantieni, former master of the Guiding Star Grange in Greenfield during a contra dance in 2016. Recorder File Photo

Recorder Staff
Friday, July 06, 2018

Granges have seen dwindling membership over the last few decades, but don’t tell that to Franklin County’s grange members.

The local members of the fraternal organization have stuck with the agricultural-based group, bringing with them their children and sometimes grandchildren to help keep the several granges in the area open. The groups are still contributing in many ways to their communities like members before them, but community has become a larger focus than it was 100 years ago.

“Grange always was a bunch of old farmers talking fertilizer,” said Ruth Leahey, master of Whately Grange No. 414.

While that agricultural focus continues today, Franklin County grange members are seeing their efforts geared more toward community, Leahey noted. Granges use this additional focus to help keep afloat financially and maintain their role in the towns and communities they’re located in.

“It’s what the grange does for everyone else,” Leahey said.

This includes the annual celebrations that happen in towns in Franklin County that the granges are located in, such as the Memorial Day parade in Whately. The 39-member grange Leahey belongs to donates money, helps plan the event and even dedicates the flags at the end of the march.

Leahey said that her grange also gave a quilt to the town’s War Memorial Renovation Committee that was sold to raise money for Whately’s memorial.

Then there’s the Shelburne Grange Fair put on by Shelburne Grange No. 68 and its 97 members. The event is an agricultural fair held every August that features a chicken barbecue, entertainment and a flea market, according to 40-year Shelburne Grange member and lecturer Barbara Giguere.

The Shelburne Grange provides children with a Halloween party every year, too, and is even building a float for Shelburne’s 250th anniversary, Giguere noted.

“The community service aspect picked up. That’s the focus now locally,” she said.

Another Franklin County Grange, the Guiding Star Grange No. 1 in Greenfield, also provides community service for the city, though of a different kind.

The Guiding Star Grange’s hall is rented out regularly when its 56 members aren’t holding a meeting, which gives the group financial stability and the community a large open space for any number of events. One of the most popular events, according to Guiding Star Grange Master Karlena Henry, are the Friday contra dances — a type of folk dance with its origins in the 17th century — that happen at least once a week.

Granges began in post-Civil War America. The national organization was founded in 1867, according to the National Grange website, with its roots in agriculture, as well as family and community. After the Civil War, farmers needed advanced technology to better meet their social and economic needs.

Farmers were negatively impacted by the Panic of 1873, according to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. This pushed grange membership to increase significantly, The institute wrote, as advocation for the nation’s farmers became a focus of the group during the severe nationwide economic downturn, including lobbying for legislative aid.

Organizing in Massachusetts

The first grange in Massachusetts was the Guiding Star Grange No. 1 in Greenfield, established on June 17, 1873. This paved the way for 17 more Massachusetts granges to be established in 1873, including Deerfield, Northfield, Danvers and Boston, and eventually a Massachusetts State Grange, according to a pamphlet from the statewide grange. The number of granges fluctuated wildly during the first five years of existence in Massachusetts. By 1875, there were 100 granges across the state, but three years later, the number dropped to 26.

Today, different types of granges include state granges that oversee all granges within a state. Then there are Pomona granges that are made up of subordinate or local granges, according to the Massachusetts State Grange website.

The website lists 48 subordinate granges active in the state, and 12 Pomona granges. Franklin County’s granges, which are Greenfield’s Guiding Star Grange No. 1, Shelburne’s Grange No. 68 and Whately Grange No. 414, all belong to the Connecticut Valley Pomona Grange.

Finding a community

The members of Franklin County granges are proud of their participation. They talk highly of the grange and what it represents for them, from improving who they are, to building on their family. And there must be something special about being in a grange if 15 Whately members recently celebrated 990 combined years of membership.

Grange membership includes men, women and children, which is a tradition that has carried since the beginning. According to Guiding Star Grange member Ruth Ellen Henry (and Karlena’s mother), granges are also family-based.

“The whole family can go to any meeting,” she said.

She also said that “as long as you’re a member, you can hold any office” within a grange, which improves participation of younger members.

Being involved in a grange can foster members’ confidence.

Karlena Henry said she was bullied in school. She originally joined because her parents, Ruth Ellen and Dick Henry, were a part of it, and the adults in the group seemed to participate in something secretive. She wanted in on the secret. When she joined the grange full-time, though, it became more than just a secret club.

Karlena Henry said that she was picked on when outside of the grange, but upon joining, she found a group who accepted her.

“The grange, especially the youth organization, was made up of misfits,” Karlena Henry said. “It taught us to become leaders.”

Karlena Henry gained confidence, especially as she went through the many rituals, remembering each step and mastering the lessons being taught. These were crucial steps along the way to moving up the ranks, before she eventually became master of the Pomona Valley Grange, which is the group that oversees the area granges, including those in Franklin County.

“In the grange, well, I shined,” she said.

For Karlena Henry’s father Dick Henry, the grange gave him confidence as well. He was shy and reserved, and speaking in front of any sort of audience was more of a nightmare than anything. But the grange thrust him into roles where this nightmare was a necessary step to move up the ranks.

“I was expected to get up and speak at other granges,” Dick Henry said.

“It rounded me into a better person,” he added, saying that it helped him later in life when he sold insurance.

Thomas Leahey, husband of Ruth Leahey and assistant steward for the Whately Grange, agreed that his work in the grange helped his public speaking fears. In addition, he said he “made a lot of very good friends” during his time with the group.

But it wasn’t just confidence-building that Dick Henry appreciated.

“It was an opportunity to meet girls,” Dick Henry said, to which his wife Ruth Ellen said, “It worked!”

Dick and Ruth Ellen Henry met at a grange meeting and have been together since.

Staff reporter Dan Desrochers has worked at the Greenfield Recorder since February 2018. He covers Greenfield. He can be reached at: ddesrochers@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257.