Granges not only for farms

Grange membership may be on the decline, but the organization founded by Oliver Hudson Kelley in 1867 to give farmers a voice continues to play a key role in rural America today.

“The Grange is a fraternal family organization based on community service and legislative action. Agriculture is still a big part but not what it is based on anymore,” said Stacy E. Bruker, public relations/membership director for the Pennsylvania Grange. “Our primary purpose is to be a fraternal organization for the family.”

The Pennsylvania Grange, chartered in 1873, today has about 9,000 members and is the second largest in the United States behind Washington.

Bruker said the organization, which is marking Grange Month in April, is a grass-roots organization.

Local granges – there are 245 in Pennsylvania – can draft resolutions, which can be passed on to the county level and then the state level. Resolutions passed at the state level can be passed on to the national Grange, Bruker said.

Rural mail delivery became a reality because of the work of the Grange, for example, and today the national Grange is working on broadband access, because a lot of rural areas don’t have access to high speed Internet.

“We are not just for farmers anymore, but rural America is still our focus,” Bruker said.

Grange membership offers numerous benefits to its members, such as discount memberships at wholesale clubs, hotels, car rentals and for vision insurance and pharmacy discount programs, Bruker said.

Although founded to help farmers, very few farmers are Grange members today.

“There are farmers who have never even heard of the Grange,” Bruker said.

“A lot of people believe the Grange is just for farmers; we have only two farmers among our members,” said Georgette Mummert, master of Hartslog Valley Grange 375, Alexandria.

Each local has its own purpose, but the majority focus on community service, Bruker said.

Logan Grange 109 of Pleasant Gap, the largest in Centre County with about 165 members, focuses on both community service and education.

Logan Grange provides dictionaries for the third-graders at Pleasant Gap Elementary and donates to the Wounded Warrior Project, Operation Shoe Box and other organizations, said Dottie Houtz, Grange master.

“Each month we try to have a speaker such as a county commissioner or recorder of deeds. At our next meeting we will have someone to talk about the American eagle,” Houtz said. “We have a variety of topics. An important part of the Grange is educational.”

Penns Valley Grange 158 formed in 1990 when Spring Mills Grange, organized in 1874, and East Penns Valley, organized in the mid-1930s, merged. The group also focuses on community service.

“We have bought FFA jackets. We make and donate blankets to the Janet Weis Children’s Hospital at Geisinger Medical Center. We make about 100 a year. We support a program at Penns Valley High School, the Secret Angel Program,” said Ruth Vonada, secretary. “We also give out two $50 scholarships to seniors who have done a lot in the way of community service.”

Granges in Cambria County are big on providing scholarship money for college-bound students. In 2012, the three county Granges handed out $3,600 in scholarship money.

“The scholarship fund is our biggest focus. Banner has given out $1,200 each year for the past 15 years,” said John Strittmatter, 84, master of Banner Grange 1115 of Patton. He is also vice president of the Cambria County Grange and has been a Grange member for 70 years.

“This year we are giving out the most scholarships we ever have – 10 scholarships for $100. We will need to do a lot of hoagie sales,” said Margaret Storm, master of Pleasant Hill Grange 1861, Chest Springs.

Membership at Sinking Valley Grange 484 has dropped from more than 200 members in the late-1980s to about 22 today, but it remains active, said Elizabeth Diehl, master.

“We have a group of ladies who make things. They knit baby blankets and quilts and donate these to hospitals in the area. They also knit scarves and make cancer caps for the cancer society. They also make stuffed toys and donate them to the hospitals,” Diehl said. “We also have food drives and donate food to the food banks around Christmas. We also do benefit suppers for people who are in need.”

Scotch Valley Grange 510 is down to about 38 members, said Charles Brenneman, 85, a Grange member for 64 years.

The Grange women make quilts, caps for cancer patients, knit booties and blankets for babies, gloves and large blankets for adults.

“We also do things in the community. We help serve at the soup kitchens and clean tombstones in cemeteries,” Brenneman said.

Numbers also are way down at Lincoln Grange 914, James Creek, said youth chairman Jodi Keith, who also serves as Huntingdon County Grange president.

“We have a very small number of members. We hold numerous bloodmobiles throughout the course of the year, Easter egg hunts for the community and litter pickups within the community,” Keith said. “Lincoln Grange has the only Junior Grange (ages 5 to 14) in Huntingdon County.”

Some Granges haven’t been able to hold onto their meeting halls. Hartslog Valley Grange 375, for example, sold its hall several years ago.

“We meet at a local church,” said Mummert, in her first year as master. “Our Grange is over 100 years old. My goal is not to be the one in charge when they decide to fold. I am new to the position but dedicated to keep it going.”

Sinking Valley Grange sold its hall to Tyrone Township about two years ago. The Grange continues to meet at the building, which is also used for township meetings as well.

Bedford Grange 619 may soon be closing, said master William Ford, 87.

“We can’t get enough members to have a meeting. We are considering closing our Grange at the end of the year,” Ford said. “We have about 30 members but are lucky to get six for a meeting.”

Officials admit the future will be challenging.

“Keeping young people in the Grange is hard to do. Interest in agriculture has dropped for the young people, but it is a great organization,” Brenneman said.

“It is a challenge to get more members, but more people want to get back to community service. We have a future, but we will have to work at maintaining a relevant organization,” Bruker said.

Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.