It's grand ol' Grange - Members of grass-roots society, more than a century old, gather for convention at WSU

Hannelore Sudermann
Spokesman-Review Staff writer

June 19, 2004

PULLMAN, WA A secret society complete with rites, goddesses and ritualistic degrees is meeting in Pullman this week.

Close to 1,000 members of the Washington State Grange hit town Wednesday with their sashes, pins and solemn ceremonies, ready to take part in a four-day convention at Washington State University's Beasley Coliseum.

While the rituals are a key ingredient of the event, there also is a practical side that of creating and endorsing legislation, baking cakes and teaching youngsters about civic involvement.

The nonpartisan rural grass-roots organization opened its first hall in Waitsburg 115 years ago. It is credited with championing the rights of farmers and other rural citizens, sponsoring the 1930s state initiative that resulted in public utility districts and fighting to limit the growth of corporate farming. The Grange made recent headlines by rallying to save open primary elections. It has captured the rapt attention of the local political candidates and the ears of national leaders.

A recent survey of state Grange members showed that 90 percent are regular voters, said Grange newspaper editor Dave Howard. It's no wonder the government pays attention to them, he said, "they are more politically and civically active than most residents in the state."

Also known as the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, the National Grange came into being shortly after the Civil War as an organization to pull farmers and residents into a cohesive group. United, they could stand up to the railroad monopolies and business conglomerates of the time. The idea worked, and over the next few decades thousands of Grange Halls sprouted across rural America.

The Grange helped get rural postal delivery, provided farmers and their families with much-needed insurance and started the first agriculture extension programs. The fraternal organization also is known for raising money for charities, providing and supporting educational programs and offering centers where communities can meet.

Retired Washtucna farmer Lester Snyder has one of the best views of a life in the Washington Grange. He joined in 1938 at the age of 17. Before that, he spent his childhood trailing after his parents to Grange meetings. During the Depression, when the family had little money for Christmas presents, they could count on the Grange hall where each child was given a sack with peanuts, an orange and a chocolate bar.

Snyder also remembers the charity fund-raisers, the crowded pie and box socials at the hall where even during hard times young men would pay up to $100 for the lunch they believed was prepared by their favorite gal.

Early farm life could be isolating, he remembers. The local halls offered families a place to connect, socialize and hold town meetings. "Everybody went to the Grange," said Snyder. "There wasn't anything else to do."

Snyder has accomplished seven degrees of Grange membership and has traveled to the headquarters in Washington, D.C. Each of his degrees was conferred through a secret ceremony, said Snyder, holding back the details. "It is what you call a secret organization," he said with a shrug, "though it's not so secret anymore."

Nearly 140 years ago, the Grange's founders based their rituals on the Freemason model. Their intent with the secret rites was to create a bond of confidence and security among the members, according to a "History of the Grange Movement" written in 1874. Unlike other early fraternal organizations, women were admitted with full membership and many held office.

Those old rituals, which are based around seasons and symbolism in agriculture, are in still in practice. "The young people have not liked the ritualistic work as well. They're saying it's outdated," said Snyder.

This week in Pullman, the most secret event perhaps was the judging of the crafts and baked goods, which had to be done out of view of the entrants. "I don't think I'm even allowed in there," said Snyder.

His membership with the Grange is as much about his family's life-long political activism as it is about socializing. Years ago, Snyder's wife Marie started a statewide program for teaching agriculture in public schools. She also served on a governor's advisory board as a representative of the state's agricultural communities.

After Maria Cantwell was elected to the U.S. Senate, the Snyders invited her to the family farm for an up-close lesson in Washington agriculture. "We've had an excellent rapport with her ever since," said the farmer.

And they've had a life-long practice of visiting the state capital and writing letters to their representatives. "Anybody can be a politician," said Howard of the Washington State Grange News. "What the Snyders do is so much more valuable."

Snyder recently tried to retire from his post on the executive committee of the state Grange, but Washington's State Master Terry Hunt recruited him back. He's now a special deputy that Hunt can send out to help troubled Granges.

Though most of the Grange participants at this week's convention are retired like Snyder, there is a scattering of younger members. Rusty Hunt from Coulee City was recently headed for a memorial ceremony with his 8-year-old daughter Cady in tow.

"We take our kids to the meetings," said Hunt. "Most of the Granges encourage you to bring your children. It's a place for the whole family."

He laughs at the memories of his children napping behind the hall statues during the monthly meetings, perhaps picking up some of the legislative discussions in their sleep.

The Grange is the main force fighting for open primary elections in Washington. Voters are now required to choose a party ballot. The Grange would rather see a blanket primary like the one it helped put in place in the 1930s. The organization is now gathering signatures for initiative 872, a measure that would give voters the right to vote for the candidate they want regardless of party affiliation.

While it's no surprise that the Grange lobbies for agricultural and environmental issues, it also takes stances on unusual topics like opposing festival seating at rock concerts and the raising of wolves or wolf-dogs.

"Grange members are very attentive to political issues," said Howard. "They're vitally involved."

The Grange may be old-fashioned, but it's still a force, say members.

"We've really gained a lot in the political world in the past two years," said State Master Hunt, adding that the Grange is focused on representing the concerns of the public, not the political parties.

"It's nice," he said of the political clout. "We've been there before. It's good to be back."



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