Nearly 100 Applegate Valley community members stopped by the Grange Hall near Ruch on a recent Sunday to socialize and feast at the Harvest Brunch.
After decades of declining membership, the Upper Applegate Grange finally closed its doors about two years ago. Today, however, the Applegate Valley Community Grange has arisen in its place with a membership that is on the upswing.
Many members of the previous Grange, says new President Paul Tipton, "were in their 80s, and a lot of them and their parents were part of the original core group that were part of the 1935 beginning of this Grange."
In an age in which less than 2 percent of the U.S. population makes a living from farming, it's no surprise that many Grange chapters nationwide are heading for chapters in a history book. The Grange is a fraternal organization founded by and for farmers.
The new Applegate Grange boasts many members in their 30s and 40s.
"The property would have gone back to being in the ownership of the State Grange and it would have been put up for sale," says Tipton, echoing what many new members feel is their top reason for re-forming the Grange.
"The Grange Hall is a terrible resource to lose. It's a community asset, a place to go," says Tyson Ferhman. "When you live rurally, you don't often have a place to go to see your neighbors."
Unlike many of the new members, 30-year-old Fehrman makes his living off agriculture. Milk, eggs, organic vegetables and pork are among the products that he and partner Johnny Steiger produce at By George Farm.
More typical of the new member is Fehrman's neighbor, Erin Volheim.
"We cook for events and benefits with food we grow; we don't do production farming," says Volheim.
The Grange movement has been about community since its inception in 1867, and this directive is something Volheim takes seriously.
"This year we started the Ruch School garden," Volheim says. "We grew onions, tomatoes, peppers. "¦ Now there are 20 kids who do this as their garden elective. Next year they're going to do everything from saving seeds to harvest and production."
To establish the school garden, Volheim rounded up volunteers to build a fence, persuaded a contractor to donate soil, and asked the local garden store to donate tools. Any leftover produce she brings to the community food pantry, which is organized by two other Grange members.
This spirit of community building is what prompted Carolyn Roberts to join the new Grange. She is one of the few members who were active in the old Grange.
"Tradition appeals to me of the support of a country agricultural lifestyle. There are so many pressures against the real agricultural traditional lifestyle," says Roberts, 74. "When I saw the young people coming (back) into it, I thought they needed some support."
Though Roberts recognizes that the face of the 21st century Grange member is changing, she says that "we still have that attitude of the love of the land and how to make it fertile and bountiful."
Community and agriculture are two keys to understanding the Oregon zeitgeist, says Susan Noah, president of the Oregon State Grange.
"Around the state a lot of people are joining Granges because there's a renewed awareness of what agriculture means to all of us, whether we're actually producing something or merely viewing it as a consumer," says Noah. "There's an awful lot in the news these days about GMOs (genetically modified organisms), so I think people are becoming more aware of agriculture all the time."
Oregon Grange membership in the 1990s was 30,000, says Noah. Today it's between 5,000 and 5,500. The decline, she believes, has leveled off.
"A huge part of the equation of our nation is people helping each other," Noah says. "A lot of people are seeing that it's beneficial to belong to something where you can actually make an impact on your community."
The local Grange has a long tradition of helping neighbors, says 87-year-old Evelyn Williams. Back in 1935, Williams' parents and older siblings were charter members of the former Grange.
"If somebody lost their house in fire, it didn't matter who it was, then the Grange would donate money to them," Williams recalls.
The stage at that bygone Grange also served as the venue for Christmas plays for nearby one-room schoolhouses, and for Saturday night community dances.
Williams remembers one particular dance in 1946.
"There was this man fresh out of the Navy who had just moved to the area," says Williams. "After the dance, I got a hold of him before he left."
"We were married six months later," she says.
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.