Discovering the Altona Grange
In the Nick of Time for Christmas
All my life they were standing out there-- out in the country. I used to drive by one of them out pheasant hunting. Those Grange Halls. I had no idea of what they were beyond their probably having something to do with farming. But, sadly, I lacked the curiosity to find out more about them.
Then, now, old as I am, the recent meeting of the Gold Hill Club was invited to meet in the Altona Grange, half a dozen miles or so due north of Boulder. And there it was, the ritual building, where I learned what I now cannot imagine having lived this long without. It was a revelation.
The Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the word “grange” is from the old French and at its earliest in our literature designated a place to store grain. The word-- and what an excellent word it is-- came to suggest a more imposing than average farm establishment with all its conventional out-buildings.
Then says this greatest of all dictionaries, a Grange is “A lodge or local branch of the order of ‘Patrons of Husbandry’, an association for the promotion of the interests of agriculture.” (Granges appeared first in1867.)
So that’s what a grange is! Just what our grange member hostess and speaker at the club meeting said. But, I urge you to note that the OED definition does not read “promotion of agriculture”. It says, rather, “the interests of agriculture”. That word interests admits the entire phenomenon of agriculture into the definition of a grange. And that is what the grange movement addresses: the entire fact of farm life.
The Altona Grange building out there north of town, seemed to stand for that whole experience of farming, farming within a community. Community: that’s the key word. These pioneers of Boulder County joined forces to survive and prevail, out here in the Boulder valley, not just for the economic success of their individual farms, but to establish a genuine and deeply human society and culture. They had ready to their hand the model of the typical lodge or fraternal order, so prevalent in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries. It was a way, an organization, of belongingness, in a common cause, cultural, economic, social, and spiritual.
I looked over everything about the building in as much detail as I dared, noting how the main room was a modest replication of the ceremonial-ritual lodge rooms of their time. Members sat along the walls, the center of the room dominated by a small altar-like structure on which lay an open Bible. These farmers were nothing if not representative of northern European Protestantism. At the far, western end of the room was a small but emphatic stage, with its one “scenic drop” of painted ads for mostly Longmont businesses. Everything about the room suggested an articulate symbolism for the celebration of community in “the interests of agriculture”. In this place, there was a place for everyone, with the core family its essential building block.
Here was further support of the proposition that it was not rugged individualism that won the West. It was rugged community, people working together in common enterprise for the welfare of all. It is a way of life paradoxically conservative and radical at the same time. I thought of the great socialist upheavals in Germany in 1849, and how those movements “over there” found their way “over here”, and how this grange was at once the expression of many of those collectivist values and at the same time their repudiation. Was it an American Synthesis? Or a stab at it?
On the wall of the ceremonial room, where we were meeting, there hung a “picture” maybe two feet square of an art-form, for which I have no name. It is a graphic that attempts to sum up and show the entirety, everything, about what a model Grange unit should be. In a strange way, it suggested to me the sort of simultaneous narrative that one “reads” in the stained glass windows of medieval churches. lt's an image of the wholeness, as well as the dynamic, of human life.
Here it is, in an off-hand digital photograph:
And here are ten features of the picture to note:
1) Enthroned up-center is Ceres (Demeter), the goddess of agriculture. On her left is Pomona, Roman goddess of fruit and fruition. On Ceres’ right, is her daughter Proserpine (Persephone}, goddess of flowers. Note the casual blending of the pagan classical Greek and Roman culture with conventional, Protestant Christianity. Our culture, back then, was still more or less “in balance”. The pagan “pastoral” could still serve as an ideal for the whole life lived in agricultural bounty.
2) Up-left, in her niche, stands the figure of Education standing on the principle of Libertas. Opposite her on the right stands the lady for “Intelligence”, She stands on “Justice”. And so we are informed of the values of the Grange Movement. We note that these values are expressed in the feminine. The affirmation of steady self-improvement and education was shot through this society. It was improve or perish.
3) Behind the ladies, curtained off, is the stage where all manner of performance took place. The grange hall was the place of theatricals, musicals, recitations, recitals, no end of uses. Note the ubiquitous piano to the right. The hall is where members developed and nourished a public spirit and presence.
4) Notice, please, the aforementioned Bible on its central altar. On the shadow side of this society, that Bible, placed just there, was defining enough to discourage the occasional Catholic or Jew who might want to barge into this community. People of color knew their place and steered clear, generally without remark.
5) And, this moves and astonishes me: the grange movement was one of the first on these shores or anywhere else to put men and women on equal footing, not only in the home but in public life. A woman might well pass through all the chairs to hold the office of Grand Master of a grange. Look at the two sides of the picture. On the left are miniatures of men doing what men do. And on the right, in equal and serried rank, women are doing the whole other half of human life. Then look at the membership sitting along the walls: women in array and obviously of the authority of Ceres herself. Notice how the men cross their legs, as men do, to “make an American leg”. Look at how elegant they all are. How poised.
6) Look at them all dressed up. These meetings were “costume” occasions, a getting into one’s “Sunday best” in order to declare one’s self to the community, to perform one’s self in public. It was a high fashion event.
7) See those official looking folk in the fore ground with their crooks on official staffs. Their offices are more complicated than I understand, but at one stage of the ritual, one of those usher-like figures would ceremoniously lead a procession of all the members around the room to pass by the collection box into which they were expected to drop some cash.
8) That roundel on the left of is the handshake of fellowship and mutuality. But why is the twin roundel on the opposite side blank? I can’t guess.
9) The bottom central oval is boiler-plate material recording the admission of this Altona Grange into state and national membership of the Patrons of Husbandry.
10) And so it is done, with the piano player keeping careful track of all the proceedings and giving them their beat, their time, and their tune. Music makes the thing go.
And, we must not fail to imagine this as a place and an occasion for young men and young women to get together, sometimes closer than ever they should. The warmth of a winter evening in the hall must, in part, have been the warmth of their yearning.
Think of the fun of the little kids teasing the life out of their big brothers and sisters, and running all over the place, crazy to get at the eats, eats that each of their mothers excelled at and wanted to be best at. Imagine this place at CHRISTMAS TIME !
All the while we can imagine the men folk, getting at their tobacco, out among the wagons, their new T’s and later their A’s, out in the dark, uncovering from under a horse blanket and passing around a bottle of the “real stuff”. They talk about the real stuff of machinery and politics, the quality of seed, prices of land and horses, and what fat hogs are bringing in Denver. They tell jokes, and profess their outrage at what is said to be going on in Boulder!
Later these farmers, as we may imagine them, will end the excitement of the day in pillow-talk with their wives about the deepest politics, the really real stuff of their family and its fortunes and its future-- on those pillows where their lives began and will end-- in a community.
N.B. I was ever the town kid; farming was a distant abstraction. But even a town kid heard the unique “National Farm and Home Hour” on the radio, fifteen minutes every morning, out of Chicago. It seemed everyone with a radio, farmer of not, listened in. It was sponsored in part by The federal New Deal to lend comfort and support, over the air waves, to the faming communities in remote homes and grange halls. Every morning the host announcer assured us that, “It's a beautiful day in Chicago!” From him we learned what fat hogs were bringing in the great Chicago market, and would hear a good tune or two. Even us in town!
I dare only mention the two bitterly competing national farm organizations: the Farmers’ Union was the agent of progressive farm policy and politics. And the Farm Bureau which spoke for regressive farm economics. They were the political divide in every grange.