On Dec. 14, 1934, the meeting hall where the Mattole Grange held events burned to the ground due to an unattended woodstove. Grange members rallied the community, collecting funds and promises of labor, and obtaining a tract of land for a permanent hall. By July of 1935, Mattole Grange #569 had risen from the ashes. At that time there was no question of the Grange's role, especially in rural communities.
As an organization, the National Grange of the Order of the Patrons of Husbandry has served as a lobbying force for small farmers since 1873. In Humboldt County, each subsequent generation has its own memories attached to its community grange hall, from the rowdy mid-century dances where farmers and ranchers gathered to spin their sweethearts on the hardwood floors, to fundraisers for tiny school districts and monthly family outings to the pancake breakfast, to the renaissance of California granges as leaders in the local food movement. In some far-flung areas like the Mattole and Freshwater, grange halls are the only places that bring the community together. Now it appears as though a rift at the very top of the organization has placed local granges in peril, threatening their legal standing and potentially detaching some from the name "grange" altogether.
The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry originated as a nonpartisan way to reunite and educate agricultural cohorts in the United States immediately after the Civil War. It was modeled after Freemasonry, as President Andrew Johnson's agricultural commissioner Oliver Kelley observed how his Masonic affiliation helped him transcend party lines among small farmers when he toured the Reconstruction-era South. Kelley and a small band of sympathizers co-founded the first Grange in 1867.
The organization went on to be a lobbying group for rural communities, occupying a relatively progressive position in American politics. Women's suffrage, for example, was a key issue, and leadership roles in all levels of the organization are reserved for women. The group's successes include the free delivery of rural mail and the Farm Credit System. Locally, an initiative from Grange members living on Pigeon Point Road in Eureka, where dump trucks kicked gravel onto community windshields, led to a California law requiring commercial trucks to sport mud flaps. But as the nation's agricultural base has dwindled over the last half-century, so has Grange membership.
"When I look at it from a really big picture, prior to the 1950s, granges were really integral to people's lives," said Kathy Moley, secretary of Humboldt Grange #501, on Humboldt Hill. "After World War II, we had hydraulics and commercial agriculture. [The government] said, 'Don't worry about your food source, don't worry about your power source.' They centralized these things. The reality is, we lost jobs. I want my food to be local. I want to know my farmer."
Moley, who is also a member of Dows Prairie Grange #505, says the current question is how to make the grange "relevant to people's lives." Membership dropped steeply when members stopped receiving special insurance benefits. As a physical entity, grange halls carry emotional weight with many community members, but the grange as an institution, and the initiatives for which it lobbies, has been increasingly divorced from its local roots.
Interest in local food and farming has been credited with inspiring a new generation of grange members. Several Humboldt County granges have hosted workshops on food production and celebrations of locally grown food. The California State Grange backed 2012's Proposition 37, which mandated labeling of genetically modified foods. The measure failed, but many grange members felt heartened by the leadership of then California Grange President Bob McFarland, a pot-bellied, white-bearded firebrand who sent members long, enthusiastic emails that started with the salutation, "Folks," and ended with his tagline, "It Feels Good to be a Granger!"
McFarland was elected president of the California State Grange in 2009, largely on his platform of empowering small farmers. A relative newcomer to the organization, he says that by being elected he inadvertently "stepped on some toes." Five of the state's seven executive committee members were also replaced at that time, voted out by community grange delegates. McFarland said the committee was traveling "in the same direction."
"Before 2009, the grange in California and across the country had strayed quite a ways from our original purpose," said McFarland. Many local grangers refer to the National Grange's support of a 2014 Supreme Court ruling in favor of agricultural giant Monsanto against a small Indiana soybean farmer as evidence of this drift. "In 2010, we had a net increase in membership for the first time since the 1950s," McFarland continued. "I attribute that to interest in local producers, local farmers, local food, getting back to our roots."
There are four layers to grange structure: the community grange, the district Pomona (named for the Roman goddess of fruit and nut trees), the state and then national. No members of the Humboldt County Pomona could articulate how national membership had benefitted them.
"That's something we're all wondering," said Dwight Winegar, leader of the Humboldt County Pomona. "Theoretically, it allows networking with other grangers."
Others said many people are drawn to the grassroots nature of grange structure. Many local grangers, requesting anonymity for fear of reprisal, said they saw no benefit to national membership: Humboldt County granges are supported locally and concerned with local matters, and the National office has offered little to nothing in return.
While Humboldt County grangers were discussing genetically modified organisms and the legality of line-drying clothes, a slow rumble was building between McFarland and National Grange Master Ed Luttrell. Many date the conflict between the two men to 2012, when Luttrell suspended McFarland from duty, but McFarland said he became aware of a "conspiracy to remove CSG leadership" in 2011. Emails included in McFarland's appeal show that the two were butting heads as far back as 2009 over how McFarland handled a lawsuit by a dissolved grange chapter against the California State Grange. This issue would be cited as grounds for McFarland's suspension and later dismissal.
In the court documents, McFarland alleges that Luttrell and the National Grange engaged in a conspiracy to drum him out of office. The National Grange insists that McFarland's behavior as president, specifically his struggles with members of the California Grange's Executive Committee, was a cause of concern for other officers and staff in the California State Grange. The emails do seem to indicate that Luttrell engaged in a fact-finding mission that undermined McFarland, speaking to grange staff and members and encouraging them to report misbehavior or concerns directly back to him. If McFarland's timeline and documentation are to be believed, between 2009 and 2012 there was an endless stream of infighting, contested decisions and power struggles. In August 2012, McFarland returned from a two-month suspension of duties to find a representative from the National Grange in his office, asking him to resign. When he refused he was suspended again. The California Grange's executive board and legal representatives found the National Grange to be in the wrong. The National Grange suspended the California State Grange's charter in September 2012, and revoked it in May 2013. McFarland rallied community grange delegates, who voted to continue as an organization with him at the helm. The National Grange took them to court. Then things got ugly.
Local grange chapters are run entirely by volunteers. Their stations often include formal titles, such as Ceres or Demeter (both Roman goddesses of agriculture), but the solemn, Mason-like rituals once practiced by members of the fraternal order have largely given way to discussions of volunteer recruitment and dishwashing. The average age of grange members has risen in most fellowships, and in Humboldt all seem to agree there are fewer hands available to keep the doors open and money flowing in. Most granges rely on the income from renting out their venues to pay their dues to the National Grange, combined with annual dues paid from members and, of course, the income from those monthly pancake breakfasts. Several granges in Humboldt County, including Whitethorn and Garberville, have closed their doors due to lack of membership. Grangers say the ongoing drama has taxed the resources of grange committees and reversed some of the progress made in growing membership over the last few years. One granger described it as, "Mommy and Daddy are getting a divorce, and it's not our fault, but it's very hard right now. How can you invite someone new into the family when your family is coming apart?"
Between 2012 and 2014, grangers received a flurry of emails from both sides of the conflict. The National Grange said California had no grange representation following the revocation of its charter, citing an ordinance that passed in 2011. (Wyoming also saw its charter revoked after the ordinance passed.) McFarland said the ordinance — which gave National the power to revoke state charters — was a broad overreach of the National Grange's authority, and that under the organization's own bylaws and California state law regarding nonprofits, he and his board were democratically elected by local grange delegates and could only be deposed by the same. The majority of community granges appear to have supported McFarland. National rebuilt the California State Grange board, electing a new president, Ed Komski, and began referring to McFarland's organization and supporters as "the McFarland group."
"Brothers and sisters," began emails from both men, the fraternal organization's standard salutation. McFarland's group claimed the National Grange had set up a website "impersonating the California State Grange." Komski said McFarland supporters had approached community granges, demanding they sign leases over to his group, and threatened to change the locks. McFarland accused National of persuading fair boards to not allow California youth to show their livestock. A long, ugly lawsuit in the California Superior Court resulted in a ruling that gave the offices and remaining money, or "property" held by McFarland's group to the National Grange's sanctioned state organization. In a phone call, Komski said McFarland depleted the coffers to pay for his cause's legal funds. McFarland said insurance covered most expenses, and accused the National Grange of doing the same on a larger level. National doesn't dispute that the lawsuits were expensive; it sent pleas to members across the country to help support their cause. In July of 2015, a federal court settled in favor of the National Grange in a trademark case over the name "grange," stating that neither McFarland nor any organizations under his group's umbrella could refer to themselves as granges. McFarland rechristened his group as The California State Guild. The guild has filed appeals on both lawsuits, with rulings expected this month.
Through it all, it appears that the active Humboldt County granges were in support of McFarland. In July, as the dust was beginning to clear around the trademark issue, Winegar sent out an email to all local grangemasters explaining that the trademark lawsuit does not appear to impact community granges' ability to be called granges, and that to "the best of [his] observations, everyone within the Humboldt Pomona Grange/District appears to be staying the course and respecting the orders of status quo." The National Grange has insisted, contrary to Winegar's interpretation of the ruling, that "any entity that aids or supports Mr. McFarland's group likewise is precluded by the Federal Trademark order from using the Grange name."
"There are a lot of members who don't know what to do. It's so upsetting." said Tamara Myers, master of the Freshwater Grange. A native of Freshwater, Myers has fond memories of performing school plays on the creaky wooden boards of the building's stage. She and others cite the camaraderie of local and state grange membership as a major draw. "I feel affection for this place. I didn't join the grange until three or four years ago, when I saw the grange experiencing this renaissance. When I go to the convention and I see people from all over the state it's the same as when I'm here."
She gestures toward the rows of long, wooden tables where people are sitting down for the monthly pancake breakfast in the building's basement. There isn't a single empty seat. Volunteers shout and laugh through the steam above the griddle, turning sausages onto plates. Just above, in the main hall, children and their parents are taking part in a fundraiser for Garfield Elementary School.
Myers said membership in the Freshwater Grange has grown steadily over the past few years. Some members are farmers; more are interested in just being part of a community. The controversy has been troubling, but it hasn't had a local impact.
"In many ways, we're still waiting to see what happens. I think by and large this hasn't affected local communities. The parent organizations have some things to work out," she said. "We're not going anywhere, we're still doing our good work."
Farther north, Rowetta Miller of Fieldbrook Grange #771 said her board has chosen to wait and see how the lawsuit turns out before paying dues to anyone. A hiccup with the paperwork resulted in the Fieldbrook Grange and some others losing their nonprofit status last year. It's usually processed by the California State Grange. Humboldt County granges have been paying their dues to McFarland's group, and McFarland said granges still under his umbrella maintain their nonprofit status, but risk losing it should they switch affiliations. Winegar said that, according to his research, this isn't entirely accurate. As long as the parent organization maintains its 501c3 status, the community granges should be fine. All groups are currently in good standing.
Miller said the Fieldbrook fellowship has shrunk over the last decade, from the full stations that used to take up the entire hall to "kitchen table" meetings, with only about eight members in attendance. She hopes this will change and more people will begin attending. Fieldbrook Grange #771 was responsible for getting the little community an emergency backup generator, which was subsequently stolen from the local fire hall. Bayside Grange #500 has also chosen to put its dues in escrow while it waits for the lawsuit to shake out.
Betty Crile, an energetic 77-year-old and 40-year member of the Humboldt Grange #501 spoke to us while stuffing turkeys for the annual Korean War Veterans dinner.
"How many people on our committee? You're talking to it," she said. "And I'm slowing down a bit. Granges aren't what they used to be. When I first joined over 40 years ago, we used to have men and women to volunteer. Now you have to threaten and beg. I'm trying to get someone here to fix a light before the dinner, and no one will say yes. I don't need to be up there on an 8-foot ladder. Five years ago, yeah, but since I had heart surgery, I really can't."
Dows Prairie Grange #505 in McKinleyville, where Kathy Moley is an affiliate member and vice-president, has slowly grown as a community gathering place, attracting younger members in the last few years. Moley said it makes her feel good to go to events and see neighbors meet one another for the first time. Last Christmas the grange sponsored a Winter Express event that provided more than 700 local children with gifts. Moley says the lawsuits have been "disturbing."
"In general, I think the local granges are supportive of what we're now calling the CSG [the Guild, Komski says that CSG is also trademarked]," she said. "We've been on that side of the table since the problem erupted. There was no table, then there was a table."
Moley said the existential question of local grange halls at the end of the power struggle is a complicated one. Grange halls pay property taxes individually, and are usually named as owners on the deed of sale, but because they're a chartered organization, if they become defunct or unchartered, they are held by the California State Grange for seven years in case the community chooses to reinvigorate its fellowship. After that, they're sold and the money goes into the California State Grange's coffers. At least one California grange came under fire from the National Grange for sending the money from its sale to McFarland's group. Komski said that the state ruling has no impact on the autonomy of community granges, although they cannot call themselves granges if they're not paying their dues to the correct entity.
In October, Komski sent out an email to all California granges offering amnesty for dues paid to McFarland's group and inviting them to return to the National Grange's fold. At least one local group — Mattole — voted to do so before the Dec. 31 deadline, referring to its original 1933 charter which stated the grange hall could only remain open as a "grange," which may not be possible under McFarland's organization. A representative said the grange "refused to be governed by fear." There are 182 community granges in California. McFarland claims that 165 of them are in his corner.
The current hope of McFarland and others is for reconciliation with the National Grange. The recent election of Betsy Huber, the first woman to hold the seat of National Grange President, was a welcome event for those who blame Luttrell for much of the enmity. McFarland said he is actively working to heal the divide.
In his October email, Komski quoted President Abraham Lincoln, a dramatic choice given the grange's origins and it's current quandary of state versus centralized power.
"With Malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the ... wounds."