Sunday, November 11, 2012

Church, Grange, contradance: The role of old buildings in building new food infrastructure

The Montague Grange (Photo:  Friends of the Montague Grange)
I was going to start unpacking the chapters of my Martin Van Buren National Historic Site Ethnographic Landscape Study in this week's post, but there was an article in my local paper that feels worth commenting on, so I'll delay the report discussion for another week.

When I say "local paper," I mean really local.  I went on a media fast more than 20 years ago to cleanse my mental system, and it felt so great that I've never really gone back.  I get much of my breaking news either through various social grapevines or from the Greenfield Recorder (whose "Obama wins" headline this Wednesday was well below the news of both Elizabeth Warren's Senate victory and a too-close-to-call race for state rep).  Since we moved to Wendell a year and a half ago, we've also subscribed to the Montague Reporter, a decade-old weekly that calls itself "The Voice of the Villages" and covers a number of the small towns in eastern Franklin County, including ours.

This week's Reporter includes a lengthy story by Lee Wicks about the Montague Grange turning its charter back in to the state Grange, signalling the end of its 125-year history as an active part of what was once a broad national network focused on farm and rural concerns.  As with many Grange chapters, its membership has dwindled down to almost nothing, and in recent years it has been just one part of a three-headed organizational structure along with the Corporation of the Grange Hall, an entity that actually owns the Grange Hall, and the Friends of the Montague Grange, which exists for fundraising and maintenance of the 1834 building. 

One of the things that was interesting to me about the article was how much history it included.  There was a long quote from a history of the local and national Grange (written by Mik Muller in 2008 and available on the Montague town website), focusing on the many progressive social and political projects the Grange movement has supported in the U.S., from rural road improvement and school lunch programs to the land-grant university system, ballot reform, and anti-monopoly legislation.  The Montague Grange was formed in 1887, 20 years after the launch of the national Grange, and Wicks makes it clear that at least in the early years, farmer activism tended to be as wide-ranging and politicized as it is today with the local-food movement.

The one vote against giving up the Montague Grange's charter came from a member who is quoted as arguing that "The Grange played an important role in our collective history;  at some future time we might need it back."  That strong sense of historical consciousness, too, struck me as interesting, but perhaps a bit narrow to fit the way that civic organizations and structures--things that have come to be termed "civil society"--tend to morph into each other over time, particularly in small towns and cities.  The Montague Grange Hall, pictured above, spent its first century as a Unitarian Church;  the Grange used to meet in the Town Hall space now occupied by the public library;  other civic spaces and groups have come and gone over the years, but always, I'm guessing, with considerable overlap in membership and perhaps also in purpose.

Muller's history shows that like other local Granges, the one in Montague had become basically a village improvement society quite early in its history, but that doesn't mean that it hasn't performed an important function in keeping social connections and meeting spaces alive so that people can work on issues of shared concern.[1]  We do of course need organizations that can do the kinds of things the Grange did in its early years, but civil society theory suggests that a lot of the infrastructure for doing that is created and maintained not just through direct political and financial organizations but also through contradances, sports leagues, book groups, local newspapers, and historic preservation campaigns.  So even without its charter, the Montague Grange may be holding that physical and social space open, in the same way that I've argued agritourism may be helping to hold open spaces for persistent, low-level infrastructure-rebuilding in the food and farming sector.  A sense of the fluid history of organizations like the Grange may help us to see the value in these less-direct forms of activism.

(Source:  Collier, A History of Old Kinderhook)[2]
Martin Van Buren link:  The Lindenwald Grange in Van Buren's home town of Kinderhook, New York (named for the post-Presidential estate of the town's most famous son) similarly acquired an unused public building--in this case, the 1836 Academy that once served as the town's high school, shown at left--and occupied it until 1975, when its membership had also declined to the point that keeping up the building was more than it could manage.  Columbia County, New York, like Franklin County in Massachusetts, has been a hotbed of new farming and farm organizing in the past decade, and in my next few posts I'm planning (if not distracted by fun things in the newspaper) to say more about how I think historical research can play a role in supporting that.

[1]  See R. Douglas Hurt, American Agriculture: A Brief History (Ames, IA: Iowa State
University Press, 1994), pp. 203-5 for an overview of the Grange's shift away from radical cooperative activities into a more general educational and civic focus after the 1870s.

[2]  Edward A. Collier, A History of Old Kinderhook (New York and London: G.P.
Putnam’s Sons, 1914)


  1. I'm really looking forward to your upcoming posts about historical research supporting new farming and farm organizing!

  2. Thanks, Pam! I'm still trying to figure this out myself, so stay tuned.