(Disclaimer: I am a member of the Lummi Island Grange. The views I put forward about the Grange are mine alone and may not reflect the opinions and attitudes of any other Grange member).
I joined the Grange because among island institutions I believed the Grange was best positioned to effect the changes I see as necessary to get the island ready for a future that may have to deal with less of everything. The Grange’s historical interest in farmers, agriculture, local economy, life skills, family and community make it the ideal change agent for Lummi Island.
I’ve been engrossed in the official history of the Grange: People, Pride and Progress: 125 Years of the Grange in America by David H. Howard and published by the National Grange in Washington DC in 1992.
This book describes the organization as a powerful tool for change in the community, one with an historical agenda of advocacy with a long list of political victories such as rural free delivery and public power to electrify farms. Washington State is very important in the history of the Grange nationally.
Former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tom Foley, a Grange member, writes in the foreword to the official Grange history:
“The Grange has…sought to improve the lives of Americans through participation in many of the public policy debates that have occurred throughout its history. This involvement in legislation at the local, state, and national level has forever changed the nature of America. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the direct election of senators, and the initiative process (widely used in my home state of Washington) are examples of the continuing influence of past Grange legislative efforts.”
The Grange, then, is first and foremost a political organization, advocating for rural America. It is not political as in “Democrat” or “Republican”. But it is certainly political in that the Grange takes positions and lobbies for them at every level of government. The National Grange has a large presence in Washington DC and the the State Grange has the following to say on its website about “the democratic process,”
“As a community based organization the Grange is a natural arena for the discussion of local and national issues. Grangers assembled…for their meetings debate matters of common concern. Topics range from the need for a local traffic signal to school levies; from nuclear disarmament to hunger relief in third world nations; from public power to state and national social programs. After debate, Grange members draft and vote on a resolution concerning the issue.”
This sounds very much like a “political” process. (Here is a pdf file of the current Washington State Grange Legislative Handbook which lists hundreds of items of interest to Granges across the state of Washington and pretty much covers the entire political spectrum from right to left, from Libertarian to progressive.
It would be surprising, then, to learn that any local Grange would decide to avoid discussing a local issue using the argument that the issue was “too political.”
The Grange has taken on some pretty big targets over the years. It started out as an adversary of railroads, believing that the monopolistic power of the railroads adversely affected agriculture and succeeded in regulating them.
“The Grange movement is perhaps best remembered in history for battles with the rail road magnates, or robber barons, depending on one’s point of view. The United States government gave the railroad companies vast amounts of farm land and, of course, railroads had monopolies on carriage of grain and other farm produce and supplies. The railroads were viewed as high handed, greedy and unscrupulous.
War with the railroads was not an original purpose of the National Grange, but taking on the railroads turned out to be a natural extension of the theme of equal opportunity and condemning exorbitant profits taken by middlemen. Many state legislatures enacted what were known as the Granger Laws lowering freight rates and establishing state railroad commissions to regulate railroads and eventually other public utilities.
The railroads fought back and succeeded in repealing some legislation. The judicial challenge to regulation ultimately did not succeed. In Munn v. Illinois (1876) the Supreme Court approved public regulation of public utilities. The “final” outcome of the battle was the creation in 1887 of the Interstate Commerce Commission.
Today, Grange policy concerning rail roads is comparatively subdued. Legislative policy includes addition of more commuter trains, warning reflectors on the sides of railroad cars, better integration of railroad and highway policy and support for “the development and maintenance of a strong and effective rail network that will efficiently transport agricultural products and passengers at reasonable freight rates.”
Historically, the Grange has never been afraid to take on tough issues, debate them, decide on a reasoned position and then lobby for that position. Cutting off discussion does not appear to be a part of the written record of the Grange.
In Grange History Part 2 I’ll recap the importance of the Grange in Washington State history.