(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.
The Grange emerged in the aftermath of the Civil War as American farmers were beginning to move from a subsistence way of life to an industrial one. Farmers had no voice and no organization. They had no buying power or ability to negotiate with, for instance, the railroads. Farm profits depended on cheap farm to market transportation. Railroads gave good rates for long distance hauls but charged high rates for local hauls. This hurt the small farmer.
The Grange movement developed during a period of laissez-faire where big business was king. Grangers advocated for the idea that businesses “affected with a public interest” should have to meet certain public expectations. Once this concept had been applied to the railroads as semi-public right of ways the same concept was instrumental in establishing what came to be known as “Granger laws.”
The concept of public welfare as a basis for legislation was extended into a multitude of areas where reformers found social injustices. For example, maximum work hours, minimum wage regulation, corporate regulation, tax reform and conservation of natural resources found their way onto the books after advocacy by Grangers.
As in other areas of the country public power was a huge issue in Washington State. The Grange’s Public Power Bill, Initiative #1 was passed in 1930 over the opposition of private power interests following which Grange members in Washington State went to work organizing quasi-governmental public utility districts. Most of Washington State is still served by a network of PUDs, a legacy of the Grange.
Grangers were also into cooperatives. In our state, in 1918, there were more than 50 small, independent Grange supply cooperatives. The Grange Wholesale Warehouse Company was organized. In the 30’s a fleet of co-op tankers was added transporting fuel to Grange Supply stores throughout the state. This network survives today as part of the massive CENEX cooperative. Also in Washington State King County Grange members helped to organize a small clinic which evolved into the Group Health Cooperative. Interestingly, Washington State has the largest number of dues paying Grange members of any state in the country.
Grange Insurance Company was also started in the State of Washington by Grangers: “In 1893, the Washington State Grange met in the hayloft of a new barn in White Salmon, Washington, and resolved to start a fire insurance cooperative. By-laws, assessments, and conditions for the new association were formulated and agents were appointed in various Granges. On April 4, 1894, business commenced and the Washington Fire Relief Association’s insurance was in force. The Association changed its name in 1936 to Grange Fire Insurance Association. In 1943, to reflect the broadening of coverage offerings to include casualty, as well as fire insurance, the name was then changed to Grange Insurance Association.”
I expect that most people, possibly even many Grange members, aren’t aware of the history of the Grange and it’s long tradition of often radical political advocacy, anti-trust activities and support of cooperative arrangements to bolster the agricultural community.
Not surprisingly, as people moved from rural to urban environments Grange membership declined dramatically and the Grange appeared to have lost relevance. This caused the Grange to embark on a careful self-examination which I will cover in Grange History: Part 3.