A Brief History of Guiding Star Grange #1

How it all got started: Oliver Kelley has an idea.

In 1867, shortly after the end of the Civil War, Oliver H. Kelley founded the first Grange, with the purpose of promoting the spiritual and social well-being of farm families. Kelley had been commissioned by the Department of Agriculture to travel through the war-ravaged Southern states to evaluate agricultural conditions. A man of imagination as well as energy, he envisioned an organization that would encourage farmers to trade information and to develop useful contacts—networking, 19th-century style—and by creating bonds between farmers of all regions, help to reconcile the North and South. The Grange's more formal designation is Patrons of Husbandry, a name that mercifully won out over "Knights of the Flail" and a number of other farm-based references. The Grange is the country's oldest extant agricultural organization, though many Granges now define themselves more broadly.

Granges meet a need and flourish accordingly.

Initially, with the war a recent and still-raw memory, Grange founders outlawed discussion of politics and religion at meetings. However, their priorities soon changed. The second half of the 19th century was a time when farmers were settling throughout the Plains, and as Granges spread west with them, it was natural for the organization to become a political force, fighting for regulations to control the crippling fees charged by railroad monopolies and grain elevator companies. These were not trivial matters, and railroad interests fought the Granger laws, as they were known, all the way to the Supreme Court. Less confrontational but still controversial was rural free mail delivery, another political cause the Grange championed and won. At the local level, Grange halls provided a center point for people whose farms were spread out over a wide geographic area, especially as measured in pre-automobile, pre-pavement miles. As the founders hoped, they traded ideas and technical information on topics of contemporary interest—"Tractors and Horses: Advantages and Disadvantages" and "Uses for Electricity on the Farm," to name just two. Meetings also provided fun and companionship, no small thing when "next door" could be an hour or more away.

Greenfield organizes itself.

In June of 1873, at at time in Grange history when membership was limited to those "directly interested in cultivating the soil," Greenfield farmers started the first Grange in Massachusetts, Guiding Star Grange No. 1 (number one not because it won a contest but because it was first chronologically). Thanks to the persuasive influence of Oliver Kelley's niece Caroline A. Hall, Grange women were allowed to vote and hold office, a rarity at a time when women were generally disenfranchised; of the original slate of fourteen officers in Greenfield, six were women. Early meetings were usually held in Chandler Hall at Nash's Mills, close to the present site of the Guiding Star hall, where members debated political issues ("Should Religious and School Property Be Taxed?") and issues of domestic consequence (Resolved: "That the Duties of the Housewife are Greater than Those of the Husband"). Members organized co-operative buying clubs, in one case buying an entire railroad car's worth of flour; they conducted fund-raisers in aid of international humanitarian efforts; and, as steady fare, they took turns preparing presentations for fellow members. Meetings might include spelling matches, singing, skits, usually of a humorous nature, and the reading of essays.

Hey, let's build a hall!

When Guiding Star reorganized in December 1903 (after lapsing in 1882), with dues set at ten cents per month, the Grange was still without its own hall. The building project, which arguably continues today, began with a supper provided by the Grange at the 1905 Franklin County Fair. We don't know the menu, but records show that the $171.12 profit was the first deposit in the Building Fund. A quarter-century and many fund-raisers later, in August of 1931, the Ladies' Circle of the Grange bought a half-acre of land at the corner of Silver and Chapman Streets. They issued a challenge to the men of the Grange: if the building could be completed within a year, the Ladies' Circle would donate the land to the Grange proper. The challenge worked: only five months later, in February of 1932, the building was dedicated. The new hall had a ladies' sitting room, a gentlemen's smoking room, a modern kitchen, and other "modern conveniences," presumably a genteel reference to plumbed indoor toilets. The main hall had a stage, anterooms, and a beautiful maple floor, perfect for dancing.

Uh-oh. Now we have to pay for it.

Though members constructed the hall with their own labor, they still needed a mortgage of $4,000 [an amount that according to measuringworth.com is equivalent to $192,789 in 2009 unskilled wage dollars or a whopping $984,082 as relative share of GDP]. To raise money, Grange members made aprons and pot holders, recording their weekly income in careful detail: "Sold 2 aprons @ 10 cents each." They sponsored Friday night community dances, public suppers, fairs, theme parties, card parties, and "entertainments." This was during the Great Depression, a difficult time everywhere—in Greenfield and the surrounding area, there were more than three hundred foreclosures between 1932 and 1938. Despite its own need for funds, the Grange allowed organizations "interested in community service" to use the hall rent-free. Gratis hall use and hard times notwithstanding, by February 16, 1937, the fifth anniversary of the hall's dedication, the $4,000 note had been paid in full. A reported 600 people crowded into the hall to witness the burning of the mortgage.

Inevitably, times change.

Over time, active membership in the Grange dwindled. The number of farm families diminished, and members who had joined in their teens and twenties, now getting their 50- and 60-year membership awards, were growing too frail to climb ladders and too stiff to scrub floors. Preserving the hall became a struggle: the will and spirit remained, but the means was fading. Meanwhile, in the fall of 1980, local contra dance caller and musician David Kaynor began renting the hall for Friday night contradances. In those early years, on nights when so pitifully few dancers tossed their $2.00 into the fiddle case that the band didn’t make the rent, Grange member Clarence Turner would wave a hand and say, "Make it up later." By the mid-1980s, Clarence Turner's later had come to pass. Now contra dance music fills the hall every Friday and Saturday night, and often other times as well. The dances in this hall, known for consistently good music, good dancing, a relaxed spirit, and a great (though aging; stay tuned for more fundraising) floor, have become a destination for as varied a group as you could find anywhere in semi-rural New England. Doctors dance with carpenters, social workers with barristas, shy engineers with friendly students, teenagers with grandparents, their own or somebody else's. In an era when social isolation is once again a concern, the Guiding Star Grange Hall is a space where friendships can flourish in real time.