On the cover North Coast Journal

April 28, 2005


Working on a building; building a community [photo of Bayside Grange entrance]

On the cover: Bayside Grange
Working on a building; building a community


ON THE THIRD SUNDAY MORNING IN APRIL, a fine sunny day, the line for breakfast at the Bayside Grange stretches out the door, past the recently painted porch and into a jam-packed parking lot. Grange member Don Wolski is selling tickets; his wife, Maggie Gainer [photo below left] , is bustling around somewhere inside.

[Maggie Gainer serving pancakes]Jacqueline Debets, executive director of Humboldt County Community Development Services, assists Wolski at the door. "I think the Grange breakfast is a great thing," said Debets, who is there as a volunteer, although she is not a Granger. "It builds community. I'm all about that. It's a beautiful example of something simple that gets people out talking to each other enjoying a meal together in a community facility."

A look at the building's calendar shows that there's a lot more going on at the Grange than quarterly breakfasts. The building has become a de facto community center for Bayside. In recent weeks, it has hosted a Humboldt Folk Life Society event and two gardening workshops. This coming weekend, renters include an anti-war coalition and a rock `n' roll band throwing a CD release party. And as former board member Gainer and other Grangers point out, the hall has become a focal point for the revitalization of the Bayside community.

While the Bayside Grange thrives thanks to a dedicated core group of members, most Granges across the country are not faring as well, and many have faded into history.

A poster in the anteroom of the Dow's Prairie Grange in McKinleyville asks, "What kind of Grange is ours?" and offers a list of comparisons between living and dying Granges: "Living Granges are constantly improving and planning for the future; dying Granges meet and eat, then depart for another month. Living Granges always have calendars that are too full and a parking lot too small; dying Granges don't have those problems."

It may be too early for a diagnosis, but a recent public dinner held at the Dow's Prairie Grange definitely did not fill the parking lot, and the only things on its calendar right now are weekly Boy Scout and Girl Scout meetings.

[Bayside Grange building]
Bayside Grange No. 500

In the interest of full disclosure it should be noted that this reporter was once a member of the Dow's Prairie Grange. In the early '80s my girlfriend and I were regulars at the Sunday Grange breakfasts. When we decided to marry, I spoke with a Grange board member Kate Ramey about renting the hall for our wedding. She told me it would cost around $100 -- then offered me a deal. If I would join the Grange I would get a reduced rate for the rental, just $10. At the time a year's dues were just $10, so becoming a Granger saved me $80.

I paid further dues by carving about 20 turkeys one afternoon while helping the Grange cater a dinner celebrating the opening of the then-new Arcata Airport. Not long afterward, I attended my first meeting. Almost no one showed up and I was the youngest person there by several decades. When I asked why people were Grange members, I was told that most kept up their dues for the low cost Grange insurance and did not participate in activities.

I did not return for future meetings. My membership lapsed.

That was more than 20 years ago. Today the Grange movement as a whole seems to be slipping further into a state of decline along with other fraternal organizations that are long past their heyday. Membership rosters at many Granges lean toward the senior citizen age group, and others have simply folded for lack of interest.

During the height of Grange revitalization in the 1940s and '50s, the organization had close to 1 million members in approximately 7,000 Granges. Today membership has fallen to 205,756 nationwide in just 3,000 active Granges.

[group of workers standing] [grange workers standing in front of building]

At left: Bayside Grange building crew in the 1940s.
At right: Bayside Grange repair crew, 2002. L-R: Rich Simpson (Grange Master at the time),
Ellen Monterie, long time hall manager Diane Almand, Susie Van Kirk,
Linda Simpson, Lorraine Enriques, Maggie , Treasurer Lisa Nelson,
Carole Wolf, Bill Thompson, Craig Mooslin, John Moore. Photos courtesy Bayside Grange

The National Grange traces its history back to 1867. Founder Oliver Hudson Kelley, a Minnesota farmer turned Post Office bureaucrat, was asked to survey the state of agriculture in the South following the Civil War. Kelley, a Freemason, had a vision of an "agricultural brotherhood" with ceremonial trappings modeled on fraternal organizations like the Masons. By 1875 the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, as the Grange is officially known, had more than 850,000 members.

Working for the interests of farmers, the organization formed buying cooperatives and fought against the monopoly power of the railroad magnates and their associated grain storage facilities. Lobbying by the Grange helped spur the regulation of the railroads and other public utilities and ultimately led to the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887.

As advocates for the rural population in general, the Grange demanded equal treatment by the U.S. Post Office and Rural Free Delivery routes were established by the end of the 19th century. Before that, there was no postal delivery to rural addresses; mail had to be picked up in town.

According to local historic resources consultant Susie Van Kirk, Humboldt County organized its first granges in 1873 at Arcata, Table Bluff, Ferndale, Rohnerville, Hydesville and Elk River. None of those granges survives. All faded away early in the 20th century as the first wave of Grange activity waned.

[pancake servers in kitchen]
[people dining at tables]
Top: While Sunday morning started with a presidential crew at the stoves, including Rollin Richmond from Humboldt State and Casey Crabill from College of the Redwoods, by the time we made it to the kitchen to be served, young Allie Brater (foreground) was flipping pancakes along with Arcata City Councilwoman Harmony Groves while caterer/musician Brett Shuler scrambled eggs and tofu. Grange board member Laura Chapman scrapes plates in the background. Bottom: Diners enjoy the breakfast. Photos by Bob Doran

The next surge of interest in the Patrons of Husbandry came with the Great Depression in the 1930s, which is when all of the granges still active in Humboldt County were established. Again the movement encouraged cooperatives or credit unions; the Grange also provided low-cost insurance.

Bayside Grange No. 500 received its charter on Jan. 1, 1933. In the beginning, activities took place in the old Bayside Temperance Hall at Bayside Corners, now the home of Mistwood School. In 1940 the organization purchased 3/4 of an acre next door and began work on the Bayside Grange Hall, which after years of labor by volunteers was officially dedicated on Sept. 30, 1943.

Fast-forward 55 years to 1998. Maggie Gainer was at a turning point in her life. She and her husband, Don Wolski, had recently adopted a baby. She had left behind a job that involved traveling around the country working on community development projects to take a position at Humboldt State that involved less travel. Wanting to learn more about her own community, she attended a potluck event at the Bayside Grange.

"They were showing a slide show on some of the historic homes around Bayside," she recalled. "We thought that sounded like fun, so we walked over with our baby daughter and a hot dish. It was so cool; it was a lot of the older people from the neighborhood, many of whom I knew, others who I recognized but didn't know too well."

The program was informal, with short remarks about the various homes followed by comments from anyone in the room who knew more about the house.

"There was something about it I just can't describe. When we left I was feeling really emotional. I told Don, `This is our community. This is the place to raise our daughter, a place where we belong.'

"At the time Lloyd Kendall was the Grange Master. He said, `We're really trying to reach out, to bring more people in, get more people involved.' I was at a point in my life where I wanted to be more grounded in my community of place, so on the way home I decided I would get involved."

Gainer noted that the Grange Hall was not in very good shape back then. "It looked close to being boarded up. The building had a lot of problems. To make a long story short, I joined the Grange, started helping with fund-raising and I got a lot of my friends involved."

Among her friends was Susan Anderson. "I had to re-recruit her. Susan was involved in the Grange about 15 years earlier, but felt turned off. At that time they wanted people to join, but they didn't want any new ideas for ways to do things."

Van Kirk was recruited and set about researching the history of the Grange with help from Suzanne Guerra, a professional historian who would eventually become Master of the Bayside Grange. The end result was placement on the California Register of Historical Resources.

Other new recruits showed up "like magic," Gainer said. Soon after she took a look at the organization's books and realized that the Grange's accounting system was woefully out-of-date, new Sunny Brae residents Lisa and Ray Nelson joined up.

"Lisa was an experienced bookkeeper and Ray had been a licensed contractor. He ended up leading the building committee and Lisa became our treasurer. It's been just like that since I got involved."

The injection of new energy has paid off. The building is looking much better with a new stove in the kitchen, sound baffling added in the dance hall, and most recently a new paint job on the exterior. Beyond the cosmetic changes, the Grange has renewed its former role.

"The building is literally the center of the community," said Gainer. "It's become sort of a rallying cry, an organizer's mobilizing tool. More and more people are realizing that it's a valuable community hall, not only for Bayside but for anyone who likes to dance and for others outside our community."

[inside main hall: wood floors, stage]  [old and new cooking stoves]
Left: the main hall of the Bayside Grange building. Right: The old and the new stoves at the Bayside Grange.
Photos by Bob Doran

Today Suzanne Guerra serves as Grange Master, although the Bayside Grange also calls her the board president since the members do not really adhere to the traditional titles and fraternal rituals, such as specific greetings, secret handshakes and the use of symbolic regalia.

Guerra's husband, Jack Surmani, is the hall manager, paid by the Grange to handle rentals and upkeep. He recently took on the same role at Dow's Prairie Grange where he is an associate member. [Photo below left: Jack Surmani in front of Dow's Prairie Grange]

"They still have regular meetings at the various local Granges," said Surmani, noting that most of the 12 Granges that remain active in Humboldt County "still have the feeds, breakfasts."

"The Dow's Prairie Grange is holding on to more of the traditions [than Bayside], holding on to the rituals. Sad to say, the membership there has dwindled," and the members are not all from McKinleyville, some come from Eureka or Arcata. "People are happy to have a fraternal organization even if it only has a few members."

The Bayside Grange on the other hand has grown strong with its nontraditional approach. "We're maintaining the building. We're building community," said Surmani. "Are you going to make us prove that we're doing the ritual? Because we're not."

Grange meetings typically include a talk by a guest lecturer. At the last gathering of the Dow's Prairie Grange the lecturer came down from Lake Earl Grange in Del Norte County to talk about issues being addressed by the state Grange organization: among them, support for beach access including the use of four-wheel-drive vehicles, hunting geese on farmland to control their population and doing away with the Endangered Species Act.

Jack Surmani in front of Dow's Prairie Grange building]The approach at the Bayside Grange is a bit different. Guerra points out that among the basic principles of the Grange is stewardship of the land. "We take that seriously and try to do that. There are various interpretations of that, just as what's patriotic to some people is chauvinistic to others."

Emphasizing that it is her personal opinion, Guerra bemoans "the co-opting of Grange movement by agribusiness. That's not what it was like before; it was to help farmers network with each other.

"We're nontraditional, but we are very aware of the fact that we carry on a tradition. We may be different from some Grangers but I'd say we're more like what rural America is becoming."

The emphasis at the Bayside Grange is on sustainability. Just last week Surmani picked up an award from the county honoring the organization for achieving "zero-waste" at the community breakfasts.

Bayside strays from the typical Grange path in other ways. Said Surmani, "Another issue that comes up is who we share our building with. Last year we rented the Bayside Grange to the Forest Defenders for a fund-raiser." The local group stages protests against logging that include direct action.

"There was an ad in the paper for the event. I got a call from our regional rep asking me, `Why are you renting the Grange to those eco-terrorists? We don't rent to terrorist organizations.' We explained that we are not promoting anyone's agenda, but we are not an exclusionary group.

"I think there was a fear there: `We Grangers stand for these values and other values are outside the Grange.' The Grange is supposed to be open to all, and I find it offensive when they want to be exclusionary."

[grange ceremonial sashes draped on table]Similarly the higher-ups might not be like the anti-war forum scheduled for this Friday night at the Bayside Grange. "If they found out, they might interpret it as being against the government," Surmani said. "When you swear allegiance to the Grange, you have to swear allegiance to God and country. I guess that means you're not supposed to talk about it when you disagree."

[Right: Ceremonial sashes in storage at Dow's Prairie Grange]

Because the Bayside Grange does not always agree with the greater organization's lobbying efforts, there has not been a major effort to enlist new members since the bulk of dues collected go to the state and national Grange. As another Grange recruit, Paula Yoon, put it, "They encourage participation, but they don't exactly encourage people to join."

Yoon is putting her skills as a trained sociologist to work on the Grange-sponsored Bayside Community Assets Survey, an effort initiated by Gainer with help from HSU grad students.

"We're looking at the Bayside community and what folks want to see happen in the next 10, 20, 30 or 40 years," said Yoon. "It started as a survey that would focus on Grange members, but they decided to step out of that box and look at the whole community. I have little doubt that the survey will show that the Grange is seen as a center for the community."

Gainer left her position on the Grange board a few months ago to focus her attention on a new auxiliary fund-raising organization, Bayside Pride. "The Grange is not a 501(c)3 [nonprofit], and that has hindered our fund-raising," she said, explaining that as an agricultural/fraternal organization the Grange falls under different tax rules that do not allow tax-deductible donations.

Gainer's hope is that the Pride organization will also open new avenues for grant funding, and not just for the Grange, for community projects throughout Bayside.

She points out that the building renovation is far from complete: For starters the exhaust fan in the kitchen needs to be replaced and the building foundation could use some work. All in all, the Grange "wish list" of improvements total about $250,000.

Gainer admits that she has a somewhat selfish personal reason for wanting the Grange to thrive. "When my kid is a teenager, I want a place that has such a draw and attraction for her that she'll want to go there -- without a car. I think that every community in Humboldt County should have a place kids can get to without driving."

As she looks forward she sees future Grangers. "We want to accomplish the major repairs needed so that we can turn our fund-raising efforts to programs and services -- for youth, seniors and the community in general. While most Bayside youths no longer are involved with showing farm animals and 4-H activities, they are very active in teen theater, choirs, musicals, bands and learning a variety of forms of community leadership.

"This summer, we plan to organize with Bayside teens [putting together] a teen focus group to learn about what they'd like to see at the Grange Community Hall and what they'd like it to become. After all, it's not just about the community building, it's about building the community."


Dancing with the DELTA NATIONALS at the Grange

by Bob Doran

INVITING HIS MOTHER TO JOIN THE CELEBRATION of The Delta Nationals CD, Get Out! this Saturday night at the Bayside Grange, the band's bass player, Ross Rowley, asked his mom if she had ever been there before.

[Delta Nationals band members in front of Bayside Grange]"She told me, `When I was in high school we went there every weekend and danced.' She said all of the dance halls had regular dances back in the '40s. Mostly they were geared toward ethnic groups: The Swiss had the Swiss Hall; the Runeberg Hall was open for the Scandinavians, the Italians had their hall, and so on and so forth. Each of them had a band almost every weekend, especially in the summer months. The places were referred to as dance halls rather than community halls."

Right: The Delta Nationals, L-R:
Ross Rowley, Dave Ryan, Steve Irwin and Paul DeMark.

Delta Nationals drummer Paul DeMark notes that he was a member of the Bayside Grange for a couple of years. "There was a big push to get involved and Maggie Gainer recruited me. They were talking about having more music there so I got involved. We did a benefit for the Grange restoration fund along with The Compost Mountain Boys about four years ago, about a year after [our] band formed."

DeMark noted that all sorts of bands have been using the hall lately: the funk band, Bump Foundation, held a CD release party there; the Celtic quartet Good Company celebrated the release of their latest disc last Sunday in conjunction with the Grange breakfast.

DeMark sees the hall as a valuable public resource. "It's a fantastic hall and I wanted to make whatever contribution I could to make sure it would stay open. It's an old-style Americana kind of dance hall; you get that feel when you play there."

The retro feel is a perfect fit for the Delta Nationals, a band exploring the roots of classic American rock `n' roll, soul and country music. "It fits, just as us playing live at the Moose Lodge for our CD fit. It's an authentic, classic kind of venue."

DeMark and Rowley agree: The Delta Nationals are a dance hall kind of band.

"I grew up in Willow Creek, and when I started playing music, you didn't play bars, you played dance halls," said Rowley. "Now here I am doing it again. What we're doing as a band is trying to evoke a time period. I'd like to go back and pretend it's that time again."

Those who have seen Rowley play with The Delta Nationals know what that means: When he takes the stage, like the rest of the Nats, he's wearing spiffy, retro threads. Ross tops it off with an oft-times gravity-defying pompadour.

"Our band rarely plays in bars," said Rowley. "We have become more of a society band, meaning a band that plays functions at the invitation of some social group, as opposed to playing bars where you basically have to go after the gig. We are hired to provide dance music, that's the intention."


The Delta Nationals celebrate the release of their debut, live CD Get Out! at the Bayside Grange on Saturday, April 30. Celebrations Catering offers a Southern-style fried chicken dinner from 6 to 8 p.m. for $10. Following dinner, the band plays for dancing until midnight, including a set featuring the CD's songs from start to finish. Admission is $5. CDs $10.




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