Washington State Grange

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 3/03/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10717
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The Washington State Grange was founded on September 10, 1889, at the Pioneer Store in La Camas (now Camas), Clark County, spurred in part by objections to the proposed state constitution that had just been drafted in Olympia. In subsequent years, the Grange joined in populist campaigns against entrenched political parties and business monopolies and fought for improvements in the education of rural children. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the organization worked closely with organized labor, the Progressive Movement, and other allies to win woman suffrage, create a system of primary elections in Washington, regulate the rapacious pricing practices of the railroads, and give the voting public the rights of initiative, referendum, and recall. In later years, the Grange campaigned for tax reform, led the battle for the creation of public utility districts in rural areas, and strongly supported the federal Bonneville Power Administration and the Columbia Basin Project, which brought electricity and irrigation to many rural areas of the state. By the second decade of the twenty-first century, the Washington Grange found itself struggling at times to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world, but it remained a vibrant, activist organization, and its nearly 50,000 members made it the largest state Grange in the nation.

The Order of Patrons of Husbandry

Nationally, the Grange was the idea of Oliver Hudson Kelley (1826-1913), a Minnesota farmer and occasional journalist who in 1866 was sent to the South by the federal Bureau of Agriculture to assess the state of farms and plantations there, ravaged by the Civil War and without the slaves on whose backs they had prospered. He found that his status as a fellow farmer could not overcome the suspicion and enmity of the defeated, but that his membership in the Masons often would. This led Kelley to conceive of a similar organization for farmers, one that would encourage them "to read and think; to plant fruits and flowers, beautify their homes; elevate them; make them progressive" (Minnesota Encyclopedia).

On December 4, 1867, Kelley and six associates founded the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry. (The term "grange" comes from the Latin word for "grain" and was used in England to describe a farm and its buildings.) The first local Grange was started in Washington, D.C., in 1868, and the organization spread rapidly from there. Within five years there were approximately 9,000 local chapters across the country and almost 700,000 Grangers, as members came to be called.

Although inspired by the Masons, the Grange differed from other fraternal groups of the day in one very important respect. Kelley's wife's niece, Caroline Arabella Hall (1838-1918), worked on the creation of the organization and convinced the founders that the Grange could succeed only if women were given a central role and full equality. The men were listening -- the Grange has never relegated women to auxiliary groups, but accepts them as fully empowered members, eligible for election to any office.

The organization is hierarchical, with the national Grange at the top, then state Granges, followed by Pomona Granges, which are regional or countywide. Below Pomonas are the subordinate Granges (also called community or local Granges), the basic organizing units that represent members within a local area. Local Granges meet at least once a month, Pomonas every quarter, and the state and national units once a year. As in Masonry, Grange membership is divided into "degrees." Officers are elected at each level, some bearing names in common with Masons, some taken from the vocabulary of English pastoral estates, others unique to the Grange. Four offices are reserved for women to insure that there are always some women in leadership positions.

The secret and ritualistic aspects of the Grange were thought by the founders to be essential to a sense of belonging among members and have been described as "non-denominational Christianity meets ancient Greece" (Taylor, 21). Seven Grange symbols, miniaturized farm implements called "Master's tools," have both practical and metaphorical significance. The hoe, for instance, "which is used to loosen weeds and stir the soil, is also 'emblematical of that cultivation of the mind which destroys error and keeps our thoughts quickened and ready to receive and apply new facts as they appear, thus promoting the growth of knowledge and wisdom'" (Taylor, 23).

Each local chapter was expected to either build, purchase, or lease a Grange Hall and make it open to activities by members and nonmembers alike. Over the years, these halls have served as community centers in many small towns. During its earlier years the Grange was primarily an educational and social resource for farmers and rural communities, while other organizations, notably the Farmers Alliance, were more active in the political sphere. When the Grange decided to enter the fray, its presence was quickly felt, and perhaps nowhere more strongly than in the Northwest.

The Grange in Washington: Beginnings

The first Grange in Washington Territory was Waitsburg Grange No. 1 in Walla Walla County, started in 1873 and still active as of 2014. The economic woes that followed the Panic of 1873 led to a rapid increase in local chapters, but when the crisis passed membership fell dramatically. By 1886 Washington Territory's 60 or so Granges had been reduced to as few as six before starting a slow rebound. Until statehood, Washington's territorial chapters operated under the umbrella of the Oregon State Grange.

In September 1889 a proposed state constitution, drafted that summer in Olympia at a convention heavily influenced by railroad interests, was awaiting ratification. On September 10, almost exactly two months before Washington became the 42nd state and just three weeks before the vote on the constitution, members of 16 territorial Grange chapters met at the Pioneer Store in La Camas (now Camas), Clark County, and with the help of organizers from Oregon and California an independent Washington State Grange came into being.

The new Grange immediately objected to the proposed constitution, publishing an eight-point manifesto that asked all "farmers, laboring men and taxpayers" to reject the document (Crawford, 15). In an early sign of a populist bent, the Grange argued, among other things, that too many public offices were being created, salaries were set too high, and the result would be "an office-seeking class, the most worthless class that can exist. It will also foster machine politics of the most corrupt and offensive character" ("Statehood 1889"). The Grange also published a list of questions it intended to ask of all candidates for the state legislature in that first election. These evidenced many of the political, social, and economic concerns that would be identified with the Progressive Movement, including increased government control of the railroads and other monopolies, tax reform, woman suffrage, preservation of public lands, and the prohibition of alcohol. But for the state constitution, the Grange's efforts came too late, and the document as drafted was approved by the then all-male electorate on October 1.

By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them

The national Grange was instrumental in the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and, although the law was weakened by the courts and but lightly enforced until the twentieth century, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and several later presidents would use it to battle the business trusts and monopolies that had come to dominate and often imperil the economic life of the nation. In general, however, the national organization, centered in the East, was more conservative than many of its state branches, and this was particularly so in comparison to the Washington Grange.

The history of the state Grange is best studied through its programs rather than its personalities (although several Grange leaders deserve special note). A core concern of the Grange since it began was education, and the national organization's original Declaration of Purposes stated, "We shall advance the cause of education among ourselves, and for our children, by all just means within our power" ("Declaration of Purposes 1874"). This emphasis was equally apparent in the Washington Grange. Speaking at the state convention at Vancouver in 1892, Grange member Mrs. J. H. Jewett proclaimed:

"The Grange is the greatest educator we have in social and economic questions. It seeks to do away with all antagonism between city and country and bring about a time when ... boys and girls will not go to the city to get away from the drudgery of the farm ... and the wives will not be bond slaves" (Crawford, 126-127).

Washington's 1889 constitution deemed the education of children "the paramount duty" of the state, but there was great disparity in funding between urban and rural schools. The Grange worked hard to change this, and its efforts helped lead to the passage in 1895 of the Barefoot Schoolboy Act. This law equalized school funding among districts and set a minimum amount of state aid for each child. It did not eliminate school inequality, but it was an early and major step in that direction.

Reining in the Railroads

By 1892, the Washington Grange had grown to 36 subordinate chapters with 1,219 members. One year later, the railroad companies again dragged the nation's economy down, causing the Panic of 1893 and five years of economic stagnation. By the end of 1894, only 28 local Granges remained in Washington, and the only thing keeping many members in the organization was its cooperative fire-insurance association, started that same year. But that alone was not enough, and by 1898 there were only 20 subordinate chapters and fewer than 500 members. This was the low point; from there the state Grange would rebuild, first gradually, then rapidly. By 1909 membership had grown to 9,000; three years later it had nearly doubled, to 17,000.

Railroad corporations and farmers were natural enemies, and the former found many ways to enrich themselves at the expense of the latter. During their rapid expansion in the late nineteenth century railroad companies, with vague promises of huge profits and cheap shipping, persuaded individual farmers and rural towns to invest in railroad bonds. Many did, mortgaging property and equipment to do so, and many were bankrupted when the railroads overbuilt and overspent, then evaded their obligations through complex reorganizations and fraudulent bankruptcies.

When the rail lines were complete, the promise of cheap transportation evaporated. Large shippers were given preferential rates, and railroads recouped losses from highly competitive long-distance routes by overcharging for shorter runs. The proliferation of new farms in the West led to greater production and lower prices for agricultural goods. Middlemen muscled in to take a further cut from farmers' profits, and soon there were no profits. In Washington, the Grange worked hard for change, and in 1905 the first state Railroad Commission was created, empowered to investigate and adjust rates when complaints were received. The battles would go on for decades, but this was a victory for which the Grange could rightly claim much credit.  

Progressive Grangers

In 1900 there were about 33,000 farms in Washington; by 1910 there were 57,500. The growth of the Grange was even more impressive, increasing in the same decade from 23 local chapters with a total membership of 656 to 260 chapters with more than 13,000 members. But by 1905, to some degree, the Grange had slipped into a state of comfortable complacency, more social club than activist group.

One man deserves much of the credit for reactivating the Grange's progressive advocacy and for organizing strategic alliances with like-minded progressive organizations. Carey B. Kegley (1855-1917) was elected state Grange Master in 1905 and would serve until his death in 1917 as perhaps the most dynamic and effective leader in Washington Grange history. In his 12 years as Master, Kegley revivified the state Grange, allied it with organized labor, and led it away from lockstep cooperation with the more conservative national Grange.

In 1905, Kegley proposed a resolution at the national Grange convention in support of the movement then underway to give voters direct legislative power through initiative, referendum, and the right to recall elected officials. The national Grange refused to go along, and the first overt signs of schism soon appeared. At its state convention that year, the Washington Grange published a progressive agenda that gave an indication of the sort of issues the organization would focus on:

"An amendment to the state road law; the adoption of a direct primary law; the amendment of the state constitution to provide for the initiative and referendum; the adoption of a national parcel post system; the formation of a plan to defeat legislative lobbies" ("State Grange Meets").

Kegley's disillusionment with the national Grange ran deep. At the state convention in 1906 Kegley called for reform, accusing the national body of failing to represent the views of its members. He went further, calling for an alliance of the Grange and the Washington State Federation of Labor, a combination that conservative state politicians -- Kegley called them the "Fish, Sawdust, and Whisky Ring" (Schwantes, 2) -- saw as a distinct threat.

They were not wrong. The collaboration of urban and rural progressives led to immediate and dramatic results. Lobbying the legislature together, the farm/labor coalition in 1907 won passage of a direct-primary law that weakened the control of political parties over the selection of candidates (before this, there were no primary elections -- party leaders simply chose who would run). In 1908 Kegley led the state Grange further to the left, fighting to enact the first workmen's compensation law in the nation and a bill limiting women's work days to eight hours. Both became law in 1911. The state Grange's progressivism now extended well beyond the particular concerns of farmers, and would from then on.

In 1909, progressive forces including the Washington Grange won the legislature's approval for a constitutional amendment enacting woman suffrage, and it was passed by the state's voters in 1910, 10 years before it became the law nationally. The Grange and its allies then resumed the fight for initiative, referendum, and recall, and a constitutional amendment granting those powers to the people was passed by the legislature. The Grange, the Direct Legislation League, the Washington State Federation of Labor, and the Farmers Union formed a Joint Legislative Committee to fight for voter approval of the measures, which was achieved in 1912. That year also saw the first publication of the Agricultural Grange News, renamed the Grange News in 1927, which as of 2014 still reported on the activities of the organization and on issues of importance to its members.

Kegley's politics were no doubt to the left of those of many state Grange members. He had been a member of the Populist Party during the 1890s, and when it collapsed he openly embraced socialism before joining the progressive crusades championed by Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and the Bull Moose Party. But he was a dedicated Granger, honest, sincere, and trusted by the membership. By the time of his death in 1917, he had led the organization far afield from its parochial concerns, expanded its membership, and through alliances with other progressive groups made it a force to be reckoned with in state politics.


Much of the Grange's membership growth in the Puget Sound region during the Kegley years was due to the efforts of William Morley Bouck (1868-1945). In recognition of his efforts, Bouck won election to the second highest office, Overseer, in 1916 and again in 1917, and he was elevated to Master upon Kegley's death.

Bouck was an enthusiastic man who embraced all of Kegley's progressive policies and then some. He had worked in mines and as a farmer and strongly believed that the labor movement and the farm movement were natural allies with common enemies. He was known to speak his mind with little restraint, and his mind was often more than a few steps ahead of that of the broader public.

Most of all, Bouck was disadvantaged by the times. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or "Wobblies"), organized in 1905 by union members, socialists, and anarchists, was very active in Washington and had been involved in several violent confrontations with police and industrialists' hired guns. The tsar of Russia was deposed in February 1917, and in October the Communist Bolsheviks took over the government. America entered World War I in April 1917 and Bouck, although of Dutch descent, was widely viewed as German, his loyalty thus suspect. Washington was a hotbed of leftist activity at a time when patriotism and the fear of socialism and communism were dominating the public debate. Bouck seemed uncaring of these trends in the public mood, and he proceeded to up the ante.

Although opposed by much of the press and virtually all of the business community, Bouck was elected Grange Master in his own right at the 1918 convention in Walla Walla, a meeting that was then violently broken up by his opponents. He began a speaking tour of the state, calling for government ownership of the railroads and taxing the wealthy to finance of the country's involvement in World War I. Bouck not only kept the enemies Kegley had earned, but seemed determined to deepen their hostility and increase their number. At this he was wildly successful, and in August 1918 a grand jury in Seattle indicted him for violating the Espionage Act, charges that were eventually dismissed for lack of evidence.

The state Grange was itself becoming factionalized. Traditionally and resolutely non-partisan, it was shaken in July 1920 when a progressive-radical coalition, which included Bouck and other Grangers, met in Yakima and formed the Farmer-Labor Party. Later that year Bouck was nominated as a party candidate for Congress. He lost in November, but captured 40 percent of the vote. He seemed only emboldened by the loss and amplified his attacks on the National Grange, telling journalist Anna Louise Strong (1885-1970) in a 1920 interview:

"The grange in the East is so different from our grange in Washington that it seems almost like a different organization ... . Ninety percent of the Eastern grangers are not farmers at all, but businessmen" (Schwantes, 7).

Finally, the national organization had had enough. At the 1920 national convention Bouck was forced to apologize for some of his more intemperate remarks. His contrition lasted about as long as it took him to return to Washington. When Bouck was again elected to head the state organization, Grange National Master S. J. Lowell, a New York Republican, suspended him. In response, Bouck characterized the national organization as "despoilers of workers and women everywhere," among other things (Journal of Proceedings, 114). This was one insult too far; Lowell ousted him entirely, and Fred Nelson (1871-1963) of White River Grange No. 238 was appointed Acting Master.

In October 1921, Bouck and a group of supporters started a new organization that they named, with an unfortunate lack of imagination, the Washington State Grange, Incorporated. When a court (in a lawsuit financed by the national Grange) prohibited their use of the Grange name, it was changed to Western Progressive Farmers. About one-quarter of the state Grange membership quit and joined Bouck's organization. He tried to take it nationwide in 1926 as the Progressive Farmers of America, but the years of drama and controversy had taken their toll. Bouck became ever more erratic, members fled in droves, and he soon retired to his farm in Sedro Wooley, where he died in 1946.

Bouck had been a divisive Grange Master, but not an ineffective one. During his four years in office, membership in the Washington Grange grew from 14,336 to 21,021. In 1918 the Grange Wholesale Warehouse Company was created to leverage the purchasing power of the 50 or so small warehouse cooperatives that local Grange members had established. This was one of eight state-wide cooperatives the Grange would set up over the next 20 years, including a mutual life insurance company, a milling company, and a livestock-marketing association.  

Productive Years: Public Power, Taxes, and Electoral Reform

In 1922, Albert S. Goss (1882-1950), who had farmed in Benton County before moving to Seattle in 1920, was elected Washington Grange Master, and he would hold the office for 11 years. Goss was a more moderate man than Kegley or Bouck, and he took office at a difficult time. The national farm economy was suffering and Grange membership was falling; by 1925 there were only 275 subordinate Granges in the state, down from 323 in 1921. Goss worked to rein in the more radical elements in the organization, welcomed back members who had decamped with Bouck, toned down the language of resolutions, and mended fences with the national Grange. He led the state Grange safely through the first four years of the Great Depression and much was accomplished on his watch. In 1941 he was elected master of the national Grange, the first Washingtonian to hold any significant office in the parent organization

Under Kegley and Bouck the Grange had staked out a strong position in favor of public development of national resources and public ownership of utilities, particularly those providing electricity and water. As late as the mid-1920s, few farmers had electricity and those who did were paying private utilities high rates for poor service. State law permitted towns and cities to build and operate their own utility systems but unincorporated rural areas had no such authority. Grange leaders wanted to press this battle in the early 1920s, but were hampered by deficits and a membership dispirited by the failure of an expected post-war farming boom to materialize. However, just talking about bringing reliable and affordable electricity to rural areas was enough to draw new members, and by 1928 the organization was largely rejuvenated and ready to act. Fittingly, it was the initiative process the Grange had championed 16 years earlier that gave it the tool it needed.

Given the deep pockets of the private utility companies and the nearness of the 1928 election, it was believed that a public-utility initiative put to a public vote would probably be defeated. But there was an alternative -- an initiative backed by sufficient signatures could be presented directly to the legislature, which could either enact the proposal as written, refer it to a vote of the people, or draft an alternative and let the voters choose between them. This would at least buy some time, and on October 25, 1928, an initiative authorizing the formation of public utility districts in rural areas was filed with the Secretary of State's office. Predictably, the state Senate in February 1929 voted against it, offering no alternative, and the measure automatically was placed on the ballot for the 1930 general election. This gave the Grange and other supporters 20 months to sell the idea to the voters, and sell they did. The Public Utility Districts Act was passed and the grip of private utilities on rural electricity weakened, if not broken.

With this success, the Grange saw new opportunities. In 1932 it successfully supported an initiative capping property taxes, an important issue for farmers who were often property-rich but cash-poor. Immediately after its passage, the Grange started working on an initiative authorizing a state income tax, an idea many thought had no hope of success. The many were very wrong, and the initiative was approved by well more than a two-to-one margin on November 8, 1932, in the same election that put Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), himself a Granger, in the presidency. In a much-criticized decision, the state supreme court invalidated that income tax in September 1933, and in 2014 Washington remained one of only seven states with no income tax.

Despite the setback, the income-tax fight produced one huge benefit for the Grange. Charles Hodde (1906-1999), a farmer from Colville who had not joined the Grange until 1930, emerged as a persuasive advocate for the organization's causes. He was elected Grange Lecturer in 1933, became an effective lobbyist in Olympia, served in the legislature for 12 years (including two terms as Speaker of the House), and was an influential adviser to governors of both parties.

Another achievement for which the Grange could take much credit in the 1930s was passage of the Bone Power Bill, which authorized municipally owned electric utilities to sell power beyond their city limits. The private-power industry forced a popular vote on the law after it cleared the legislature in 1933, and it was approved on November 6, 1934, by a substantial margin.

The Grange and its allies next decided to tackle what they saw as a continuing problem with the way candidates were chosen in state primaries. In the eyes of progressives, the direct-primary law that the Grange had sponsored in 1907 was an improvement over no primaries at all, but far from perfect. Major parties had to select their candidates in primary elections, but voters had to declare their party affiliation when they showed up at the polls and were then given a ballot listing only candidates from that party. The Grange and others saw forcing voters to disclose their party affiliations and limiting their votes to candidates from one party as unacceptable. In 1934, a Grange-sponsored proposal for "blanket" primaries was submitted to the legislature. Under this system, a voter's party affiliation remained a private matter, and he or she could select from a single primary ballot that listed all candidates from all parties. The legislature passed the measure and it became law in1935.

The 1940s

The Washington and Oregon Granges both strongly supported creation of the Bonneville Power Administration in 1937 and the building of Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams on the Columbia River. The resulting power-generation projects were of huge benefit to farmers statewide. In 1943, Congress created the Columbia Basin Project, which drew water from the Columbia River system and opened vast tracts of previously arid land to cultivation.

As were all, Washington Grangers were preoccupied with questions of war and peace during most of the 1940s. They bought more than $700,000 in war bonds, and approximately 200 died in military service. Rationing of rubber and gasoline, among other factors, called for even greater cooperation, and the state's Grange membership surged during the war years, nearing 50,000 in 1945 and growing from there. A slow reversal began in 1949, but the organization stayed healthy and was particularly active in the ongoing battles over public power. The passage of the Public Utility Districts Act in 1930 had chastened private utilities, but they remained formidable foes and would fight a rearguard action for decades, in the courts and in the marketplace.

In a misstep, the Washington Grange in the 1940s ventured into what was called chemurgy, the processing of agricultural crops into other products. The Grange concentrated on producing starch and glucose and invested in a Wenatchee plant to process surplus potatoes and wheat. While it enjoyed some success during the years of rationing, the end of the war doomed the effort. Both the organization and individual members suffered substantial losses, and the word chemurgy disappeared from the group's recorded proceeding after 1950.

Another plan, developed in the late 1940s, which turned out to be flawed, was the purchase of a property at Lake Kachess east of Snoqualmie Pass. Known as the Rustic Inn, it was to be used by members and as a summer camp for Grange youth. Problems ensued; access was difficult, as was supplying electricity. To pay its way, year-around commercial use and a full-time manager were needed. The deficits mounted over the next several years, triggering some internal dissent. The Grange had been an effective advocate for a wide range of causes and successful in cooperative ventures, but its entrepreneurial record was not nearly as impressive and caused the organization considerable financial harm.

A Changing World

A. Lars Nelson (1909-1971), a farmer from Whitman County, was elected state Master in 1953 and served for 18 years, the longest tenure of any in the history of the Washington Grange. He had worked his way up through the Wheatland Grange and the Whitman County Pomona. He had largely sat out the public-utility fights of the 1930s and his views on the issue were not well known. Nelson also was a Republican, but when the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) and a Republican congress began scaling back federal public-power projects, he became a vocal opponent of the moves.

The demographics of farming were changing rapidly, bringing challenges of a different order to the Grange. While the average age of Americans in the mid-1960s was less than 30 years, state Grange members averaged over 50. Grange membership was falling nationwide, and Nelson emphasized efforts to retain current members while drawing in a younger set. He had moderate success; during his long service as Master, membership increased from just less than 51,000 to just more than 60,000.

There was also consolidation going on in the agricultural sector, with annual declines in the number of farms but increases in the size of those that remained. Agricultural prices fell while costs increased, harming all but the largest farming enterprises. One Grange response was its sponsorship in 1955 and 1961 of Agricultural Enabling Acts authorizing state-supervised commissions to promote specific commodities, which by 2014 ranged from alfalfa seed to wine.

A Fight Like the Old Days

Nelson died in office on October 9, 1971, and was replaced by Jack Silvers (b. 1922), who served until 1983. In the 18 years before Silvers assumed the leadership, the number of farms in American had been cut in half, and by the late 1960s the state Grange was gearing up for another David-and-Goliath battle, similar to those it had waged decades before against the railroads, political parties, and private utilities. This time the foe was corporate agriculture, which in the Grange's view threatened not only family farms, but also the quality of life in rural communities.

The problem had many aspects. Conglomerates could write off the costs of developing huge agricultural operations against the profits they made in activities having nothing to do with agriculture. Other arcane rules of taxation gave corporations additional advantages over family farms. Between 1972 and 1975, Washington farm income doubled, from $1 billion to $2 billion, but inflation in the cost of everything from machinery to seeds robbed small operations of most of the benefits of the increase. Rural towns surrounded by many small farms had vibrant community lives, often centered on the Grange hall, but industrialized farming depopulated vast areas, destroying any sense of community. These were all important concerns to the Grange, but it was largely on the issue of irrigation that the battle would be fought.

Once again, the Grange turned to the people through the initiative process. In 1976, more than 190,000 signature were gathered in support of Initiative 59, the Family Farm Water Act, which gave farms of 2,000 acres or less priority for new appropriations of public water for irrigation. The initiative went to the legislature in early 1977; that body failed to act and the measure was placed on the ballot the following November. After a hard-fought battle against a well-financed opposition, the measure carried in 29 of the state's 39 counties and became law with a narrow victory of 457,054 votes to 437,682.

The early 1980s marked a high point for the Washington Grange in terms of membership. While the 490 subordinate chapters of 1937 remained a record, 1982 saw total membership soar to 72,806 in 413 chapters, cementing Washington's place as the largest Grange in the country, a title it had assumed after the fight over the Family Farm Water Act and has kept since. The boost in membership was driven in large part by the perilous state of agriculture across the country. In just one year, between 1979 and 1980, net farm income nationwide dropped by 39 percent, and in January 1980 President Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) imposed a grain embargo on the Soviet Union in response to its invasion of Afghanistan, deleting what had been a huge market for American crops.

The Modern Grange

The last decade of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first were challenging for Granges nationwide, and Washington was no exception. Despite the Family Farm Water Act, the growth of corporate farming seemed inexorable. On a national level, by 1985 the tax write-offs taken by large agribusinesses for farm-development costs exceeded the nation's total net farm income. As farm exports dropped and yields increased, surpluses built up and farmers were paid not to grow crops.

Society was changing as well, and not just in urban centers. The social aspects of the Grange, long one of its strongest draws, became less important to many with the coming of the digital age. Granges everywhere had trouble getting and keeping young members, who found more enjoyable diversions readily available. Attending Grange meetings and taking part in other Grange activities simply lost their appeal for many. A considerable number of Grangers still paid annual fees, but avoided active participation in Grange programs. And, although it has always been nonsectarian and nonpartisan, the organization was sometimes seen by Hispanics and other minorities, who had become a huge component of the agricultural sector, as the preserve of white, Christian farmers

Nonetheless, the Washington Grange continued to be an effective force in Olympia for causes important to the diminishing number of family farms in the state, and it fought hard to preserve the victories of the past. The blanket primary, one of its signal achievements, lasted for 68 years before being ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge in 2003. The Grange responded, and one year later sponsored and won passage of Initiative 872, which established a "top-two" primary in Washington. Voters can vote for any candidate for any office, preserving the Grange's emphasis on choice, and the top two vote getters for each office, regardless of party, move on to the general election. The Grange defended the law against a suit initially filed by the state Republican Party and quickly joined by state Democrats, and in 2008 the top-two primary was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 7-2 decision.

As it prepared to mark its 125th anniversary in 2014, the Washington State Grange, while its struggle to maintain relevance in a rapidly changing world had been painful, was far from moribund. In the first decade of the new century, the state Grange had nearly 50,000 members in more than 290 subordinate Granges and 41 Pomona Granges, considerably down from the record levels of the 1980s but still a significant force. Even for some relatively recent members, it was the traditions of the Grange that attracted. Krist Noveselic (b. 1965), bassist and cofounder of the pioneering grunge-rock group Nirvana, joined the Grange in 1999 after settling on a historic farm in the Willapa Hills. He served several terms as Master of Grays River Grange No. 124 in Wahkiakum County, established in 1902, and worked to promote the organization statewide. Novoselic's views sum up both the challenges and the strengths of the Grange, long a leading enabler of grass-root politics in the state:

"It's compelling because you actually do politics in the real world. All those people on their blogs ... they don't know about the real world. They read stuff on the Internet and keyboard their comments ... . That's not reality. If you want to change things, you've got to get out and meet people. You gotta make things happen. If you're gonna suggest something, you ought to see how to do it" ("Krist Novoselic: Of Grunge and Government").

Questions about the Grange's survival during changing times have arisen again and again throughout its long history. During the early years of the Great Depression, Master Albert S. Goss, asked to speculate on the organization's future, answered this way:

"I believe it will live as long as it continues to serve the welfare of agriculture and the nation. Whenever it becomes ingrown and selfish, and the members look on it only as a means of bringing them pleasure, entertainment or profit, it will fade away" ("Beyond Potlucks ... ").

Eighty years and more after Goss spoke, Washington Grangers continued to fight for fairness through collective action, as they did against the railroads and private utilities; still defended the liberty of the individual, as they did against the state's entrenched political parties; and still joined together to help their neighbors, Grangers and non-Grangers alike, through a wide range of volunteer activities. And the Washington Grange continued to follow the national organization's original creed, written nearly 150 years ago: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."

Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, vidoes, and curriculum.


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