The Grange – A Fraternal Order of Farmers

Perhaps no single organization in Easton’s long history received more press coverage between 1897 and 1968 than the Grange. There is little doubt that the activities organized by members of the Grange were widely attended and the organization was a vital asset to the community. Dances, plays, lectures, musical performances, and community dinners were all held on a regular basis in an era before there was radio and television and when motion pictures were still in their infancy. By reading the numerous newspaper accounts of the day, it would seem that the activities of the Grange met the entertainment needs of the community. But in reality, the Grange was much more than just an entertainment venue.

In 1866, Oliver Hudson Kelley was a clerk for the United States Bureau of Agriculture. His assignment brought him to the South where he was charged with compiling data on the state of rural agriculture in an effort to improve the lot of farmers in those states that had once been part of the Confederacy.

Kelley generally received a chilly reception south of the Mason Dixon line because of his connection with a very unpopular federal government. His job was to help the farmers, but many Southerners were distrusting of his efforts. Kelley was also a Masonic ritualist who believed strongly in that organization. When he met a friendlier reception among his fellow Mason’s in the South, he began to formulate a plan that would establish a fraternal organization similar to Free Masonry. It would be complete with secret rituals, signs, and passwords that he could use to promote cooperation and learning that could improve the lot of the farmers he was sent there to help.

Oliver Hudson Kelley

Returning to Washington D.C. in December 1866, Kelley presented his idea to fellow government employees, John R. Thompson and William M. Ireland, who were also active Masonic ritualists. They then enlisted the aid of the Reverend Aaron B. Grosh, and together the four men created the Grange rituals, an elaborate set of ceremonial acts based heavily on Masonic tradition, but geared towards the celebration and promotion of good agricultural practices.

The National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry was formed in 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War. That conflict had created a high demand for the limited production that farms were able to send to market during the war. Farmers had done well during those years, but once the hostilities had ended, production outpaced demand as soldiers returned to farming and prices fell. However, shipping costs continued to increase as monopolistic railroads controlled the transportation market.

One of earliest tasks facing the newly created Grange was to overcome the effects of those monopolies through local and state legislation that would help reduce the shipping costs to farmers. Joining the Grange was an easy decision for most farmers as they soon realized the power they had as a unified group. Together they pressured state legislatures in several midwestern states to pass what became known as “Grange Laws,” limiting the power of both railroad and grain elevator monopolies to go unchecked and demand outrageously high fees.

Local Grange chapters were governed by a strict set of protocols filled with rituals that defined every aspect of Grange life from attaining the first degree of membership to the time a member passed away and was interred. The Manual of Subordinate Granges of the Patrons of Husbandry laid out every word in every ritual. This guide was created by the four original founders of the Grange in 1867 and has seen only minor alterations over the years. You can read the entire 1880 edition here:

The rituals, as laid out in the Grange Manual, consist of seven degrees. The first through fourth are Laborer, Cultivator, Harvester, and Husbandman for the male members. For females, the same levels are called Maid, Shepherdess, Gleaner, and Matron. Those degrees are earned and awarded at the local level. Full membership in the Grange comes upon completing the fourth degree. Those who have only earned the first degree remain provisional members.

The three higher degrees are named for Roman deities: Pomona, Flora, and Ceres. These higher degrees are awarded only at the county, state, and national level. 

Much like the Masonic Lodge the Grange is based upon, the main meeting room has specific stations for each of its thirteen positions. The rituals performed follow a specific pattern and the words spoken by the official at each station follow an exact mantra. The altar (A in the floorplan shown below) holds an open Bible, and various agricultural impediments, such as the pruning hook and the shepherd’s crook, are either held by members or are otherwise displayed in the room. An American flag is prominently displayed.  A blindfold symbolizes the passage from outer darkness to inner light, and all manner of trade implements are given a symbolic meaning.

F – Flora; C – Ceres; P – Pomona; M – Master; L.A.S. – Lady Assistant; A.S. – Assistant Steward; S – Steward; A – Altar.

Taking the oath of membership involves promising to obey the laws of the state and the nation, as well as the orders of superiors within the Grange. While the Masonic-based rituals are of Christian derivation, the Grange is open to members of all religions.

Layout of a Grange Meeting

In Easton, the Grange was late in coming. The Masons had established themselves in Easton back in 1797, but it would take until March 9, 1897, a full 100 years later, for the Grange to form. There had been some earlier interest in forming a local chapter, but several Easton farmers already belonged to the Grange in nearby towns such as Redding and Monroe. Following two unsuccessful attempts to assemble enough members to form a chapter in Easton, a third try at a meeting in the Good Templar’s Hall on Flat Rock Road garnered enough interest in March of 1897 to earn a state charter. The initial membership numbered about forty people.

On March 23rd, under the supervision of masters from the state organization, the following thirteen Easton citizens were sworn into their official positions in the new Easton Grange: George Beers – Master; George Gillette – Working Overseer; William Gallup – Secretary; Edgar Jennings – Treasurer; Samuel Turney – Chaplain; Mrs. Ezra Seeley – Lecturer; Henry W. Osborn – Steward; Frank J. Ward – Assistant Steward; Miss Anna Roberts – Lady Assistant; Miss Elsie Ward – Pomona; Miss Louise Tousey – Flora; Miss Katie Galloway – Ceres; and Joshua Kent – Door Keeper.

The positions of Pomona, Flora, and Ceres were ceremonially represented by young, unmarried women. In Easton, all three were between the ages of 15 and 17. The Lady Assistant was also a young woman about the same age as the three Graces. These four positions were the only ones required to be held by women.

While most of the Easton Grange members were farmers, some were not. Henry Osborn owned and operated the store that is now Greiser’s. In 1899, that building also became the regular meeting place for the new Grange, with the large hall over the store also serving as the venue for grange suppers, plays, and dances. William Gallup was a teacher at the Staples Academy and roomed with the Turney family. The Grange was also family friendly. Frank and Elsie Ward were brother and sister.

Not all Grange members were farmers. William Gallup was a teacher at the Staples Academy and the first Secretary of the Easton Grange.

One of the earliest benefits of Grange membership for Easton’s farmers was the ability to purchase feed, grain, and other articles through the cooperative the Grange ran. The Grange master appointed a purchasing agent to negotiate the best prices for its members.

By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the hall over Henry Osborn’s store was having difficulty accommodating all the members of the growing Grange. It was decided that the organization needed to construct its own building. The members wanted a structure with a stage for presenting plays and musicals, and they wanted a full kitchen in which to prepare meals for the regular suppers they put on as fund raisers.

In early 1912, the building committee secured a lot across from the Staples Academy Building from the Congregational Society that they leased for two dollars a year for the next ninety-nine years. Then, by selling two hundred shares at ten dollars apiece, the Grange raised enough capital to begin the project. Initial construction began in 1913. Volunteers from the Grange harvested donated timbers from the wood lots owned by Clarence Andrews. Those timbers were then milled into lumber at cost of only forty-eight dollars. By 1915, the building was complete. The total cost, not including everything that was donated by the members, came to $4,777. On June 9, 1915, at 2:00 PM the new Easton Grange Hall was dedicated before a large crowd of delegates from other Grange chapters throughout the state.

June 1915. The new hall is dedicated. Center Road is in the foreground.

In 1916, a young divinity student from Yale by the name of Herbert Hines was assigned to preach at the Congregational Church in Easton. As part of his dissertation prior to graduation he wrote much about Easton and its community service organizations. Hines reported glowingly about the success of the Easton Grange in attracting members – 150 adult men and women in a town of about 1,000 total population in 1916. “The Grange lives to help farmers educationally, socially, financially, and morally. It offers benefits to needy patrons, such as supplying a team of horses to replace one killed, giving of financial aid, or labor or other means of brotherly kindness. There is no doubt that in its limited sphere, the grange has the opportunity to be the most influential organization of the community.” 

While Hines doesn’t get into specifics, it is interesting to read his final assessment regarding the grange that sat about sixty feet to the west of the Church on Center Road in 1916: “The Grange has illustrated to us splendidly the fact that people of the same town can get together fraternally under one roof and forget their prejudices in a common interest. It is a modern disgrace that our churches can’t go so far.”

Despite the volunteer hours of its members, Easton Grange 149 was saddled with a fair amount of debt on its new hall. Over the next few years, a series of highly successful plays presented by the dramatic committee were used to raise enough money to retire that debt. The Grange’s production of Cranberry Corners in 1915 raised $400 and was deemed so successful that it was taken on the road, being presented at no less than eight other Grange venues within the state. In 1916, the committee presented Nevada of the Lost Mine. That was followed by The Old New Hampshire Home and The Hand of the Law. With the building paid off and the organization out of debt, the building committee decided to install a furnace and running water.

During 1929, the Grange created and installed several roadside signs that identified the town boarders along Sport Hill Road, the Black Rock Turnpike, and Stepney Road. The next year, scouting committee chairman Eugene Norton established a Boy Scout Troop with the Reverend Luther Stonecipher of the Congregational Church as its first scoutmaster.

At 2:00 AM on December 3, 1931, the Grange Hall went up in flames. Easton’s volunteer fire department was still without a real fire truck at that point, and all the volunteers could do was to prevent the fire from spreading to the Academy building across the street. The hall was a total loss.

While decisions were being made about rebuilding, the Grange met at the new Samuel Staples School on Morehouse Road. The new hall would be built about a half mile to the east of the original hall at the corner of Center and Adams Road on land the Grange had managed to purchase along with an additional one-half acre that was donated by the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company.

First Grange Master George Beers takes the first ceremonial shovel of dirt at the ground-breaking ceremony for the new Grange Hall at 200 Center Road in 1932.

1932. The basement walls take shape for the new Grange Hall

During this time, the Grange joined other Grange chapters throughout the state in their campaign to “Get Connecticut out of the Mud.” Part of that campaign included assigning names to all the roads in the community in an effort to make it easier for every volunteer firefighter in town to find the location of any reported fire. That campaign was also designed to pave some of the more heavily traveled roads. It was a result of that campaign that Adams Road became the first wholly town-maintained road to be repaired and tarred with part the $1700 grant Easton received from the State of Connecticut.

The new Grange building was completed in 1933. Just as before, the dramatic committee’s efforts produced the most revenue to pay for the new building. Easton resident Bellamy Partridge’s January Thaw was immensely popular – partially due to the fact that the play was set in Easton, and partially due to the fact that the play was then running on Broadway.

The Grange Hall in 1938

With wartime gasoline rationing and many older members of the Grange passing away throughout the 1940’s, membership began a downward spiral that couldn’t be reversed. Despite having fewer members to carry the load, the Grange continued to serve Easton during the 1950’s. In 1953, the Grange supplied its hall to the Mission Aid Society to hold its meetings. The society was comprised of a group of Easton Catholics who were determined to build their own house of worship within the community. They also allowed the Church of the Assumption in Stratfield to present a Sunday Mass in the hall while the new Catholic Church was being constructed on Morehouse Road. That mission was accomplished in 1955 when Notre Dame first opened its doors.

It was then that the Masons requested to use the Grange as their Lodge. The shrinking Grange was more than happy to accommodate them. On June 26, 1968, no longer able to carry on by itself, Easton Grange Number 149 transferred ownership of its hall at 200 Center Road to the Aspetuck Masonic Building Corporation for the sum of $15,000. 

The Grange continued to use the hall until it decided to give up its charter in the early 1970’s. The Ashlar Aspetuck Lodge Number 142 continues to call the hall home today.

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