Harpswell’s Merriconeag Grange needs more active members to ensure the community institution stays open. (SAM LEMONICK PHOTO)
Stephanie Alexander sounds tired. “We’ve talked about it for years and just can’t seem to come up with any solution,” she says.
It, in this case, is the declining membership of the Merriconeag Grange. If Harpswell’s chapter of the national organization can’t get enough people to attend its meetings, it will be forced to fold. While that may not happen anytime soon, neither do the Grange’s long-term prospects look very bright.
The Grange building, which sits just south of Mountain Road on Harpswell Neck, hosts popular events throughout the year. Alexander, the Grange’s secretary, says monthly pancake breakfasts can attract as many as 120 people in the summer, with friends lingering at their tables for hours to chat.
In keeping with the organization’s agricultural history, Harpswell’s Grange has an apple cider press that local growers can use, and it has sold pumpkins in the fall and given away vegetable seeds in the spring. In recent years members have organized a contradance — once a staple for Granges around the country — and bean and chowder suppers. The Grange also rents the hall for weddings, baby showers and funerals.
Alexander says she’s grateful to all the people who help put on events at the Grange. But what the Grange needs now, she says, are more active members. Currently, the Merriconeag Grange counts 47 dues-paying members, according to Alexander, but of those, only about 10 regularly participate in Grange activities. A Grange needs a quorum of seven members for its twice-monthly meetings, and that hasn’t been happening in Harpswell of late.
If more people could spare an hour and a half each month to come to the group’s Thursday night meetings, she says, “That would save the Grange.”
Membership problems are not unique to Harpswell. In the early 20th century, Maine had more than 400 Granges. That number has fallen to fewer than 100 today, as chapters have struggled to retain members, according to Walter Boomsma, communications director for the Maine State Grange.
The national Grange organization began in the 1860s as an analog to labor unions for farmers. The Grange is nonpartisan but politically active, and counts rural mail delivery among its political lobbying successes. Boomsma says that while Maine’s Granges are still rooted in their farming heritage, the focus in many towns is now on rural interests rather than agricultural ones specifically.
Alexander points to a few reasons the Merriconeag Grange is struggling. For one, its members are getting older. At 49, Alexander is the chapter’s second-youngest member, and others are in their 70s, 80s and 90s. A lot of those older members still want to pay their $30 annual dues but don’t come to meetings anymore.
Even with the influx of new residents in the last few years, the group has not been able to attract many new members, especially not younger ones.
Not all Granges in the area are having the same problem getting young people involved, according to Sharon Kirker, of Harpswell Center. She holds the position of lecturer at the Merriconeag Grange, presenting an educational program or entertainment at meetings. She says other Granges maintain youth organizations and have active young members. “They have people coming along who want to continue,” Kirker says.
But Kirker and Alexander say it’s hard to convince people of all ages to come out, even for social activities. “Back in the day the Grange was the thing to do. It was your Friday or Saturday evening entertainment,” says Alexander. Now, “People do other things.”
Then there’s the matter of the rituals. The Grange’s founders devised rites for their meetings that emulated those of fraternal organizations like the Freemasons. Many Granges, including Harpswell’s, incorporate Christian prayers at meetings.
Those rituals can be attractive for some people, Boomsma among them, but he knows that isn’t true for everyone. He wonders how Granges can maintain those traditions and find creative ways to attract and retain new members. “I think that there’s a balance that can be very difficult to find,” he says.
Kirker only joined the Grange 10 years ago, but says she’s been attracted to the ceremony since she was a child, when she would sometimes go to the Merriconeag Grange for presentations or events during 4-H club or Girl Scouts. Seeing Grange members in sashes and formal clothes heading upstairs for their secret meeting, she says, “The whole thing just fascinated me.” And Kirker says that hasn’t changed: “I love the pageantry, the rituals.”
Not every member feels the same. Sam Alexander, a past master of the Merriconeag Grange and Stephanie’s father-in-law, says he’d like to see the local chapter curtail the rituals and focus more on social events like dances. His family has been part of Harpswell’s Grange since its founding and he was active in the Grange even as a child, although he let his membership lapse until he retired in his 60s.
Boomsma says those debates are happening at Granges around the state, and can be divisive. But he thinks what is most important for Granges in Maine is to find creative ways to stay relevant to their communities.
Responding to an influx of young farmers, the Halcyon Grange in Blue Hill built a commercial kitchen that local growers can use to make value-added products like baked goods or jams. The Grange in Fairfield offers exercise classes and rents its space to groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.
Boomsma believes Granges will have to find new ways like those to support their communities if they want to survive. And he thinks doing that is made easier by the fact that the Grange has always been organized around grassroots initiatives.
The Merriconeag Grange isn’t in immediate danger. Despite struggles to convene formal meetings, Sam Alexander says it is doing better than most Maine Granges, both financially and in terms of membership.
But he, his daughter-in-law and Kirker do worry about what would be lost if the Merriconeag Grange doesn’t continue. “The Grange is part of Harpswell’s history, and I would hate to have that change to was,” says Stephanie Alexander.
All three want more people to give the Grange a shot. Stephanie Alexander says the group would welcome anyone’s help at pancake breakfasts and other activities, and they are open to ideas for other events. The Grange has talked about offering classes in jewelry-making or other crafts, but hasn’t had enough people to put those on.
Sam Alexander thinks people who only know the Grange for its farming heritage might be surprised at how much fun it can be. “It isn’t just dull talk about kicking dirt clods,” he says. “We have a good time.”
Sam Lemonick is a freelance reporter. He lives in Cundy’s Harbor.