Grange halls bring back bygone customs

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There are Grange halls all over Maine. Some stand empty awaiting sale or demolition, others have been converted to imaginative new uses and some continue to attract enthusiastic members.

The Grange has provided important benefits to farm families through nearly 150 years, and it was an important part of my family’s life. Although I was never a member, the organization’s social life and ritual mysteries made a deep impression on my pre-teen years in Auburn.

It was at Auburn Grange No. 4 near Lake Grove in East Auburn that my grandfather honed his oratorical skills. Grange meetings were occasions for members to hold forth on all kinds of political and economic topics of the day, and Frederic S. Sargent was not shy about stating his opinions.

He was a talker and he liked nothing better than an audience of one or more to share his views.

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Grange night was a special time in my early years. Youngsters got only brief glimpses into the formal meetings and we wondered what we were missing. The doors would be closed and the children would wait impatiently for the after-meeting fun and food.

Dances were popular events. After Saturday night meetings, there was always a Grand March when all members paraded back and forth. Then, a small orchestra — often only a woman at the upright piano and maybe a saxophone player — played old and new songs for the dancers.

That East Auburn organization had a rich heritage. A Lewiston Evening Journal news story of March 12, 1949, marked the 75th anniversary of what began as Auburn Grange. Its first location, for about a year, was the Grand Army Hall on Main Street.

Prior to Granges, there were Farmers’ Clubs around the country where men and women met separately and debated agricultural and household issues, but the clubs declined after the Civil War. The Grange, officially known as Patrons of Husbandry, was organized in Washington, D.C., in 1867. Its arrival in Maine occurred in 1873. The following year, the Maine State Grange was organized in Lewiston, and Auburn Grange was the fourth to be formed in Maine. In three years, Maine had 228 Granges and about 12,000 members.

Auburn Grange No. 4 is distinguished for its introduction of the nation’s first “degree staff and auxiliary.” Degree work consisted of closed-door rituals that stressed lessons in morality, frugality and the value of honest work. My grandmother, Hattie Field Sargent, was among the members of that first auxiliary.

The newspaper account said the hall’s original entrance was by the back stairs that were lit by kerosene lanterns placed in brackets. In later years, acetylene replaced kerosene, and eventually electricity was installed.

The front of the building housed a store. Group purchasing was one of the benefits of Grange membership. The store was discontinued in 1901 when the hall was enlarged and a front entrance was added.

In the early days, the women brought not only the food but also the dishes.

“The women wore calico dresses and the men cowhide boots and overalls to meetings, with the women sitting on one side and the men on the other,” the news story said.

Fire destroyed the Grange Hall at East Auburn 83 years ago today (March 9, 1927). It was rebuilt within a year.

I have always been amazed to see many Grange halls around the state that are near copies of Auburn Grange No. 4. They have a first-floor dining hall with a kitchen area at the back, and wide stairways lead to the second-floor meeting room. There’s a stage for community shows and sometimes wooden benches run along the side walls.

Now that the hall in East Auburn is gone (demolished a few decades ago for commercial construction), I enjoy visiting the Norway Grange for shows by the Oxford Hills Music and Performing Arts Association. That hall still looks much like the one I remember.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by e-mail at dasargent@maine.com.

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