In the early 1920s, and during its early 1950s resurgence, one in seven adults in Maine was a member.
It was one of the most influential organizations Maine has ever had.
It was the only major secular association, when it was founded just after the Civil War, to admit women on an equal footing with men.
It, in 1907, joined forces with organized labor to enact a constitutional amendment giving Mainers the right to put proposed legislation out to referendum.
In the 1920s, it carried the torch for property tax relief by urging adoption of a state income tax – heeded by our Legislature a few decades later.
And while professional athletes and many doctors were giving testimonials to the supposed benefits of tobacco, it urged school boards to ban smoking by teachers.
The Maine State Grange was ahead of its time with these, and other causes. Though no longer a major influence, its once crucial role in driving our state and its culture is often overlooked.
Though it refrained from endorsing political candidates, its leaders were often found at the summit of both political parties. This political muscle was illustrated by the 1962 Democratic primary for governor, when the man who had just emerged after eight years as the state’s Grange leader or “master” – one-time Gray dairy farmer Maynard Dolloff – upset the Democratic urban hierarchy in defeating Ed Muskie protégé Richard Dubord of Waterville.
Dolloff then came within a hairbreadth of winning the fall election, when he came within a mere 483 votes of upsetting incumbent, and fellow Granger, John Reed.
Dolloff followed a path blazed by another Grange master, Obadiah Gardner, a lumber and cattle dealer from Rockland. After leading the state Grange for a decade, Gardner served as a Democratic U.S. senator from Maine just before World War I.
Not all Grange masters prominent in statewide politics were Democrats, however. One man, a Republican, held the job of Grange master and governor at the same time. This was Frederick Robie of Gorham, one of four Maine governors trained as a physician; he was governor and Grange master in the 1880s.
Though not a farmer, Robie espoused an agrarian agenda typical of the Grange program of his time, which included increased funding for state fairs, the new State College of Agriculture at Orono and a feeds purification law.
Shortly after Robie left office in 1893, the Grange was successful in securing mail delivery to rural areas nationwide with Rural Free Delivery, or “RFD.”
My favorite Maine Grange Master turned political leader is Ardine Richardson, a native of my Franklin County. As speaker of the Maine House in 1943-44, he renounced tuxedo-style attire while presiding over the House, defending his modest businessman’s suit as a wartime austerity measure.
Losing the 1944 GOP nomination for governor to Horace Hildreth, he returned to Franklin County as a farmer, lumberman, and First Selectman in the town of Strong. He also wielded the gavel at town meetings, serving 49 years as Strong’s moderator.
His discipline as a presiding officer was brought home to me in 1982, when I was called to oversee 700 voters crowded into a tense school district budget meeting at the Strong-Kingfield area’s Mt. Abram High School, two years after Richardson’s death.
My somewhat relaxed procedural style moved the head Strong ballot clerk to privately take me to task. I’ve kept her comment, “Ardine Richardson would have never allowed that,” in mind during town meetings I’ve presided over in the 25 years since then.
Today, Grange leaders today are no longer at state government’s helm. And at 6,200, its membership is 10-percent of its peak. Though it’s down, it’s not out: 36 Maine granges gained members last year.
Moreover, at the State House, the Grange successfully spearheaded efforts this year for a special license plate to fund the “Agriculture in the Classroom” program designed to teach Maine children about the importance of the nation’s food and fiber system.
Befitting an organization that led the advent of Rural Free Delivery and extending electrical service to rural America, the Grange is pursuing a similar course with advocacy of improved cellular phone service for rural Maine.
The current Maine Grange Master is Steve Verrill, an East Poland vegetable stand farmer whose strawberries are a familiar seasonal presence on Auburn’s Center Street. To Verrill, a key to the Grange’s future may lie within the 155 remaining Grange halls, landmarks of 19th-century village architecture.
They also have modern utility. Contra dance groups have discovered the wooden floors more flexible than the steel and concrete base of newer buildings. The personal atmosphere of Grange hall stages has been an attraction to some theatre organizations.
It is thus doubtful the epitaph of the Grange is written; the renewed interest in its buildings is a reminder it has been a mainstay outside the arena of public policy and political leadership.
As Rex Sherman wrote some 35 years ago, “To a thousand tiny hill towns, the Grange gave something of laughter, light, and hope in a difficult age.”
It’s this heritage to which the Grange may look in continuing to fulfill its mission for Maine’s people.
Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney (and inactive Grange member) well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene. He can be reached by e-mail: [email protected]
Though no longer a major influence, the Grange’s once crucial role in driving our state and its culture is often overlooked.