WILTON – When she moved to Wilton from the coast in the 1970s with her husband, Patricia Beedy was a relatively shy girl in her early 20s.

Being on the quieter side, she said she might have been tempted to stay home more often than she should, as shy people often do. But joining the Wilson Grange got her out, meeting new people, helping cook and wash dishes after suppers, even taking a bus trip to Amish country.

Now the Wilson Grange’s secretary and treasurer, Beedy said she’d enjoyed a lot of aspects of the organization in the ensuing years, from taking part in community service to benefiting from the slow tempo and old-fashioned values it espouses. But more than anything, she says, it was the sense of community she appreciated, the big groups who’d come to the meetings, the camaraderie in the kitchen after a supper, the push to get out and have fun on a cold winter night.

When she and the 10 or so regular Wilson Grange members left meet this Saturday night, they will discuss closing the grange for good.

Master Thayden Farrington, at 75, said Thursday that he’s part of a dying breed.

“I’m an old has-been,” he said. “It’s just got so there’s a few of us now. We just can’t really function without new members.”

As younger folk leave family farms for the cities and those that stay struggle to work long hours, go to the gym, and take their kids to ball games and clarinet lessons, no one seems to have the time or interest in joining anymore.

Granges all over have closed or consolidated in recent years, Maine State Grange Director of Publicity Walter Boomsma said Thursday.

Some of the remaining groups are flourishing, he said, reinvigorated by their problems. Others, like the Wilson Grange, are struggling to survive.

Like small-town churches and village schools, Grange halls were once cornerstones of rural communities, Boomsma said, with whole families coming out to the bimonthly meetings. Apart from the organizations’ political lobbying on farmers’ behalf and its charitable work, Granges were the places where people came for fun at night, for help in a crisis, for comfort in a tragedy.

Boomsma said he moved to Maine in an effort to recapture some of the community spirit he remembered from his childhood in western Massachusetts. “We always said we were insulated and isolated,” he said. “Everybody knew everybody. If you broke down driving along the side of the road, the next car was somebody you knew. You knew if somebody got into trouble, the town was going to rally around them.”

He moved away when he graduated from high school and lived a successful life in New Jersey, he said. But he missed the community of rural life, and a few years ago he and his wife moved to Maine in search of it. What they found was the Grange.

“We get together once, twice a month, everybody brings a potluck, and it’s a night out. And there is a camaraderie and a spirit among Grangers that makes you feel good,” he said.

When he brings young people to meetings, he added, they’re usually blown away. “They go ‘Wow, you guys still salute the flag. ‘We sing the national anthem,” he said. “And I think, at some level, there’s a desire for that. Perhaps an unrealized desire for that.”

Boomsma says Maine is the last bastion of small-town community life left in America. And even that is quickly disappearing, as more and more people find community online, rather than in person, and put effort into making money, instead of friends.

“Being a grange member – it’s not about money,” Boomsma said. “It’s about baking a casserole. It’s about showing up.”

Beedy says she’s noticed the trend, too: Young people getting involved in jobs, TV, and the Internet, and not taking part in community organizations. She doesn’t fault them, she said. But, she added, it can’t be healthy to interact more with virtual people than with real ones.

Recent studies and books like Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone” suggest people are growing more and more isolated. With that isolation, doctors and psychologists say, comes depression, anxiety and a higher chance of dying early. “Joining one group cuts in half your odds of dying next year,” according to Putnam’s Web site www.bowlingalone.com.

“We used to get 75 people out at a regular meeting,” Farrington said. “Things are different now, with TV, other organizations, other activities.”

“And the young people are not attuned to it much,” he added.

People don’t usually appreciate what they’ve got, Boomsma said, until it’s disappeared.

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