“We have a habit of keeping an eye on people who have had a hard time.”

That’s how Richard Felt sums up the work of Franklin Grange #124 in Bryant Pond. Like the other Granges in the area—Alder River #145 in East Bethel and Pleasant Valley #136 in West Bethel—Franklin Grange organizes benefit suppers, contributes to social service agencies, and provides regular opportunities for its members and guests to gather and enjoy food, fellowship, music, and the sharing of ideas.

The Grange has a rich history in Maine. Stan Howe of Bethel, who serves as historian for the Maine State Grange, says that in the early 1900s Maine had more Grange members per capita than any other state, participating in over 500 local, or subordinate, Granges.

The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry was founded after the Civil War to encourage rural farming families to join forces in order to bring about social, political, and economic changes.

Through lobbying efforts and the election of members to the legislature, the Grange campaigned for the creation of the Farm Credit Bureau, providing a reliable source of business loans to farmers, and the Rural Free Delivery service, which meant even families on remote homesteads could get mail delivered.

The Grange’s influence was also instrumental in the creation of the Cooperative Extension Service, which provides educational programs that allow for the sharing of research and knowledge.

From the beginning, the Grange was known for its progressive thinking, and was the first fraternal organization in the nation to admit women as full members. The Grange gave women equal voting rights at meetings, allowed them to hold offices, and supported the cause of women’s suffrage in the early 20th century.

On the state and national levels, the Grange continues to be active in legislative policy today, seeking to influence the passage of legislation beneficial to rural families in such areas as agriculture, conservation, education, and health.

Membership has declined over the years, and some Granges in Maine, including West Paris Grange #298, have recently had to disband.

Recruiting new members can be a challenge. “Our members are getting older, and some are in nursing homes now,” says Felt. “I guess there’s not enough excitement here for most young people.”

A half-century ago the Grange halls were a hub of activity for local youth, who often participated as Junior Grange members before becoming eligible for full Grange membership at the age of 14. In 1959, when Alder River Grange was featured in the National Grange’s monthly magazine, the article noted:

“Alder River, an honor Grange for the past four years, is a young folks’ organization. The oldsters have stepped back and given the reins to their youth. The Master, Peter Haines, at 18, conducts the meetings as well as a man twice his age. George Haines, his brother, at 16 is the Overseer. Fred Haines III, the Steward, is 17. Stanley Howe, Treasurer, is 15, and Alvin Stevens, the Gatekeeper, is also 15. Miss Ruth Stevens, Lady Assistant Steward, is 17. Ceres is Miss Phyllis Coolidge, 18; Flora, Miss Charlotte Crockett, 17. Other officers are older. The following message comes from Mrs. Myra Foster, of Alder River Grange: ‘All these young people are very dependable in attendance, in all Grange work, as well as community and school activities.’”

James Haines of East Bethel, the son of George and nephew of Peter, carries on the family tradition as an active member and Overseer of Alder River Grange, and also serves as the Deputy State Master for the Pomona, or county level, Grange.

Although the local Granges are no longer filled with teenagers, they continue to welcome new members. Felt says of Franklin Grange, “We still take in new members nearly every year, and they’re awfully good workers. They work together very well with our older members.”

Felt has been the Master of Franklin Grange #124 in Bryant Pond since 1975. “The last time, I tried to decline the nomination because I thought they should give someone else a chance, but they insisted,” he said.

Now 90, Felt joined the Grange as a teenager and recently received his 75-year pin.

“I’ve held all the positions over the years,” he says, referring to the Grange’s ceremonial offices, which include Master, Overseer, Lecturer, Steward, and Chaplain, among others. And although Felt’s popular old-time band no longer regularly plays at dances, as they did for more than 50 years, he and a couple of other Grangers still entertain at meetings. “We always have music,” he says. “Music is good for the soul.”

In West Bethel, John Applin is the Master of Pleasant Valley Grange #136, which he joined with his wife Pauline around 1970. Pleasant Valley Grange members display agricultural products and handicrafts at the Oxford and Fryeburg Fairs each fall, sponsor a summer flea market, and put on a supper for senior citizens.

Pleasant Valley Grange, like the others, must work hard to maintain membership. But, says Applin, “We feel fortunate to have taken in two new members in just the past month.”

Those new members, Owen and Debbie Brown, are lifelong area residents, and although they are new to the Grange, both had grandparents who were members. They first attended a meeting as guests, and became interested in joining Pleasant Valley Grange when they realized that the Grange’s philosophy and activities reflected their own interests.

“They’re into agriculture, and helping the community,” says Owen Brown, who raises vegetables, fruit trees, and perennials at their home in the Steam Mill section of Bethel. “They pass on good ideas for gardening that other people have had success with. And if they had more members, they could do more.”

According to Debbie Brown, it was a conversation with her friend, Pleasant Valley Grange member Maryvonne Wheeler, that made up their minds about Grange membership.

Wheeler says, “For me, it’s the people who belong and the fact that it prompts me to try new stuff in my garden, including jams and jellies that I can show off at the fairs.”

She adds that she values the Grange’s commitment to helping social service organizations like Androscoggin Home Health and the Hope Association.

“Her answer was the defining factor for us in deciding to join,” says Debbie Brown.

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