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Around The Grange
Grange loses niche with passing of agricultural culture

By Margot Susca, (Journal Inquirer 10-1-02)

  OCTOBER 1, 2002 --

Betty Jane Bergstrom remembers going to the town's old railroad station with her mother, brother, and father to buy grain, fertilizer, and seed off the railway cars.

Her father, a farmer who kept horses and cows on 40 acres, belonged to the Ellington Grange for the buying power the organization provided its members. Like a cooperative, the Grange helped farmers buy at discounted prices products that came through town on the railway cars.

But just as that old train station is gone, so too is the Grange itself.

After 116 years, the Grange closed its local chapter - No. 46 - on Monday. The organization's last meeting was Sept. 11.

A lack of membership is being blamed for the closure and the move signifies a nationwide problem that has caused the state and national Granges to re-evaluate their missions in an effort to attract new members.

In the early days of the Grange, when the area boasted farms on every street corner, it acted as more than just a buying cooperative. It was an important social club as well.

"When my mother and father were in the Grange it was a very important part of the town," Bergstrom said. "We would square dance or play cards. It was a social time for them, but now you see the people don't need that kind of stuff."

The Grange secretary, Stephanie Schlude, wrote in a history, "but with the radio, TV, and cable it was easier to stay home."

Before it closed Monday, most of the local Grange members were in their 70s or 80s with few young members interested in joining.

"There is a problem as with all fraternal organizations," Connecticut state Grange overseer Phil Prelli said. "That's why the Grange is redefining itself and where we're going to be in the 21st Century."

At those levels, Prelli, who has been a Grange member for 40 years since he was 14, said the Grange was trying to carve out a niche in the community service sector, a shift from its century-old agricultural roots.

Last year, the state Grange contributed 160,000 hours of community service, said Prelli, who is a resident of Riverton. "I think that's where our emphasis has got to be," he said.

Although the Ellington Grange has been actively involved in the community since its inception, members like Bergstrom did not feel the makeover fit its needs or would do much to attract new members.

"It just was just no longer feasible," Bergstrom said. "Almost all the people who were involved, they're all gone. We had nobody to take over the offices."

Although the Grange had more than 70 members, often no more than a handful was present at meetings, held on the second Wednesday of the month, said Bergstrom, who was the Grange's worthy master.

The town does not have a Grange hall. Meetings were held originally at Town Hall and later in the basement of the Congregational church. Most recently, the group met at the Senior Center.

For those like Bergstrom, who grew up with the Grange as such a big part of life, the closing was a sad day.

"For some of them, the Grange was there only outlet," she said. "They're going to miss it."

During World War II, the Grange helped with rationing and the town's alert system, according to Schlude.

To try to ensure the Grange and the history it represents stays fresh in the minds of the town's young people, Bergstrom and other members of the Grange used proceeds from the sale of stock purchased in 1966 to start a scholarship fund.

The aid, offered in the name of the Grange, will be given for the first time to a member of the Class of 2003 with the stipulation that the student must pursue a course of study like agriculture, veterinary medicine, or oceanography.

It will be an ongoing scholarship well into the future.

"By that time, who will be there to tell these students what the Grange was?" Bergstrom asked. "We want to make sure the name of the Grange is attached to it so they will remember."



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