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Around The Grange
California boasts oldest Grange, and oldest Granger

By California State Grange (9/12/10)

  SEPTEMBER 13, 2010 --

"We have history here." 105 Year-Old Ann Burow and the Country's Oldest Grange

Quietly sitting on a bench in the 138 year-old foyer, Ann turns the tattered pages of a scrapbook filled with clippings and photos breathing life into the rich history of the Bennett Valley Grange (California). She smiles and proudly claims her eighty-five years as a member of this oldest continuously operating Grange in the nation, founded May 27, 1873.

And it just so happens that at her splendid age of 105, Ann is our oldest Grange member in the nation. "We have history here," she says simply.

Ann Burow was born in Oakland, California on October 23, 1905. To say she came from a large family is an understatement. She had 14 brothers and sisters.

Ann describes herself as a "city girl who came to the country." A friend introduced her to a dairyman named George. They were married in 1924 and she moved to live with George and seventy cows on his farm in the Bennett Valley.

"I didn't know anything about farm life," Ann confesses. "But I went out there on an unpaved country road." She pauses, recalling fondly a time long ago. "It was like a storybook unfolded. A little farm house with no electricity and a hardwood stove."

The farm was run by George and his brother. "The two men took care of the farm. I used to watch them. It was an education in itself. None of the milk ever touched anything piped. They carried the milk in big cans."

On the farm, they raised two daughters, Luella and Gwen. "The oldest girl was her father's girl," says Ann. "She would drive the tractor with him and ride it through the fields to school."

On Valentine's Day 1925, Ann joined the Bennett Valley Grange. Within a year, the members elected her as the Secretary and she served in that position for 65 years before retiring in December, 1990.

The Grange is a grass roots organization that began in 1867, in the aftermath of the destructive and divisive Civil War. Rising from the fields and farmlands, survivors gathered on common ground to heal and support each other, work together, and honor traditional values. The Grange grew rapidly, building halls across the rural landscape of America.

Cities and townships have grown up around rural halls and the Grange has evolved into a community service organization with 10,000 members and 206 chapters across California. Grange halls are often the center of their community, providing opportunities, culture and education, entertainment, emergency shelter, and a meeting place where new friends are made and old friends are cherished.

Everyone is welcome to apply for membership in the Grange. Each member contributes at their own pace and level of participation. Each Grange decides how to best serve the community.

Member Donald Turpley recorded an excellent history of the Bennett Valley Grange and it is available in its entirety on the California Sate Grange website at http://www.californiagrange.org/news/pdf/bennettvalley.pdf.

Quoting from Donald's research, "On April 26, 1873 sixteen residents of the valley met informally at the old Strawberry School to discuss the possibility of organizing a Grange." A month later, twenty-five founding members met at the home of George Whitaker to formally organize the Grange. Men paid three dollars each for dues and women paid fifty cents each. Elmira Whitaker prepared a bountiful harvest feast from food grown on her ranch.

Praising the organization of the new Grange in a letter to the Sonoma Democrat, George Whitaker wrote "Bennett Valley Grange has taken the lead in Sonoma County in the good cause and may the work go on until every tiller of the soil will sing to the tune of we are coming, some eighty thousand strong, to save our sons and daughters from the clutches of the monopolies and rings."

In the months that followed, Granges quickly formed in the surrounding communities of Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Two Rock, Bloomfield, Bodega, Green Valley and Glen Ellen. During the month of April, 1873, 571 new Granges were formed across the country, bringing the total to over 4,000 nation-wide. The National Grange was not even six years old.

The new members of the Bennett Valley Grange wasted little time building a hall. The new hall was dedicated on December 4, 1873, a date selected to coincide with the 6th anniversary of the founding of the National Grange. The lumber used to build the hall was brought by wagon from Occidental and cost $292.82.

Fast forward. On a lovely summer day, June 6 of this year, folks from all corners of Sonoma County and beyond gathered to celebrate the 138th consecutive annual picnic and barbecue at the Bennett Valley Grange. For more than a century, the community comes together on this day to celebrate this grand old hall and the good work of the Grange. Much like the bountiful feast served at the founders' meeting, the food was plentiful and good. Guests were served ½ of a BIG barbecued chicken (these birds looked more like terradactyls), delicious fresh salads, and two desserts!

Picnic tables were set up outside the hall to accommodate the hundreds of people that showed up. There was a live band and dancing. Inside the hall, dozens of wonderful gift baskets and other prizes were set on tables for a silent auction. The local 4H had rabbits, pigs, goats, and chickens on display.

"For the first time we partnered with another non-profit organization," explained Bennett Valley Grange Secretary Bill Allen. "We decided to split the cost, profits and work with the Emergency Preparedness committee of the Bennett Valley Homeowners Association. This partnership proved successful by increasing attendance and increasing the participation of the community in preparation for the event. "

In 1925, when Ann joined the Grange, there was no electricity. The main hall had a big heater and was lit by three huge oil lamps down the center. Most folks arrived in horse drawn buggies. Ann laughs. "We had an old Dodge with no glass windows. You had to put the curtains up when it rained."

"It was nothin' to have 30-40 people here at a meeting," says Ann. "The ritual was most important. We had two beautiful ritual teams. I was the Drill Master. We wore evening gowns. That is how we dressed - not in bikinis!

I was so proud of that team. We went all over the county. In those days lots of people joined the Grange. At one time we had 300 members. We were a friendly group. Everything centered here. We had lively programs and our lecturer was very good."

Ann knew George and Elizabeth Shelmeyer. For decades, George served as California's most venerable State Master. "I knew Elizabeth when she was a little girl," Ann recalls. "She became a school teacher and married George when he became the Master. They lived in Bennett Valley on Grange Road. They lived a very happy life. They were a nice couple."

"Today, the kids have so much more than we had," explains Ann. "They can get anything. They just google it," she says, amused. Her advice to young people is that they stay in school and get a good education.

Ann's favorite memory of the Bennett Valley Grange was the 100th anniversary in 1972, a weeklong gala celebration culminating in a formal dance at the hall. "It's a picture in my mind that never leaves," Ann shares. "Nowadays, people are casual. This world has changed. The whole world has never been the same since the war and it will never be the same again," reflects Ann.

At the June, picnic Ann beams. "To sit up here and see the crowd... it's wonderful."

"Sister Ann Burow is an amazing person who just happens to be 105 years old," says Bennett Valley Grange Master Patty Allen. "She remembers and has taught us many things about Bennett Valley Grange. She is very accepting and appreciative of new members and new ideas while always happy to share memories of the past if asked. I'm proud to call her a friend."

Ann concludes the interview. "What I've told you is true. We love this old hall. The very first time I came here I said, Oh, I love this place. And as years rolled by the love is still there, really."

Ann Burow and the Bennett Valley Grange "have history here". They are inseparable. Together, they represent the very best that is the Grange.

For more information on Granges in California, phone the State Grange office at (916) 454-5805 or visit: www.californiagrange.org.



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