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Around The Grange
RI Granges adapting to changing times

By Arline A. Fleming, Valley Breeze, RI (4/8/11)

  APRIL 11, 2011 --

They still play whist, but for Rhode Island Grange members community service is trump card after 140 years

If you were wondering what all those cars were doing at the Chepachet Grange Hall (Rhode Island) on a recent bright, sunny Saturday, here's the answer:

Those gathered were there to socialize - and to play whist - a game deeply appreciated by game players, and one which is essentially a winning card for Chepachet Grange members as well. The monthly event provides financial support for this century-old organization which in turn, does whatever it can for the surrounding community.

Though only about half of those playing cards were grange members, noted Lillian Kruszyna of Scituate - a long-time and recently retired grange master - a successful afternoon of whist, in turn, helps this grange extend its own helping hand attitude, from presenting annual high school scholarships to contributing to the local food closets.

Each of Rhode Island's granges contributes in its own way to its own community, an evolution for this 144-year-old organization that began primarily as an agricultural advocacy group, and which has since maintained a consistent membership, though diminished, while adapting to changing times.

April is Grange Month, and Rhode Island lists 20 granges on its Facebook page, each with a deep history.

State Grange Master Stephen Logan says the four area granges have long been committed to partnering with all the state granges to work as a team for overall growth of this fraternal organization.

"We are planning open houses throughout the state at various community grange halls where we will be explaining what we are all about," he said. "For over 140 years, the grange has worked to advance the interest of rural Americans by providing a legislative voice for their political concerns."

One such open house will be held at the Chepachet Grange on April 19 at 7:30 p.m., when the local group will present awards to various members of the community for their contributions as firefighters, police officers, and teachers.

"Absolutely, it is open to the public," said Chepachet Grange Master Dennis Robidoux, pointing out the free parking, free refreshments, "and it will be over by 9."

"I don't think people know what the grange is all about," notes Robidoux. "At one time it was basically an agricultural organization, but now we are more a service to the community organization. It's a really nice family organization, and we have fun, too."

He points out gatherings to share meals, lectures, and common goals, goals which might be as local as providing food to area residents, or support to local animal shelters. But historically, grange goals have and continue to be of statewide and national interest, with grange members coming together as a group to lobby for individual issues ranging from appropriate livestock care to the changes in milk pricing.

Kruszyna points out that rural free delivery of mail came about through grange efforts, and in fact among the original reasons for grange formation in 1867 was to help the farmer get goods to market. From the beginning, women and youngsters have always been included as members.

A 1939 history of the grange in Rhode Island listed 56 granges, including ones at Clayville, North Scituate, Greenville, Fiskeville, Foster Center, South Scituate, Cumberland Hill and Cumberland Grange No. 2, none of which are listed under those names today.

In this corner of the state, four granges remain on the statewide listing. They are the Chepachet Grange, the Laurel Grange in Harmony, the Moosup Valley Grange in Foster, and the Primrose Grange, Grange Road, North Smithfield, which is one of the state's oldest, having been established in October1887. Rhode Island's first grange, Narragansett No. 1, was organized in March of that year with 47 members, while in comparison, Chepachet didn't organize until 20 years later, in 1907, with 48 charter members. But by 1938, it had 300 members.

"We've been trying to think about how we can get our name out there a little bit," said Robidoux from the Chepachet Grange Hall, where at least 40 people were taking a break in their card playing for coffee and pastry.

Holding the monthly card-playing event is one way to get their name out there, he says, because when strangers come to the hall to play cards, they subsequently meet grange members and ask about the organization.

"We've brought in at least 10 new members in the past year through the whist party," said Kruszyna. The next whist is slated for April 16 from 1 to 4 p.m. and admission is $2.

There are about 50 members, but as with most organizations, some members are more active than others. Robidoux's wife, Marie, recalls when they joined in 1975 the Chepachet Grange had about 200 members, "but we're building back up again," she said.

"Some of these folks have been coming here for ages," Kruszyna says, coming to both the whist party and the grange. One is the whist party organizer herself, Marjorie Casbarro, a 65-year member.

"I came as a teenager, we'd come as a family. My mother, father and sister." Her own family would come to join as well, and though she would marry, have children, and pursue office work, she continued with her grange commitment, she said.

"If you really want to, you find time for the grange."

"I came here for line dancing and that's how I joined," added Kruszyna, who unlike Casbarro didn't know anything about the organization until she was an adult. She brought her late husband into it, and he eventually became state grange master, the highest office a member can hold at the state level.

Last year she was named Rhode Island Granger of the Year for her service to the organization and Kruszyna said in a Valley Breeze & Observer story after being given the award, "We were city folk," referring to her family and that of her late husband, Raymond. Neither had agricultural backgrounds. "I don't even have a planting box," she said.

But both were joiners, and soon grange office took them around the country to meetings and events.

"You meet an awful lot of nice people that I would never have met," she said.

Proudly giving a tour of the upper Grange Hall located at 28 Chopmist Hill Road, Kruszyna says "this grange has had three past state masters," pointing out grange memorabilia lining the walls, some of it very old, which includes names such as Shippee, Irons, Steere, Hopkins.

She sees the Chepachet Grange as "a growing grange," and one of the more active Ggranges in Rhode Island despite membership not being what it was 20 years ago.

Robidoux says he is somewhat concerned about the future of the organization, "but I'm not overly worried. I think we've got a good chance of continuing," he says, pointing out the addition of new members from younger age groups.

He says Chepachet has the "largest active membership around. People come here and realize it's a nice place, people get involved in the community and they learn leadership and have a good time. People are always welcome," he said.

Meetings are held on the first and third Tuesdays of the month at 7:30 p.m., he said.

"I enjoy the fellowship, there's things to do, community service projects, I enjoy the meetings, there's always some kind of event going on and we encourage visits to other granges," said Robidoux, a retired Cranston math teacher.

The Laurel Grange, at 347 Snake Hill Road, Harmony, meets on the first and third Monday at 7:30 p.m., said Master Jennifer Lawson. New members can come to the meetings. The group has 30 members.

"I'm a little worried. Everybody is getting old at all the granges. It's everywhere. People associate us with agriculture, but it's changed a lot. We do a lot of community service."

Chartered the same year as the Chepachet Grange, 1907, the hall still being used at the corner of Snake Hill and Sawmill Roads was built in 1910. Her own father, Robert, is a 54-year member, she said.

According to a history compiled by the Friends of Harmony Village, which member Diane Bartlett provided, the first meeting in the new hall was held June 3, 1914, where clambakes were held on Labor Day for many, many years. Saturday night ham and bean suppers and dances, featuring homemade pies and brown bread, also brought in good crowds. In the early years, the building offered only an outhouse behind a horse shed, but plumbing has long since been added, and the group often holds breakfasts as a means of fund-raising.

Barbara Rush, secretary of the Moosup Valley Grange, Foster, who is a past master and long-time member, says their group meets on the first Wednesday of each month at 8 p.m. at 81 B Moosup Valley Road. Her husband, Paul, is also a past master, is presently treasurer. He said their group has 55 members and this month the group will hold a roast beef dinner on Saturday, April 16, at their hall, with servings at 4:30, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m., and reservations can be made by calling 397-7069.

Moosup Valley Grange, like most Rhode Island granges, raises money to purchase dictionaries to distribute to third grade students throughout the state.

Also one of the state's older granges, it was founded 120 years ago Friday, on April 8, 1891. Their hall, dedicated on April 15, 1925, is often used by various community and church groups, Rush said.

Use of the hall in Chepachet is how Irene Bessette ended up becoming a member six years ago, she said. "I joined Chepachet Grange not knowing what the organization actually did," she said, and said she soon realized "all the good Chepachet Grange does within and outside of our community."

For further information about the grange in Rhode Island, Logan can be contacted at statemaster@rigrange.org .

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