Grange faces sharp decline in membership

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(Host) Every year the Vermont Grange holds an annual legislative luncheon in Montpelier. As Grange members listen, lawmakers take to the podium to talk about the issues of the day. The luncheon is a tradition that’s gone on for years.

But as VPR’s Steve Zind reports, legislators are seeing fewer Grange members each time they attend.

(Zind) The governor and a host of state officials and legislators turned out for the Montpelier luncheon – but this year they outnumbered Grange members nearly three to one. And therein lies the problem: Grange membership is declining, and aging. Although there are some young people in the Grange, most Grangers, as they call themselves, are older.

Grange membership has been in decline since the 1950s. Today there are 4,500 members in Vermont. As membership director, it’s Kevin Kirkpatrick’s job to boost that number. Kirkpatrick wears a button that says “Ask Me About Grange.”

(Zind) “Does anyone ever ask you about Grange?”

(Kirkpatrick) “Once in a while they do. I have a 90 second elevator speech that involves the origins of the progressive movement and where I think the Grange can go with more members.”

(Zind) Kirkpatrick says the 137-year-old Grange is the nation’s original progressive organization – standing up for farmers and the people of rural America. While the Grange does lobby the Legislature on issues that concern it, it’s not the powerful, activist organization it once was. In years past, the Grange championed women’s suffrage and fought big money interests on behalf of farmers. Today it’s engaged in modest community efforts like providing dictionaries to students. Phyllis Mason is the Master of the Vermont Grange.

(Mason) “Grangers have in common a concern for their community and the people that live in it. I think that’s probably their best focus.”

(Zind) Mason says many fraternal organizations are losing members. She says she’s heartened by a slight increase in Vermont Grange members in the past year. Mason has been a Granger for 54 years.

At 54, Kevin Kirkpatrick is younger than most Grangers at the luncheon. He says Grange needs to change to attract more members. He says many Grangers resist change.

(Kirkpatrick) “People have to be used to trying new ideas, break the attitude of it’s never been done that way before.”

(Zind) The history of the Grange is a source of its pride – and some of its problems. In the early days Grange members needed a password to enter meetings. It was a way of preventing adversaries from infiltrating gatherings. That’s no longer an issue, but the secret password remains. So do titles like Master and Overseer. Some Grangers would like to see more up-to-date officers’ titles for the organization.

Kevin Kirkpatrick says the Grange can’t survive without more members. Membership is open to anyone, but the Grange remains a rural group. Kirkpatrick hopes people will turn to his organization as they search for ways to keep the spirit of small communities alive.

(Kirkpatrick) “It’s being stored by the bolt in your community Grange.”

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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