Montpelier Grange adjusts to new membership base

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(Host) Once a powerful force in Vermont, the Grange has seen its membership shrink to just 2,200 souls statewide. While many local granges are struggling to find new members, one Vermont chapter is about to see its membership skyrocket.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) Meet the newest members of the Vermont Grange. (Sound of drumming.) An all-woman Afro-Caribbean dance class is limbering up for another session at the Capitol City Grange hall just outside of Montpelier. Barefoot, in colorful skirts and loose fitting clothing, the women stretch and swivel to the drums’ beat.

This isn’t a scene most people would associate with the Grange, but in a ceremony next month many of these people will be welcomed into the organization. The influx of new members from Afro-Caribbean class and a much larger group called the Contra Dance Umbrella will instantly quadruple the size of this local Grange.

For years, the Contra Dance Umbrella has been renting the hall for twice monthly dances. But Capitol City Grange recently decided it might be time to sell the hall. It’s a familiar story – many of Vermont’s Grange halls have been sold off over the years because the membership couldn’t pay the taxes and maintain the halls.

So, the Contra Dance Umbrella spearheaded a drive to get its members and others who rent the hall to join the grange. They would have a voice in the decision to sell the hall. Fifty-six people signed up.

The fact that the new members might be more interested in the hall than the organization concerned some of the chapter’s 18 active members. Les Skinner is Master of the Capitol City Grange. Skinner says he has no illusions about why the new group is joining the Grange.

(Skinner) “I believe that these 56 new members that we are obtaining are there wholly for the purpose of making sure that it stays as a Grange hall so they can have their dances, rather than all the things that Grange used to stand for.”

(Zind) But Skinner says after hearing from the group, he was impressed with their enthusiasm and their willingness to work to maintain the hall.

Grange was once a powerful political force. It still lobbies the Legislature but local chapters are mainly dedicated to small community service projects like buying dictionaries for third graders or knitting caps for premature infants. It remains to be seen how the new members will take to the work of the Grange. Tim Swartz is with the Contra Dance Umbrella.

(Swartz) “That’s going to be one of our challenges is seeing how our two organizations can interact for the benefit of all of us. The Grange is an organization that has been around for a long time and needs to evolve some. And the dance has been around for a good long time, and maybe it’s time for us to evolve a little bit more, too.”

(Zind) Swartz says just as his group is helping bring new enthusiasm to the Grange, perhaps the Grange will bring a community service element to the Contra Dance Umbrella.

Phyllis Mason is Master of the Vermont State Grange. She’s optimistic about what the new members will bring to the chapter.

(Mason) “I have a dream that this will be more like our Granges used to be. I don’t think it’s going to change what the Grange is. These people that are joining, I think, are going to learn to love the Grange like everybody else that belongs to it now does.”

(Zind) And Les Skinner of the Capitol City Grange says he’s also optimistic that the new members will learn to love the organization. After all, Skinner himself joined 56 years ago for a reason that had little to do with Grange.

(Skinner) “Because they offered a 50 cent a week Blue Cross/Blue Shield group program. Can you imagine that?”

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

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