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Being a member of the oldest, continuously operating local Grange in the country can be a burden.

Last June, when a rainstorm swept through Santa Rosa during the Bennett Valley Grange's annual barbecue, the farm organization faced a conundrum. Could they break a 138-year tradition?

"We've never missed a year ... We've never canceled before," said Granger Karen Sommer. "So they put this tractor out and a big tarp over the barbecue and everything was held inside."

The National Grange organization was launched in the U.S. after the Civil War, when Oliver Hudson Kelley surveyed the rundown farms of the South and came back to Washington, D.C. proposing a "fraternity" for farmers. In 1867, the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry was founded as a grass-roots coalition to help farm families network, fight railroad monopolies and advocate for common interests like low-cost loans, water and other resources.

Membership rose for decades, then dwindled. But now — with the rise of interest in healthy food and all things locavore, sustainable, organic and farmers market — there's a resurgence of interest in the farm organizations.

(The word "grange" comes from a Latin word for grain. In England, farms became known as granges, and a farmer was called a husbandman.)

"The Grange became a place where the farmer would meet to compare crops and prices, share new technologies and and find out the big picture," said Granger Joe Judge, who grows grapes across the road from the Bennett Valley Grange. "Unless you got off your farm on a horse, you didn't know what was going on."

The Grange, a hierarchy with national, state, county and local divisions, has accepted women as equal members since its inception. Youngsters can join at age 14.

Long-time Granger Patty Allen grew up on a dairy farm and cattle ranch in Bennett Valley. After she married her husband, Bill, she remained active in Bennett Valley Grange No. 16.

"We have 130 members still, not all active, but they do support us," Allen said. "We have two or three community dinners a year, as fund-raisers."

Members pay dues of $35 per year, up from $3 a year back in 1873. National membership has ebbed during the past 75 years, with the demise of the family farm.

"There were 4,000 Granges at one time, and now it's hard to get members, because society has changed," said Jocelyn Thompson, treasurer of the Bennett Valley Grange. "Back then, there was no television, and it was a long road to town."

Recently, however, the pendulum has started to swing back. Statewide, the grange movement is enjoying a resurgence, with increased attendance and new Granges forming in the past year.

"It's starting to go in the direction of organic farming," Allen said. "There's a new Petaluma Grange that meets at the Seed Bank, and there's one in Marin that just started."

In Sebastopol, a group known as Transition Sebastopol has joined with the Sebastopol Grange in an effort to cultivate community resilience in the face of threats such as climate change.

"They believe in people taking care of themselves and eating local," Allen said. "They've found a home with the Grange."

When the Bennett Valley Grange Hall was built back in 1873, local farmers were raising mostly grain and feed crops in the rich, volcanic soils.

"Bennett Valley had a winery here, but it was primarily corn and hay," Judge said. "They were supporting the pigs and the cows. It was all horse-drawn."

The Bennett Valley Grange was formally launched on May 27, 1872, with 25 charter members enjoying a harvest feast grown by local rancher George Whitaker, according to a history written by Donald Tarpley.

Two months later, members held their first summer picnic at Hughes Grove, announcing their decision to build a hall. A few weeks later, John Hughes donated an acre of land on Grange Road for the hall.

Lumber for the building was bought from Smith's Mill in Occidental — at a cost of $292.82 — and took two days to arrive by oxcart. When the hall was dedicated on Dec. 4, 1873, the 30 x 60 foot building included a main meeting hall and two ante-rooms.

Today, the hall is a bit bigger but still boasts the original hand-rolled glass windows and intricate woodwork, including a door with a small, sliding window, hinting at the rituals still in practice.

"All Granges have a secret word," Judge explained. "A Granger knocks, and you get into the meeting hall."

While most of the valley's growers now tend grapevines rather than dairy cows or hay fields, the sturdy white building remains a vital community hub.

Along with monthly Grange gatherings, the hall hosts meetings of the local 4-H Club, Bennett Valley Community Association (BVCA), Bennett Valley Grape Growers and various other wine groups.

"It's our central focus, because there isn't anything out here," Sommer said. "It's a place where people can gather and meet the neighbors."

Sommer, who is a coordinator for Bennett Valley Emergency Preparedness, is working with the local grange, community association and fire department to create a comprehensive emergency plan for the isolated valley.

As part of that plan, a storage container at Grange Hall is being stocked with cots and first-aid supplies, so the hall can serve as an emergency shelter.

"The idea is that the Grange Hall would be the center of hope," Thompson said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.)