The Bennett Valley Guild hosted a Fourth of July picnic for 200 people last week, as they have for more than a century, albeit under a different name. Then on July 6, the organization was sued in Sonoma County Superior Court by state and national Grange groups which seek to boot the local chapter from the 144-year-old building and claim ownership.
The new lawsuit escalates a simmering feud between the California State Grange and Washington, D.C.-based National Grange, on the one side, and on the other nearly 100 breakaway chapters in California that four years ago severed ties with the National Grange to join the California Guild. The 130-member Bennett Valley chapter, like the others, changed its name in the process.
The Grange network dates back to the post-Civil War era and its chapters have acted as rural clubs helping farmers to share technology, field practices and general know-how. They have seen a resurgence in popularity over the past decade as young farmers and foodies have been drawn to institutions with deep agrarian roots.
But that new blood fueled discord and factored in the National Grange kicking out the California group, now called the California Guild. A power struggle since then has pitted traditionalists against secessionists, with control of local chapters and dozens of properties at stake.
The Bennett Valley Guild is the first local chapter to draw a legal challenge as part of the separation, though the rival groups have been sparring in other state and federal cases.
“I think that this is a big test case,” said Bob McFarland, president of the California Guild. “If the Grange wins this fight and takes away the Bennett Valley Guild, it will turn us all on our heads.”
The conflict is akin to the split in the Presbyterian Church, that has seen dozens of individual churches break from the national body, sparking many property disputes.
The legal challenge against the Bennett Valley Guild could even hinge on a California Supreme Court ruling in a property dispute dating back to 1889.
The National Grange and the California State Grange contend the organization is unified and hierarchical, with all property and assets belonging to the overarching group. People can leave the Grange, but property cannot, said Ed Komski, president of the California State Grange.
In addition to the historic property, the national and state Grange are seeking control of Bennett Valley Guild bank accounts, financial records and property within the building, including furniture.
But the California Guild and its affiliates claim that local halls belong to local chapters, as the local chapters paid property taxes and maintained the buildings over the decades.
“We are the same corporation we’ve always been, we just changed our name,” said Bill Finkelstein, treasurer of the Bennett Valley Guild. “We’ve had a continuous charter with the state since 1949 — Komski just can’t come here and bully us.”
Komski wouldn’t elaborate on the California Grange’s legal strategy or say if other lawsuits were in the works.
McFarland said he thinks the suit has to do with Bennett Valley being the oldest continually operating Grange hall in the country, open since 1873.
The dispute stretches back to 2009 and has led to broken friendships and sowed division in rural communities across the state and on the North Coast. In Sonoma County, former Grange chapters in Bennett Valley, Healdsburg, Hessel and Sonoma Valley have joined the Guild faction. Bodega Bay, Rincon Valley and Sebastopol chapters have remained with the Grange.