SUMMERVILLE, Ore. (AP) — The Pleasant Grove Grange Hall west of Summerville once gave amateur thespians a chance to shine.
Skits were performed there twice a month for years on a stage with a curtain that added a decorative flair to the performance setting.
Today, the stage and curtain are gone but do not let this fool you. The Pleasant Grove Grange’s story is nowhere near its final act.
The Pleasant Grove Grange is vibrant with an active membership base of about 20, which is upgrading its hall.
Members in recent years have installed two outdoor ramps, painted the building, built a new front porch and more. Pleasant Grove volunteers have also created an eye-catching display that features many colorful local merchant advertisements from the 1940s and 50s that were on the stage curtain.
The striking ad display complements the well-preserved grange hall building, one volunteers are working tirelessly to preserve. The building looks very similar to when it was first built, said Pleasant Grove Grange member Tom Bradbeer.
“We are thinking about the past and also the future by making sure this building is sustained. It is a wonderful symbol of life in rural Oregon,” Bradbeer said.
The outlook for the Pleasant Grove Grange and Oregon granges in general is looking up. Oregon has about 5,300 grange members, up moderately from a year ago, according to Sarah Kingsborough of Molalla, the communications director for the Oregon State Grange. The number of granges operating in Oregon is also up by three from a year ago, pushing the state’s total to close to 180.
Kingsborough credits the increases to rising enthusiasm for community service, something granges have long been involved in.
“There is more interest in giving back to the community, in serving the community. Granges provide you an opportunity to do this,” Kingsborough said.
Kingsborough also attributes the increase to a rising interest in agriculture in part because more people are involved in sustainable farming.
“More people are interested in where their food comes from,” she said.
Grange’s have long been associated with agriculture, but Kingsborough noted that anyone can join a grange, regardless of whether they are involved in farming.
Despite the recent membership jump, the number of people in Oregon who belong to granges is down significantly from the 1990s. Close to 30,000 people were members of Oregon granges two decades ago, according to Kingsborough.
Membership dropped sharply after the 1990s because of a change made by an insurance company. Kingsborough explained that two decades ago grange members were eligible to purchase insurance from a company, which offered policies very popular among farmers. The company, after the 1990s, dropped its requirement that one had to belong to a grange to quality for its insurance, causing many to leave granges.
“Many people had belonged to granges just for the insurance,” Kingsborough said.
In the early days of granges, many people were members because of the social outlet they provided. Grange halls were popular gathering places for meals and dances.
Today, grange halls are not as popular for such activities as they once were.
“There are so many more ways for people to spend their time,” Kingsborough said.
Complete membership history records are not available, but it is known that in the 1950s one of the most popular granges in Union County was the old Blue Mountain Grange, which had about 110 members, according to a story in the Jan. 23, 1992, Observer. The Blue Mountain Grange Hall, located at McAlister Road and Gekeler Lane, closed in early January 1992. It re-opened in 1993 as the Fort Union Grange.
Strong Wallowa County granges include the North End Grange in Flora. North End has a consistent base of 25 members today but decades ago the number was substantially higher, said Sandy Mallory of the North End Grange.
The reason is not a mystery.
“More people lived here then,” Mallory said.
Mallory is optimistic about the future of the North End Grange because of its dedicated members.
“We all work hard at keeping it going,” she said.
Its members make a point of assisting the other three granges in Wallowa County.
“If they need help we are right out to help them,” Mallory said.
Some granges charge money to community groups who want to hold activities in their halls but not the North End. Mallory explained that the North End Grange Hall is the only meeting place in the Flora area.
“It is the only place in town big enough to hold something,” Mallory said.
The Pleasant Grove Grange is also a popular place for local gatherings, which is part of what inspires Pleasant Grove Grange Master Carol Messinger, her husband, Bob, and other Pleasant Grove Grange members to work diligently to help maintain the building.
“It is a community building and we want to maintain its community feeling,” she said.
Information from: The (La Grande) Observer, http://www.lagrandeobserver.com/