On March 3, 2021, the Board of Directors for Bayside Community Hall (of which I am currently president) received terrible news. Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Kelly Neel tentatively granted a Motion of Summary Judgment for the California State Grange against the Hall, in a lawsuit that had been filed in April 2020, in a dispute whose roots go back many years.
Bayside, along with several other local halls (Freshwater, Fieldbrook, Van Duzen, and Redcrest) is in a battle to keep a vital community resource (its hall) under the control of the local community.
First of all, what is a Grange? The National Grange Order of the Patrons of Husbandry is a hierarchical, fraternal, membership organization founded in 1867, originally focused on advocacy for farmers and rural communities, and borrowing many aspects of structure and ritual from Freemasonry, including degrees, special regalia and formal ritual-based meetings. The structure consists of local “Subordinate” Granges, organized into regional “Pomona” Granges that report to State and then National Granges.
The Bayside Hall was built in 1940 by members of Bayside Grange #500, a group chartered several years earlier, with all local labor and funds. For decades, local individuals maintained and managed the Hall, and, as a condition of Grange membership, sent tens of thousands of dollars of dues to the state and national organizations (nearly the entirety of locally paid “dues” were passed on to the state, leaving local groups to fundraise separately to maintain their buildings).
Starting about seven years ago, the Bayside board and membership, along with those of dozens of other similar halls across California, took steps that moved them away from the National Grange. California subordinate Granges elected a State Grange Master who worked to liberalize the organization and make it more appealing to our changing local communities.
That caused a rift with the national organization which revoked the California State Grange charter, leaving its subordinate members in legal limbo, and banning us from calling ourselves Granges (that’s when many former granges became community halls or guilds).
The National Grange successfully sued to take the California Grange assets, and now is seeking to bring all of the subordinate granges that allied with the more liberal organization, back into line under a newly reorganized State Grange.
Grange membership has varied over the years, but what seems clear locally, at least to the five halls currently battling for autonomy, is that for some time our communities have not been particularly interested in the Grange organization itself, but rather in being part of a modern, inclusive, locally responsive community organization.
They are not attracted to what a Grange is (and, in fact, many of those who understand it are turned off by its secrecy, rituals, complex rules and religious content), but to their local Hall and its place in the community. As Grange rituals, rules and formal structure have been gradually ignored, membership has increased.
Unfortunately, this has obscured for members the actual implications of their Grange membership. In theory, each Grange member takes an oath which binds them to a lengthy and complex National Digest of Laws governing what the local hall they were joining could and couldn’t do.
For at least the past three years, the board, members and volunteers for Bayside have not been Grange members (in fact, many would not have been involved if that was required). None of the current board who inherited this situation has ever pledged faithful compliance with the Grange rules. During that time we have raised over $350,000 from a generous community and invested it in the Hall building.
We have also made new partnerships, brought in diverse groups, run a successful (though not lucrative) rental operation, initiated new activities (like drive-by dinners, the Fall Makers Fair and this column) and continued past ones (breakfasts, lecture series, etc), and generally brought life to a languishing organization.
But this may not be enough. As the Grange sees it, the fact that Bayside Community Hall holds title to the Hall property and that its local supporters provide 100 percent of the volunteer labor and funds to manage and maintain the Bayside Hall is not enough to ensure local ownership and does not grant local autonomy; by Grange rules, all Hall property is Grange property and is available to a local group to manage and maintain only so long as that group is willing to be a subordinate grange within the Grange organization.
That currently requires that a minimum of 13 individuals sign a pledge of “faithful compliance with the By-Laws of this [local] Grange, the By-Laws of the State Grange of California and the Constitution and By-Laws of the National Grange.” Those 13 individuals can then apply for a charter, subject to the approval of the national organization.
So it is quite a dilemma. Bayside plans to appeal the MSJ ruling, which will take some time. However, if is not successful, we all will be faced with a difficult decision: Do we surrender the building that we love and into which we have poured so much time and treasure? Do we attempt to organize a new subordinate grange, joining the organization simply to retain control of our own property? If so, are you personally willing to be a Grange member? Do we attempt to buy our own property, if that is even possible? Do you have any other ideas?
This is really complicated stuff, but it is also really important. On Thursday, May 13 from 5 to 6 p.m., KMUD Radio 88.1 FM will host a call-in show about these lawsuits. This is a chance to talk with representatives from the local community halls that are facing these challenges.
Please listen in and call with your questions. You may also want to look into the details of what Grange membership means at castategrange.org (for the California State Grange) and nationalgrange.org (for the National Grange).
Look specifically at the Digest of Laws 2021 posted on the latter’s Members Resources menu, which details the rules that currently govern all granges.