Left in Andover: The Grange movement takes hold in tiny Vermont towns

By Susan Leader
©2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Obscured by a lush screen of greenery, the long narrow building in the heart of Andover village is easy to miss. But it is impossible for me to drive by it without my brain clicking on the song, “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer due, I’m half crazy, all for the love of you…”

Even after all these years, I am still reliving my five minutes of glory as a grade schooler acting out this song on the big stage that graced our old Grange Hall.

Founded in 1867, the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry was an anchor institution throughout rural America after the Civil War. The word grange has etymology in the Latin word for grain, as in the English granary.

The Andover Grange Hall now covered by greenery.

The movement was integral to the rural social fabric of America with its dances and community celebrations. But it originated as a support organization to modernize the outdated technology of small scale agriculture in the south.

Progressive for its day, women and “any teen old enough to draw a plow“ were welcomed as full members. Certain elected leadership positions were reserved for females only.

The Grange lobbied for universal rural free mail delivery service, did mighty battle with the railroads over the price of shipping and is credited with inspiring the Cooperative Extension Service.

On the local level, Grange members formed buying cooperatives. In certain cases, communal ownership of pricey new equipment ushered smaller farms into the modern age.

Andover’s Industrial Grange #127 was already a quarter century old in 1905 when it acquired a permanent home in a former smithy in the center of town.

The Andover Grange curtain is on full display during Town Meeting 2020. Telegraph file photo.

When I started first grade in 1957, the only thing more exciting than being in a school play was knowing it would be held down at the Grange.

The gravitas of the dark wood paneled interior, long benches for seating and assorted Grangiana displayed on the interior walls of the hall awed me.

By 1922, Andover Grange was a vibrant center of community life. The 100-member branch voted to invest in a real raised stage. This stage was the impetus for a flowering of local theater, with several plays each year vying for use of the building.

With so many guaranteed “views,” sponsorship of an ad on the Grange’s beautiful new stage curtain must have been a worthwhile investment. Ludlow businesses were prominent. The original curtain is now restored and on permanent display for all to enjoy at Andover Town Hall.

With roots in the Freemasonry movement, Grange meetings included opening and closing ceremonies to which only members were privy. Otherwise, programs were open to the general community. Although my parents never joined, they paid due respect to the basic Grange mission.

The booklet “Historical Glimpses of Andover 1761-1961,” published at the time of Andover’s bicentennial celebration, offered a sampling of discussion topics such as:

  • Does it pay a farmer to send his (sic) to Boston rather than to make butter?
  • Which bring the better results — plowing manure underground or harrowing it in?
  • Are the game laws written for the farmers or the sportsman?

The cover of the Andover Bicentennial booklet.

The Grange organization is still active today in many places, including in Vermont, though with greatly diminished membership. Dues paying members plummeted from a nationwide high of 868,050 in 1875, to a mere 160,000 by 2005.

Sadly, there was not a good cultural fit between the organization and the new wave of boutique and back-to-the-land agrarians who colonized Vermont farmland starting in the 1960s.

Arcane rituals such as secret passwords originally intended to expose railroad spies were experienced as off-putting, although a young farmer nowadays might relate!

Even as the old-timey Grange, despite its extensive infrastructure (there is an abandoned or repurposed Grange Hall in almost every town) continues to decline, the modern local foods movement has kicked into high gear. Nevertheless, never the twain shall meet. More’s the pity.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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