Granges in La Plata County experience a revival

Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017 10:55 AM
Betty Seibel, a longtime member of the Mt. Allison Grange, walks into the building that has been the main gathering place for the town near Ignacio.
Events, such as a holiday bazaars, are held throughout the year at the Mt. Allison Grange in southeastern La Plata County.

The revival of local granges in Southwest Colorado can be attributed to a number of reasons, but probably none more than the effort of organizers to reinvent the historical meeting places for a new generation.

Granges were first founded across the country in the late 1860s as a place for people with agricultural interests to meet, eventually evolving into an organized group that advocated in Congress.

At one point, granges had almost 1 million members.

Yet, as more people turned away from farming, membership drastically decreased. The Seattle Times reported in 2007 that grange membership fell nearly 40 percent to 240,000 people, as fewer than 2 percent of Americans were farmers.

In Southwest Colorado, there were six active granges at one point, said Elizabeth Hiner, a member of the Florida Grange and spokeswoman with the National Grange. Yet local granges suffered from the same lack of membership felt across the country.

These days, there are only four active granges: Animas Valley, Florida, Marvel and Mt. Allison. Two inactive granges are located in Breen and Oxford.

But as a new generation takes over, there has been an effort to recruit members to take local granges into the 21st century and beyond, Hiner said.

“We want to keep the agricultural part, but also make it more interesting for the interests of people today,” she said.

As a result, granges in La Plata County are experiencing a sort of rebirth.

Animas Valley GrangePerhaps the Animas Valley Grange’s most successful outreach program in recent years has been its monthly Speaker Series, a free event open to the public that brings in a guest speaker to talk about a certain topic, usually agriculture-based.

The Animas Valley Grange on County Road 203 north of Durango hosts a monthly Speaker Series that has renewed interest and participation.
Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

Upcoming topics in 2018 may include talks about fruit trees/apple orchards, beekeeping, herbal medicine and a new food-gleaning program. Past topics have included a discussion on the 2015 Gold King Mine spill.

“We try to find something relevant to people who live here in the Animas Valley,” said President Marie Roessler.

The Animas Valley Grange, founded in 1911, is unique in that it’s more centrally located than other granges in the area, boasts about 36 members and reliably brings in more participants because of events such as the Speaker Series.

“We needed to do something different to attract members,” she said. “We want new members and to stay viable.”

Florida GrangeThe Florida Grange started as a community center for people on Florida Mesa, south of Durango, in 1916. At one point, it had 100 active members. But by 2010, that number dwindled to 28, Hiner said.

“People were moving away, and farming was not as big of a business as it used to be,” Hiner said.

The Florida Grange, south of Elmore’s Corner on Colorado Highway 172, used to have 100 active members. It now has about 40 members.
Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

Hiner says the future success of granges depends on a blend of urban and rural aspects to appeal to new members. Plus, family-friendly events never hurt.

Offering a variety of community events, the Florida Grange has added eight new members in the past year, bringing the total up to nearly 40 members.

“Now that we have some new blood in there, we’re making a lot of progress,” she said.

Marvel GrangeThe last grange to form in La Plata County in the 1950s, the Marvel Grange is also probably the most remote in the southwestern corner of La Plata County, more than 20 miles from Durango.

Sheryl Agers, secretary of the grange, said the grange was a way for people to come together in a part of the county that was even more isolated four decades ago.

The Marvel Grange in southwestern La Plata County hosts potlucks and chili cook-offs. More recently, members have weighed in on legislative matters related to rural issues.
Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

At its height in the 1970s, the grange had around 80 to 100 members, she said. While numbers fluctuated over the years, membership has tended to hover around 50 people.

“In our community, there’s not a whole lot out here,” said Ayers, who has been a part of the grange for most of her life. “But the people out here still enjoy getting together with their neighbors. And the younger grange members, especially, like to do things for the community.”

These days, the grange still hosts potlucks, chili cook-offs and a variety of community events, but the members have also started to become engaged with legislative matters as they pertain to rural interests.

Mt. Allison GrangeThe Mt. Allison Grange was first organized in 1916 as a place for farmers to bring and sell their produce. Starting with 14 members, the grange once grew to a record high participation of 165 members.

Shirley Engler, a member since 1952 who just recently stepped down as president, said it’s a constant battle to keep people participating with everyone’s busy schedule.

Sharon Nossaman carries food and items out of the kitchen of Mt. Allison Grange in southeastern La Plata County as Vickie Sutton-Gallegos looks on. The grange hall can be rented out for events.
Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

But still, despite a lack of membership, the grange’s events are always well-attended, she said. The grange regularly holds potlucks, parties, bingo nights and annual Easter and Harvest suppers.

“Our community is so dispersed, I think it’s what kept this community together,” she said. “And it’s been a place for all different organizations to meet where they didn’t have anywhere.”

The Mt. Allison Grange now boasts 70 members in an area that includes the unincorporated communities of Allison, Arboles, Rosa and Tiffany.

“We’re one of the granges that’s holding their own,” Engler said.

Vickie Sutton-Gallegos, 53, has been a member of the Mt. Allison Grange since she was 5 years old. She said her family raised hay and pastured horses in the winter, and the grange was a way for everyone to come together.

“It really feels like I’m carrying on a family tradition,” she said.