Chico Grange gets a new lease on life
All kinds of intriguing connections are being made these days at Chico Grange No. 486, where a new group of organic farmers, slow-food aficionados, folk musicians and community-builders is revitalizing a historic farmers’ organization that was slowly dying out.
For beginners, there are a couple of cool John Bidwell connections. The Grange Hall was originally the Bidwell School. And Chico’s founder was the first president of the California State Grange.
The hall is located in the Bell-Muir area of northwest Chico, tucked among walnut orchards at the corner of Rodeo and Old Nord avenues, about a block north of Henshaw. The building, which has two large rooms separated by an entry hallway, was originally built in 1902. It became a Grange meeting hall in 1953.
The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, as the Grange is more formally known, was founded shortly after the Civil War as a fraternal order of farmers committed to advocating on behalf of rural issues.
The California State Grange was founded in 1873. Much of its purpose at the time, said Chuck Voss, the president of the Chico Grange, was to organize the farmers together so they could stand up to Southern Pacific, which monopolized not only the distribution of agricultural products but also the prices paid for them.
As an organization, the Grange has had its ups and downs, and lately it has been in decline. Locally, membership was down to about 10 people, and their average age was 80, Voss said.
That’s when another good connection was made. Up in Taylorsville, former Chicoan Ken Donnell, who lives in Greenville, had been working to revitalize the Grange there. He contacted Voss and suggested he do likewise in Chico. So Voss, who was born and grew up in Chico and is now retired, started contacting groups he thought would be interested in preserving both the Grange H—all itself and the Grange tradition.
It was not your typical Grange group. Voss talked to members of Slow Food Shasta Cascade, the Chico Food Network, the Chico Sustainability Group, the Butte Folk Music Society and various farmers who sell produce at the Chico Farmers Market.
Kim Weir, a writer and native Chicoan who spent part of her youth living on a farm between Chico and Durham, said she heard through the grapevine about the new excitement at the Grange, went out to see for herself, and “fell in love with the building.” Now she heads the building and grounds committee and is overseeing the hall’s refurbishing, beginning with a new paint job outside. Ultimately the goal is to turn it into a green building, with solar power, solar water heaters and so forth, she said.
The building is tremendously solid, she said. “As one person told me, ‘You could park cars in here,’ the floor’s so well braced.” The meeting hall room has gorgeous cherry wood flooring and a small stage on one side. Huge windows at both ends let in lots of light. The other big room is a dining hall, with a large galley off to the side.
Weir said the group is up to about 40 members now and is growing all the time, with “long-timers” connecting with the younger newcomers as they watch their organization get a new lease on life.
One especially active member is Lee Altier, who teaches courses in sustainable food production systems at Chico State University. Like Voss and Weir, he was out at the hall last Saturday (Sept. 15), working on fixing it up. He said he sees the hall becoming a place for community forums on issues such as sustainable and organic farming.
“You can tell we’re one of the more liberal Granges,” Voss said with a laugh.
The next big event slated for the Grange Hall takes place Oct. 14, when Slow Food Shasta Cascade and the Chico Sustainability Group, in conjunction with the Grange, present their “Harvest the Flavor of Fall” dinner. For more information, go to www.chicogrange.org.