Although the National Grange was founded in the 19th century to promote the social and economic needs of farmers, the organization these days serves a much broader purpose — as a meeting place in the community.
Marys River Grange No. 685, organized in Philomath as a chapter in March 1927, has spread its wings locally with various events, including bingo, concerts, dances, yoga and more.
The days of the grange being an exclusive agricultural-related organization are in the past.
“Our roots are in agriculture but as (former president) Jay (Sexton) used to say, ‘if you like to eat food, you’ve got enough interest in agriculture to be a grange member,’” Marys River Grange President Sonny Hays-Eberts said. “It’s really a community organization.”
Hays-Eberts said last week that membership stood at 122 with another four that showed an interest in joining.
“We peaked as like the second-biggest grange in Oregon and now we’re down to maybe third,” Hays-Eberts said. “But we’re still one of the more active and I think that’s what encourages people. We haven’t been focused as much on recruiting just because we’ve been doing so much but what we’ve been doing has also brought in members.”
The organization’s newest activity is bingo, which made its debut in July and had another session Friday. The next one is scheduled for Sept. 1 (6-8:30 p.m.).
“It was kind of a test run … and it was remarkably well-received,” Hays-Eberts said about the inaugural event. “There are some hardcore bingo players out there.”
One reason behind something like bingo is to try to make up for revenue lost in other areas.
“Our hall rentals have just kind of fallen off, which is not uncommon,” Hays-Eberts said. “I’ve talked to other granges and I think part of it is just the economy — recession-type stuff. But they are starting to pick back up.”
The grange is a hierarchical organization ranging from local communities such as the one in Philomath on up to the National Grange. Benton County chapters are grouped together to form a Pomona grange — Marys River Grange, Alsea Hope Grange, Willamette Grange (Corvallis), Fairmount Grange (north Albany) and Summit Grange. Then it goes to the state level and national level.
“We have elected officers but we do have an executive committee,” Hays-Eberts said. “We try to decide everything by members as much as possible. Right now, we’re undergoing a study about our long-term stuff — how do we really want to use the hall and the grounds, do we want to focus on rentals, other events, community service, that sort of thing? That’s all going to be a decision by our members.”
The Pomona grange was looking for ways to help the community-level organizations and bingo appeared to be a good fit. Bingo is played at four of the five granges in Benton County — Alsea, Willamette, Fairmount and Marys River.
“We take half of the money and give it out as prizes and out of what’s left, we keep 75% and the county grange gets 25%,” Hays-Eberts said.
The participating granges cross-promote their events so bingo players can make their rounds, if desired.
All grange events are open to the public — no membership necessary. Anyone can also rent Grange Hall, although active members get a discount.
The grange has increased its lineup of hosted activities over the past few years. Hays-Eberts said there has been a focus this year on bringing in more concerts. On Sept. 17, for example, a concert will feature Gabrielle Louise, Darryl Purpose and True North Duo (tickets are $15 at the door).
Local musician Yvonne McMillan has organized monthly country dances and bluegrass jams — both of which will be starting back up in September. And for the second straight year, she’s putting on a Talk Like a Pirate party, which is set for Sept. 15.
Members are encouraged to bring their interests to life.
“As a rural community, our interests are pretty broad — agriculture, community service, education, veterans, food, crafting,” Hays-Eberts said. “So members that have an interest, like Yvonne with music, we encourage them to use the hall to put on those sorts of things … Laura (Coen) with yoga … and the farm worker medical clinic with GTF (Gathering Together Farms). So when members have an event that fits our values and they want to do it here, we encourage them to use the hall.”
Hays-Eberts believes there could be other opportunities out there — an example he used was a quilting workshop or display.
Hays-Eberts, who has been a member since 2015, believes people understand the Marys River Grange’s mission at hand.
“The first and most obvious to a lot of people is the community service we do,” Hays-Eberts said. “We get a lot of people that work with like PCS (Philomath Community Services) or other groups that we support and then they end up getting involved with us as well.”
Hays-Eberts also said that people enjoy their involvement with an organization that checks politics at the door.
“We’re interested in legislative things but it’s all issue driven, it’s not party affiliated,” he said. “We’ve tried to leave that sort of stuff and we have people from all over the spectrum — conservative, progressive, liberal, older, younger — and we’re really here to support each other in our community.”
The organization may also appeal to those just looking for opportunities to interact with others in a post-pandemic world.
“After the pandemic when people were cooped up and missing that sort of community, there’s been sort of a resurgence in that sort of interest,” Hays-Eberts said.
This year, the grange finished a major project to repair its historic building’s foundation. While talking about supports on the junior hall that had rotted, Hays-Eberts brought attention to an old log sitting on the grounds.
“This was the log that was originally milled by the people that built the hall that had started to rot,” Hays-Eberts said, adding that he believes it came from a property up the road. “You can see all the mold and stuff so we put a water capture tank on, we put gutters on to drain stuff away from the building and fixed the foundation.”
Amazing Grange Day, last weekend’s rummage sale and pie auction fundraiser, brought in money to go toward the next project, which is to remodel the junior hall — an addition to the main hall in the 1950s.