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Rural granges struggle to keep members, stay relevant

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

“Nothing’s too good for Breen, and that’s what I plan to do,” joked John Lee, right, after being elected mayor of Breen on Saturday evening at the Breen Community Building. Joining Lee on stage are Bob Cooper, left, Penny Crawford, center, Lexie Crawford, 12, back left, and Cabree Mullins, 12, back right. Lexie is the daughter of Mike and Dianna Crawford, and Cabree Mullins is the daughter of Sabrina Huntington.

By Robert Galin Herald staff writer

BREEN

Saturday night’s chili supper in Breen had some people saying the event was at the Breen Grange Hall, though it is now the Breen Community Building. That fact reflects the dwindling importance of granges in some rural communities.

“We’re having a hard time getting new, younger members to join,” said Ruth Shock, president, or master, of the Animas Valley Grange. Families have many more demands on their time such as their children’s activities or even multiple jobs, she said.

Animas Valley Grange now has about 25 enrolled members.

Breen Grange has about a dozen members, said Mae Morley, the Grange’s master.

“Grange is a great thing” for the community, Morley said.

In Breen, “there used to be lots of cattle ranches and sheep ranches. Now there are a few,” with many of the bigger ranches being sold in 35-acre tracts.

Cindy Greer, lecturer of the Marvel Grange, said the granges still provide opportunities for community fellowship. But perhaps the most visible reminder that granges still exist are the actual grange hall buildings.

An example of the community service orientation is the Colorado State Grange’s Mandy Project, which “help(s) children with hearing loss to become productive citizens by providing financial grants to the family experiencing hardship due to the child’s hearing loss,” according to the organization’s website.

Greer also is the overseer (vice president) for the Colorado State Grange, director of the Mandy project and Junior Grange and secretary of the county-wide La Plata Pomona Grange.

She said there are other active granges in the area, including Animas Valley, which recently held a St. Patrick’s Day dinner; the Mount Allison Grange, hosting its annual Easter Supper; the Florida Grange on Florida Mesa; and the Oxford Grange in Ignacio.

But as rural America changes, granges have been losing membership as communities develop into more suburban areas.

The average age of farmers is now 58, Morley said. Aging, along with the high cost of farming, contribute to making farming less profitable.

The number of farms in Colorado has been increasing, according to “Colorado Agricultural Statistics 2012” from the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Colorado Field Office.

There were about 36,700 farms earning at least $1,000 in Colorado as of 2011, the report said. That was up from 31,400 in 2002.

Granges haven’t necessarily benefited from that increase. Greer said the Eureka and Pine River granges in La Plata County gave up their charters and sold their grange halls.

“Their buildings, for those that have buildings, serve the community in many different ways, for other community organizations to meet such as 4-H and ditch boards, memorial services, anniversary celebrations, birthday parties, county commissioners on the road meetings, etc.,” Greer said.

She said some granges have junior granges for children ages 5 to 14 where they learn leadership skills, flag etiquette and friendship while earning merit badges, playing games and making crafts.

“Many people who move into our community in Marvel join the grange to get to know their neighbors and the community,” Greer said.

Some members hold on to their affiliation for a long time, such as former Animas Valley Grange master Roberta Barr, now 98, who will be honored with a 100th birthday celebration at the grange in May 2014.

Still, Greer said grange membership during last generation has decreased, “but that seems to be a trend with all organizations within our current society.”

Greer said those who are left will continue to work on improving their communities.

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