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Hessel Grange going strong – again

Friday, July 19th, 2013 | Posted by

At Hessel Grange, fresh items are sold or shared at the Wednesday night growers exchange. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent

Kids are throwing sticks across the lawn for the dogs to fetch, a couple are climbing a tree. Denny Hunt from the Blankity Blank potato farm rides up in his donkey cart, and the children rush to greet Hunt’s donkey, Hail, who was born in a hailstorm.

Someone arrives with a bag of early windfall Gravenstein apples to feed Hail and the two miniature donkeys that have also joined the gathering at the Hessel Grange in rural Sebastopol.

It’s Wednesday afternoon and time for the Growers Exchange at the grange, a chance for neighbors to exchange plants, seeds and surplus produce from their gardens and farms. It all happens at the prettiest setting for a grange hall in the west county — and one that was almost lost to the community.

“The grange had dwindled. People had died or left and no new people joined. The grange became inactive in July of 2007 after 43 years in Hessel,” said Grange Master Beth Lewis, a second- and third-grade teacher. “In ’08, a group of us sat around a kitchen table to talk about our vacant grange hall and its pretty picnic grounds. A lot of us didn’t even know what a grange was then.”

They decided to contact the National Grange, which put them in touch with the California State Grange. When a grange goes inactive, the state grange takes on responsibility for the property until a new grange is formed or the old one is reorganized by a new group.

“We decided to start a new group. I didn’t step back fast enough, so I was made grange master,” laughed Lewis, 50. She and her husband were roped into serving. Her husband served as secretary and treasurer until recently, and he still keeps the grounds mowed.

The new group held a community open house to learn what people wanted from their new grange, which now has 80 members. It’s cheap to join. Dues are just $30 a year.

Right from the start, the new officers decided people needed to follow their passions. For a while there were dances, but the couple who organized them moved away. Right now someone with a passion for yoga gives lessons two nights a week. A group is starting a weekly pingpong night.

At the monthly business meetings, they bring in interesting speakers on such topics as bird rescue and local history. The Canfield 4-H uses the facilities, as could a local FFA chapter if one was formed in Hessel. K9 Nose Work classes are held to train rescue dogs, and the popular weekly Growers Exchange is as much a social gathering as a chance to trade crops. The grange plans an ice cream social in August.

The Hessel Grange is making some plans for the future. Officers have contacted other granges to find out how it is done elsewhere. The Bennett Valley Grange, the country’s oldest continuously operating grange hall, has become the emergency center for its neighborhood. Hessel wants to follow its example.

Someone will take CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams) training, plan an emergency mapping of the neighborhood and purchase emergency supplies to keep in the Grange Hall in case they are needed. “And, oh yes, I think we’ll make Hail the donkey an honorary member,” said Lewis.

Members have learned the history of the grange movement. It was formed in 1867, with women and teens 14 years old and up able to vote and hold office.

“It’s impressive there was an organization so old and yet so progressive,” said Lewis.

In recent years there has been a division. National Grange officers have become interested in corporate industrial farming, while California granges are more interested in fostering small independent farmers. When the National Grange tried to expel the California Grange Master, the state fought back and went to court. Now the National Grange wants to cut off California.

“From my teaching experience, it seems like a playground argument,” said Lewis. “But the National Grange has sold out and is drying up on the vine. They need us in California. The life and vitality are here, and our granges are thriving.”

At the Wednesday gathering, there is a “free” table. Someone puts out a bottle of wine to share with the grown-ups, someone else adds another, someone else puts out crackers and cheese. A gardener sets out pluot samples from his tree, saying he doesn’t have enough to exchange but wanted to share their fantastic flavor with everyone.

There are violet plants, plus lots and lots of zucchini.

The donkeys munch their apples, the dogs romp with the kids, and contented neighbors admire each others produce and enjoy the mild evening.

For information about the Hessel Grange, a calendar of events, or to rent the Grange Hall or its grounds, go to hesselgrange.org.

Writer Spotlight

Andrea Granahan is our West County correspondent.
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