Home, home on the grange

Donlyn Arbuthnot and Henry Poirot at the Altona Grange.
Photo by Jefferson Dodge

Many people, when they hear the word “grange,” think of a ZZ Top song, or, at best, something about a farm.

Some might recall that it is a sort of community building for farmers, and one of Boulder County’s last remaining granges is reinventing itself as a center of the local farm-to-table movement and holding a signature event on June 1 that combines history, the outdoors, sustainability and local goods.

The Altona Grange, a structure built west of Longmont in 1896 by Colorado pioneers who initially came to the area for precious metals in towns like Gold Hill — but who then settled in the lowlands as farmers and ranchers — has seen a resurgence in recent years.

A core group of volunteers, some of whom are descendants of those who ran and even built the grange, began restoring the dilapidated, his toric agricultural center in 2006, at a time when its membership had languished at only a handful for several decades. Today it has about 60 members, and the organization hopes that its June 1 event, titled “Home on the Grange,” helps propel it back into mainstream relevance as a driver of the local food movement.

Donlyn Arbuthnot, who currently serves as the grange’s lecturer/historian, is a fourth-generation member whose family helped construct the building and who served for three years as its “master,” or president, recalls visiting the grange as a young girl growing up in Boulder.

“We love the history, we love the building,” she says. “Every other Saturday we were out here at the grange. … If you had told me when I was at Boulder High School that I would be master of the grange, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’”

She says the grange system was started in 1874 when former President Andrew Johnson was concerned that Civil War injuries and casualties might mean the nation wouldn’t have enough farmers to feed itself, so he formed a group that would go on to become a force for rural men and women to share ideas about agricultural best practices and other skills.

The Altona Grange, on Nelson Road just east of Highway 36, was number 127 of the nearly 500 granges that once existed in Colorado. It is one of only two that are still operational in Boulder County; the other is Pleasant View, near 95th Street and Isabel Road.

The headliners at the June 1 event at the grange are the Montana-based Sisters on the Fly, a national group of women who love camping and fly-fishing — and revamping vintage RV trailers in classic styles. The group will be bringing as many as 20 of its custom caravans to “Home on the Grange” for the public to tour, as well as selling its wares and collecting donations for its main cause, Casting for Recovery, a charity that takes women who are fighting breast cancer on camping and fishing trips.

The event will also feature emcee “Rockin’ Robin,” who has a vintage clothing shop in Niwot; a mini farmer’s market with locally produced goods, including eggs, honey, herbs and homemade pies; children’s activities like face painting, old-time photos with a pony or donkey and a fishing pond; and local artisan beer, wine, whiskey and cocktails.

There will be live music, a silent auction featuring locally donated items, various local vendors selling their wares, fly-casting demonstrations, an evening campfire sing-along, dancing and food outlets featuring barbecue, gourmet and other freshly made meals.

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Like other granges around the country, the Altona Grange began as a haven for farmers and ranchers to build community. And in the early years, it became a national lobbying and collective bargaining voice to rally for things like rural postal delivery and fighting back against monopolistic railroad companies that were gouging food producers on the cost of transporting their goods.

The Altona Grange was even at the center of the water war that spawned Colorado’s “first in time, first in right” water law. Grange leaders say that when Longmont-area residents balked at Altona’s Left Hand Ditch Company diverting water upstream, even going so far as to blow up its dam, the battle went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court, which found in favor of the ditch-diggers’ claim to the water.

Like other fraternal organizations formed at the time, secret passwords and handshakes were required to gain entry at meetings, mostly to keep railroad executives out.

But it was never intended to be a boys’ club. Altona Grange leaders say women were always welcome, and in addition to teaching its members about things like irrigation and plowing practices, the grange featured lessons on canning and fruit preservation.

“This was the place for home economics,” Arbuthnot says. “Women were taught how to sew and beautify their home.”

During grange events, Arbuthnot dresses up like Phoebe Steele, a pioneering landowner, Altona Grange member and widow of Edward Steele, who helped build the grange but died of typhoid fever 11 days after moving his family to Colorado.

Today, as massive corporations like Monsanto have taken over much of the nation’s food production, granges are becoming a resurgent voice in the local food movement and the effort to restore small farms as a prominent force in the attempt to achieve local sustainability.

However, Altona Grange leaders say they don’t pick sides when it comes to large-scale conventional farmers who grow genetically modified crops and the organic farmers who have become so important to Boulder County’s farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture programs. They say all are welcome to join their organization, regardless of the politics involved.

The organization hosts seminars on everything from bee-keeping to raising chickens. The motto of the grange is “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all, charity.”

Current Altona Grange Master Henry Poirot says it’s time for the grange to give back to the community after being the beneficiary of donations over the past seven years, when the grange building was being restored.

“We’re not the needy ones anymore,” he says. “We’re trying to reach out to others.”

A donation of $2 per adult is requested at the June 1 event. The festivities start at 10 a.m. and end at 6 p.m.

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