Westmoreland’s last Grange hosts annual agricultural festival in Sewickley Township
As a child in rural Sewickley Township, Christine Greenawalt always looked forward to the fair.
Over the years, she and her brothers collected ribbon after ribbon for their sweet corn, eggs and artwork they entered at the fair held every summer at the Sewickley Township Grange Hall, several miles from the small town of West Newton.
Greenawalt, now 23 and a mechanical engineer, didn’t know it at the time, but she was interning to take on the legacy that had been an integral part of the life of her beloved grandmother Helen Lash -- who died in January 2016.
“The Grange was always something special to my grandma. She’d talk about it and we’d take her to the meetings, but we never stayed,” Greenawalt said.
That changed in October, when she signed her membership card.
This week, Greenawalt will take time off from her job in Cheswick to help judge exhibits at the 83rd Annual Sewickley Township Community Fair. And she’ll help man the food booth that yields profits to keep the Sewickley Grange afloat.
Grange halls -- the simple buildings that were a center of civic life in many rural America communities -- once dotted the countryside. They hosted ice cream socials, thresher man style dinners, dances and, of course, Grange meetings.
A national fraternal organization that took in entire families, the Grange grew up in agricultural communities in the wake of the Civil War. It championed efforts to break cartels that controlled grain towers and railroad shipping and championed rural electricification efforts to light up remote farm communities.
The organization counted nearly a million members at its peak. Membership declined as the population shifted from rural to urban centers and farming came to occupy an ever smaller portion of the nation.
The Pennsylvania State Grange, which counted 96,000 members at its peak in 1922, today has fewer than 10,000 members and many halls have long since been sold, repurposed or leveled.
“It reflects a lot of the changes in social values. We’ve experienced the same thing as the Kiwanis, the Lions Clubs and any number of social organizations whose numbers have declined,” said Wayne Campbell, president of the Pennsylvania Grange.
Thelma McCormick, secretary of the Sewickley Grange, has seen it in her lifetime.
At 79, McCormick belonged to the Eureka Grange and then Mendon Grange. After both folded due to declining membership, McCormick and her husband joined the Sewickley Grange.
It has about 20 active members, McCormick said.
Although another Grange remains active in Rostraver, it no longer maintains a hall. Members there meet monthly in a local restaurant.
“We’re really the only one left in Westmoreland County,” McCormick said.
But she’s optimistic about the future. The organization has enlisted Greenawalt and Brooke Baker, another twenty something.
Gone are the spaghetti dinners, ice cream socials and square dances that once filled Grange halls, but this one continues to serve as a civic center. The Fair Board, a separate organization, leases the grounds for the annual community fair. McCormick said its facilities also are available for dinners and reunions. And a church meets there weekly.
The fair at the Grange grounds attracts 5,000 to 8,000 people. The event, which began Monday, features a horse show, food and craft booths and garden exhibits as well as live music, clowns, balloon art and a Carnegie Science Center event Friday evening during which fair goers can make and take Liquid Nitrogen Ice Cream.
And you’ve seen nothing about modern rural life until you see the the massive machines that compete in the tractor pull.
Campbell said the modern Grange is rural, urban and suburban and it is about much more than any event or activity.
At the state and national level, it lobbies for universal broadband service to put residents of rural communities on a level playing ground in the fast changing world of technology.
But Campbell stressed that everything the Grange undertakes begins at the grassroots level. Raising money for community playgrounds, service dogs and food banks are among the projects local Granges have sponsored.
“It’s about community and service,” he said. “We’re the only organization around that you can join at five and be a member your entire life. We take youngsters in as junior members from 5 to 14 and then at 14 they can become full members. It’s about giving back to the community.”
He’s optimistic that millennials looking for a sense of community are slowly returning to organizations like the Grange.
For Greenawalt, it’s about carrying on a family tradition that predates even her grandmother. Her great grandparents were among the charter members of the Sewickley Grange. Her uncle, David Lash, began researching its history when he moved back to the area from Denver and became an enthusiastic booster.
He’s not the only Granger looking to revive the organization.
Campbell said the Ginger Hill Grange in Washington County illustrates the faulty reasoning of those who would say the Grange is on its way out.
In April, membership had dwindled to a handful of widows, and the women announced they were dissolving the organization. A new group quickly formed in their place.
“They started out with 28 new members, and now they’re up to 35,” Campbell said. “People did not want to see it go. It was a staple of the community.”