By: Christina Ely, Registrar for Plowline: Images of Rural New York
The newest collection of photographs in Plowline: Images of Rural New York captures views of nine Grange Halls in Otsego County and were taken between 2000 and 2002 by local photographer Andy Baugnet. Some of the Granges are still functioning, others have closed their doors. These closed Halls, which were once a center of the community, have become relics and symbols of days long past in some towns and villages. This is particularly true in the community I grew up in. For years, my family and I have driven past an old, closed, decaying Grange Hall that stood like a ghost near the center of the village. It wasn’t until recently, that I knew what that building stood for and the importance of the Grange within the community, especially in the late 19th and early 20th century.
The legacy of the Grange lives on however, even if it may be part of rural American society that is partially forgotten. Founded in the late 1800s, the Grange focused on rural life and the business of agriculture. Many public policies, posts and institutions that we perhaps take for granted were born out of the Grange movement. These include food cooperatives, rural mail delivery, mutual fire, life and liability insurance for farmers, a State Railroad Commission and a State Dairy Commissioner. Despite all of their great achievements, perhaps one of the greatest successes of the Grange was a rural brotherhood of men AND women. Initially suggested as a men’s institution, it was Miss Caroline A. Hall of Boston who suggested that women have equal membership in the fraternity.
Baugnet’s photos are an important record of these local Grange Halls, recording their traditions, important rituals and furnishings.
Included in the collection is a photograph documenting the mural of Otsego Lake at the Pierstown Grange No 793 in Cooperstown created for a “dramatic association” performance in the early part of the 20th century. The mural has withstood decades of time, and is a prominent feature in the Main Hall.
Fellowship was an important aspect of The Grange. Most weekly meetings were preceded or followed by a meal and time for members of the agricultural community to gather together. The significance of this time is evidenced in the number of fellowship hall photographs in this collection, and the focus on these spaces. The following photo shows the kitchen pass-through cupboard at the Fly Creek Grange No 844.
Grangers incorporated music into their meetings, and had a specific office for the “Musician,” as well as a Grange song book. This piano detail from the Springfield Grange No 1523 celebrates that aspect and practice.
Finally, like all fraternal organizations the Grange had its own officers and rituals. One common thread throughout this collection are the images of stations for the various officers. The stations were often ornamented with staves which were adorned with decorative finials. These finials held meaning to the Grangers, represented various attributes of the society and were symbols of the various offices. This station arrangement at the Westville Grange No 540 speaks to the ritual.
The creation, inception and record of the Grange are a fascinating part of America’s rural history, and thankfully one that continues in many rural communities throughout the state and country.