Exhausting battle for Bennett Valley Grange property, money
Bill and Pat Allen stand in front of the venerable Bennett Valley Grange Hall, built in 1873. Allen is president of the Bennett Valley Guild, which is in a legal battle with the National and California Grange over ownership of the building. Photo by Alec Peters
A schism in the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry back in 2013 has had far-reaching consequences that are even now touching hundreds of people in Bennett Valley who grew up under the friendly auspices of the once vibrant movement. Bennett Valley Grange Hall #16 was built in 1873 and is the oldest continuously operating grange in America, the sixteenth of thousands of granges formed since the first organization was founded in 1863. It has touched the lives of Sonoma County citizens for over 150 years.
While the issues are complex and sometimes murky, what seems to be true is that, like many fraternal organizations in America, Grange membership reached a nadir in the 1960s and 1970s, until a younger clientele stepped up and reinvigorated the community centers scattered around the country.
While the Grange was founded by small farmers, who from its founding constituted the majority of American families, the number of working farmers dwindled as children migrated to cities, and business assumed the mantle of leadership for food production and acquired farmland throughout the U.S. When the National Grange sided with Monsanto over the rights to be paid for seeds from GMO crops, local Granges revolted.
In California, the state Grange fell into a personality conflict that led to a major split; many individual Grange organizations dropped out, stopped paying national dues and ran their meeting halls and events independently. When the National Grange sued over using the name “Grange,” local groups renamed themselves ‘guilds,’ reincorporated, moved deeds into the new non-profit organizations, and carried on with spaghetti dinners, community meetings and hosting 4H, volunteer fire departments, and any other group needing a place to meet.
“We’ve always been a community organization, helping other non-profits, homeowners, the fire department,” Bennett Valley Guild president Bill Allen said. “We are open to community projects as such.” COVID-19 has cut short all socializing since March, leaving the 120 or so members feeling even more cut off from the organization. The California Guilds have lost a succession of lawsuits brought by the California and National Grange, aimed at recapturing their property, halls and accounts to National and State Grange ownership.
Allen and his wife, Pat, lost their Bennett Valley home in the 2017 fire, along with a century of Grange records, photographs and memorabilia. Pat is a third generation member, growing up in Bennett Valley.
“I remember the Juvenile Grange,” she recalled. “They had their own room, and had meetings, dances, teen club. The 4H met there and we raised animals and did all the things 4H members do. I made lifetime friends who still get together, for things like the Fireman’s Ball.”
The Grange was the hub for the creation of the Bennett Valley Fire Volunteers, Strawberry School that burnt down in the 1940s, and local homeowner associations. The Kenwood Yacht Club holds meetings to this day, with occasional rentals still happening at the Grange Hall, situated on Grange Road near Bennett Valley Road. The 148th Annual Picnic was cancelled, though hopes linger on the Guild website for a later, smaller event.
“We hope for an amicable transition,” State Grange Secretary Lillian Booth of Butte County said. “We are always open to conversation. The more we can converse, the more we learn from each other. Nobody likes litigation or tying stuff up in courts for years.”
Booth also said that the California Grange “never supported Monsanto,” and that it has a policy on record against using GMOs.
Booth said there are 20-30 members who have formed a new Bennett Valley Grange, who are ready to take possession of the Grange Hall and associated financial accounts.
Local Guild members are wary of olive branches at this point, citing how the Grange moved against them in the beginning with lawsuits, which they have struggled to cope with financially.
While Bennett Valley’s Guild still has Directors and Officers Insurance paying for their current legal costs, it will go away when the current lawsuits are settled. “They sent us a letter saying they wouldn’t renew,” Allen said.
“We gave up because we couldn’t get D&O insurance,” said Beth Lewis, former president of the Hessel Guild. The Hessel Grange hall is now owned and run by cannabis growers, a group initially formed by the Sebastopol Grange that now, according to Lewis, refuses to accept former Hessel Guild members.
Janet Alfieri is 82 and lives in the Woodside area of Bennett Valley, between the firehouse and Matanzas Creek Winery, just over a mile away from the Grange Hall. She has lived in Bennett Valley for 48 years and has been a member of the Grange and later Guild for over 30 years.
“When we moved here, our daughter was in 4H, and we went to the spaghetti dinners,” she recalled. “We became acquainted with people that way.” Her allegiance today is with the Guild, “absolutely.”
“It’s a place that means a great deal to our community. Our water company meets there and other volunteer groups have been able to use it. We put a lot into it, fundraising and trying to keep the building up. It would be a shame for it not to be run by the people who have been doing it all these years.
“I don’t feel I would want to be a member any more,” Alfieri said. “I don’t know what will happen to it. It would be nice if another group would take over, but I don’t think it would have the same community feel to it.”