By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER – Barbara Bates remembers the Grange rite of passage in the mid-1950s during which kids who’d reached 14 could graduate from the “juvenile” group and join the adults in the “subordinate” division.
During her ceremony – which had just enough secrecy and formality to make it memorable – a portion of the proceedings occurred in a darkened room.
“I heard Bob’s voice and that was the end of that,” she says, smiling. It was the moment she knew she’d fallen in love with Bob Bates and it was relatively shocking: She was 14 and he, an adult Granger for some time, nearly 21.
Her parents, she recalls, knew “pretty soon” that she’d made up her mind that Bob was the one. When he was killed in a horrific car crash in the winter of 2011, they’d been married 54 years.
Back in the day, young singles didn’t go to bars in the endless social crapshoot of wondering if they’d “hook up” with a potential mate. Instead, they went to places such as church picnics or clam bakes and Saturday night dances at the Grange hall. They met people who shared their interests and values.
Marriage had a way of breaking out like the measles.
It still does, at least at Exeter Grange #12, which celebrates its 125th anniversary with festivities beginning at 7:30 p.m. next Monday at the group’s hall on Ten Rod Road.
“Granges have intermingled,” notes Barbara, as though speaking of ancient Scottish clans. One woman married a man from another Grange and he defected to Exeter; another woman “married into a Grange across the water in Portsmouth.”
The local chapter was formed by 26 original members on Oct. 31, 1887 as the Exeter Grange Patrons of Husbandry.
Among the founders were familiar South County names: Gardiner, Brown, Sweet, Lewis, Rose, Reynolds. “There are names I still know,” says Barbara. The Dutemples owned all the land across from the [present] town hall. The Sweets gave the land for Canonicus.”
At its peak, she adds, the chapter had 50-60 active members and a roll of 120; today, of 109 members fewer are significantly involved but they’re younger couples who still find Grange a significant part of life.
Through the 125 years of the Exeter Grange’s existence, its activities have remained homespun and wholesome while its focus has evolved from agricultural concerns to serious involvement in local and worldwide charities.
Celeste Spencer has created loose-leaf, plastic-protected yearbooks containing images and newspaper clippings that tell the story of the Grange’s participation in such projects as Cell Phones for Soldiers, dresses sent to little girls all over Central America, dictionaries for area elementary schools and a walk-a-thon benefiting the Exeter Animal Shelter and the town food bank.
Multiple events have been held supporting Noah Flood, a little North Kingstown child who has battled leukemia for much of his life and whose grandmother is a Granger.
In a recent parade the theme was “Hope for Heroes” and the Grange float was all about Noah, says Spencer, because “he was our hero.”
Lately, the Exeter Grange has faced stringent state laws involving a large outlay of money. Because of the Station nightclub fire, all public gathering spaces were required to install more extensive preventive equipment.
“We had to put in a $10,000 alarm system,” says Barbara. That expense meant there wasn’t enough left in the treasury to paint the badly-peeling Grange building. And a major source of income – renting or hosting dinners, receptions and other events involving food service – has been lost because the state health department wouldn’t approve the kitchen without a costly makeover.
Nonetheless, members make the most of what they have and manage to continue a proud history of public-spiritedness.
Monday night’s event will celebrate a proud organization whose purpose has changed to meet the needs of the time. The importance of the organization to its community will be acknowledged by a brief program of proclamations, announcements and a grant presentation.
Then the Grange will do what it does best – a social time featuring music and food. Who knows? Someone may fall in love.
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is a freelance writer for SRIN.