The Patrons of Husbandry: The Fraternity of the American Farmer


The Patrons of Husbandry, more commonly called The Grange, was founded in 1867/68 by a group of eight people—seven men and one woman. The Founders were mostly clerks in various departments of the federal government in Washington, DC. Their backgrounds were generally unremarkable, some having been school teachers, a couple of them had done some farming (only one of the Founders was a “born-n-raised” farmer), one was a retired banker, and another (William Saunders) was actually a nationally known horticulturalist, most famed for designing the Gettysburg Cemetery.

The true Founder of the order, however, Oliver Kelly, had been tasked by President Johnson, after the close of the Civil War, to tour the South and gather data on the agricultural situation there, with a view toward putting the country back together and re-integrating the long-split economies of North and South. While on his mission to the South, Kelly realized that the rural populations were not just hurting from the economic disruptions of the War, their lives had been turned upside down and they badly needed an outlet to join and work together and repair their farms and their communities.

The idea for the Patrons of Husbandry hatched in Kelly’s head: a fraternal organization which would be by and for the American farmer. Kelly was himself a Freemason, and understood the very powerful personal connections which were possible through fraternal memberships. His core idea was to unify the farmers of America under the aegis of shared values and obligations. Very early on, as he bounced the idea off of his niece Caroline Hall, she inserted one of the most important ideas for the future organization, that the new fraternity include both men and women. Except among a very few temperance (anti-alcohol) fraternities, the integration of both men and women into one secret society was genuinely unheard of. But the inclusion of the entire family—Juvenile Granges would develop as a wing of the organization very early on—proved to be genuinely key in the absolutely wild success of the group.

While the Grange evolved quickly to encompass a far broader-reaching program than originally envisioned by Kelly, including major national campaigns which today would be considered proto-lobying on behalf of farmer interests, the fraternal society aspect remained at the core of the organization. As with all American fraternal or secret societies, the Patrons of Husbandry employed a graduated degree system which was practiced in lodge rooms by a membership led by an officer corps. There are a total of seven degrees among the Patrons, the first four of which are conferred at the local (or “subordinate”) Grange, and the other three being conferred at the county, state, and national levels.

In keeping with the inclusion of both men and women in the Grange, four of the officer positions are required to be filled by females, while the others are open to either men or women. Thus, even from the earliest days of the group, women were assured the opportunity to not only participate on equal footing, but regularly ascended the ladder to positions of leadership.

Oliver Kelly and others in the group of Founders were Freemasons, and another (Rev. Aaron Grosh) was a nationally prominent member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, known for a popular book he had written about the IOOF. The Grange ritual and degrees certainly show some surface correspondence to the Masonic and Odd Fellows work, but were developed to have a very unique content. While the Masons take elements of architecture and tools of builders and construct metaphors based upon them for the ritual instruction of their initiates, the Grange ritual does something similar based on tools and tasks of farming. A pruning knife might be used in a literal orchard or field to take samples of growth, to shape a tree, or to excise a broken or diseased branch. But symbolically a pruning knife might suggest that a Patron carefully use the symbolic tool on himself, to examine his own growth and changes, and remember to act prudently and not over-reach in life, which could leave him later spent and troubled. Each Grange degree takes such tools, or tasks like furrowing a field or harvesting a crop, and turns them around to become metaphors of virtue and self-improvement.

While there are certainly biblical allusions and quotations in Grange ritual, there are also strong nods to Classical Mythology. Indeed three of the exclusively female officer positions (and the titles of the three higher degrees) are drawn from Roman mythology. Flora is a goddess of plants and flowers; Pomona is a goddess of fruit; and Ceres is a goddess of grains.

The symbols and regalia of the Patrons are mixed between the bucolic and the Victorian neoclassical, marrying the homey farm-inspired ritual lessons of the subordinate chapter and the dramatic mythological characters and scenes in the later degrees. The Grange never developed the penchant for expensive or flashy jewelry and garb which characterizes many other American fraternal groups. The broad membership early on was made up of local, smallholding farmers across the nation, people with generally less disposable income; so the regalia was prescribed to be made with often simple, common cloths, and very often made at home by the women of the Grange itself. Generally unassuming medals and ribbons were common, but regalia beyond those was not so often seen. As such, collecting historical Grange pieces is surprisingly difficult, especially given the massive size of the Grange membership during its heyday from the 1870s-1940s. (I suspect that retired regalia would have often been recycled as raw material around the home or community, not “wasted” by being kept as heirlooms.)

One occasionally collectible item are the sets of miniature implements which acted pohworkingtoolstafcsimilarly to Masonic working tools sets, or IOOF emblem charts, meant to represent and instruct. As mentioned above, the ritual was hinged to the symbolic explanation of farming practices and tools. These sets include representations of a scythe, plough, shovel, pruning knife, hoe, and axe. (They also include a larger star, which I won’t pretend to know the explanation or use of!)

The Grange is one of the great, purely and truly American fraternal societies which arose and expanded very, very rapidly during the golden age following the Civil War. For some reason—probably because it is primarily rural, and quietly away from the centers of American power and influence (although its national HQ is in Washington, DC, near the Mall)—it is one of the least recognized and studied of the American fraternities. This is a great oversight, and a shame. The Grange is not only unique, but in the beauty of its ritual, its rich history, and its track record of directly impacting the nation, from the local community to the halls of Congress, it is one of the most important and interesting fraternities in our nation’s history. The organization is still active and working in over 30 states, and is currently gearing up to celebrate its 150th Anniversary. Its halls are still to be found all over the country, often standing strange and alone out in rural areas. Watch for them and give them a wave as you pass, or better yet get out and go knock on the door.

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“Gate Keeper” by Arthur Rothstein, for the FSA/OWI, 1940. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Jewel of a Past Master of a Pomona Grange. TAFC (uncatalogued)

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“Lady Assistant Steward” by Aurthur Rothstein, for the FSA/OWI, 1940. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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