As a years-long battle with the California State Grange comes to a close for Freshwater Community Guild and Redcrest Community Center — both ending in favor of the Grange — Bayside Community Hall, Fieldbrook Community Club and Van Duzen River Guild continue to fight for their autonomy.
Some quick background, if you don’t recall the long and messy legal history here: The Grange — an organization founded in 1867 to advocate for farmers and rural communities — is a nationwide organization with chapters at the national, state and local level. Years ago, a rift between the California State Grange and National Grange led most of California’s local grange halls to separate from the organization. Over the years, those local halls legally changed their names from “grange” to “guild” or “community hall,” maintained their hall properties using local funds and labor, and, in some cases, filed for their own nonprofit status. These halls considered themselves completely severed from the Grange organization.
Now, the California State Grange — operating under new leadership, post-rift — wants former Grange halls to return to the organization. And, for the most part, those halls don’t want to. Why not? Because the California Grange didn’t buy or maintain the properties, the Grange no longer represents these communities’ interests, and the Grange honors bylaws and traditions that locals find off-putting.
And so the State Grange filed a string of lawsuits all over California in effort to regain local hall properties. Five halls in Humboldt County — Bayside Community Hall, Van Duzen River Guild, Freshwater Community Guild, Fieldbrook Community Hall and Redcrest Community Center — were sued.
The legal question here is whether the National Grange’s bylaws regarding hall property ownership overrules California property law. The deeds of these properties, in most cases, specifically list local ownership. But according to the National Grange’s bylaws — which have always been subject to change — the next grange level up (in this case, the California State Grange) becomes responsible for the property and responsibilities of local grange halls that lose their charter, which is what happened to each hall that separated from the organization.
Mostly, the cases have been resolved through summary judgment, in which the judge decides the legal questions presented without a trial. The Grange has won almost every case, but halls can appeal the decision. Two in Humboldt chose not to; after resisting the Grange for years, Redcrest Community Center and Freshwater Community Guild are finalizing settlement agreements to rejoin the Grange, meaning they’ll get to maintain control of their halls as members of the Grange organization, or Grangers.
Meanwhile, the fight surges on for Bayside Community Hall, Van Duzen River Guild and Fieldbrook Community Hall. Bayside Community Hall and Fieldbrook Community Hall both have hearings coming up this month. We weren’t able to get in touch with Van Duzen River Guild’s managers for this story.
Things have been particularly contentious between the State Grange and Bayside Community Hall. Bayside intends to appeal its lost summary judgement ruling, but in the meantime, the State Grange has taken control of the hall property. The State Grange’s intention is to charter a new grange chapter there, which would require 13 members.
“The State Grange has stewardship of the property until Bayside Grange is reorganized. Any entity having a judgment adverse to their position may file an appeal. However, that does not mean they are entitled to retain the property during the appeal,” Lillian Booth, California State Grange secretary, told the Outpost in an email.
“Judges in counties all around the state have all ruled that, while people are free to leave the Grange, they cannot take Grange property and assets (acquired over many generations through the efforts of Grange members) with them. Grange property remains with the Grange.”
The transition of the property has been “really really messy and muddy,” said Carolyn Jones, Bayside Community Hall president. Both parties say the other is unwilling to communicate.
The Grange froze Bayside’s accounts in September and changed locks on the building in October. Jones said the hall leadership cooperated with the transition and did their best to put all of the hall’s business in order for the Grange, including an offer to meet with someone to answer questions. Regardless, the hall’s bills and insurance went unpaid for a couple of months, Jones said, even though the Grange, through attorneys, said they would pay bills while in possession of the building.
Jones also said she’s had to turn down about a dozen rental requests because the Grange has not been responsive to questions asking where to forward those inquiries. As a result, nothing had happened in the hall since the Grange took possession more than two months ago, until last Friday, when the Bayside Holiday Market successfully began at the hall. (The plans and payment for the market were arranged with Bayside Community Hall before the State Grange took control of the property.)
Booth said that Bayside Community Hall is to blame for the messy transition, and that Bayside Community Hall didn’t forward bills to the Grange.
“Notwithstanding what the [Bayside Community Hall] group has claimed publicly, the billings were not sent to the State Grange until the final notices started to appear in their mailbox, at which point the [Bayside Community Hall’s] new attorney finally brought them to our attention,” Booth said.
Once made aware of the bills, the State Grange paid them, Booth said. “The State Grange did not learn of the bills until late October, but by November 15th, all accounts were paid, up to date, and contact information changed to the State Grange address in Sacramento. It is a simple process to change billings, but it was made more difficult because of the lack of response from the group.”
As for the rental inquiries? Also Bayside’s fault, Booth said.
“The [Bayside Community Hall] group was not cooperative in turning over keys, leases or any other information,” she said. “The State Grange is moving ahead as quickly as possible, and intends to resume renting the Hall as soon as the insurance coverage is straightened out. One renter who had a date in March of 2022 reached out to me and I advised we would honor her date and deposit paid to the [Bayside Community Hall] group. She chose to cancel her date instead.”
Before the Grange took control of Bayside Community Hall, two nonprofits — Arcata Mutual Aid and Food Not Bombs — regularly used the hall’s commercial kitchen. Neither have used the kitchen since the transition, and Jones said that as far as she knows, both have struggled to secure alternative arrangements.
Booth said continuation of those partnerships isn’t out of the question. “All requests from the local nonprofits will be reviewed and accommodated if at all possible,” she said. “The Grange Hall is important to serve the community. A local State Grange Field Representative will be working with these groups.”
Despite losing access to the building, Bayside Community Hall continues to function as an organization, Jones clarified. Members still hold monthly meetings and participate in events and projects. Bayside Community Hall recently hosted an online auction to benefit local nonprofits that ran Nov. 15-30.
Although this all began as a rift between the State and National Grange organizations, that’s not at all what it’s about any more, Jones said; the story here is the power of fraternal organizations and of charters, which, in this case, has helped the Grange maintain control over dozens of hall properties in California.
“This isn’t about money, and it’s not about the Grange per se; it’s about autonomy for a local organization,” Jones said.
“The part that’s increasingly galling is how detached the State Grange is.”
There is mounting energy for the cause of local control in Fieldbrook, where members of the Fieldbrook Community Club still have control of their building. The club hosted a meeting at the hall to draw more local attention to the lawsuits last month, when members circulated a petition asking the State Grange to declare that halls are owned by local communities.
Fieldbrook Community Club is launching a letter-writing campaign in effort to garner more local support for its cause. Club members hope folks invested in the conflict will write to newspapers and lawmakers, urging more support for local halls.
Rowetta Miller, executive chair of Fieldbrook Community Club, and Margie Plant, former president of Redcrest Community Center, are sharing ideas with Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone for a resolution in recognition of local halls still undergoing lawsuits.
“He (Madrone) believes — with many of us — that the word of this injustice is not getting out,” Plant told the Outpost. “Most people in Humboldt don’t realize that this is a land grab, it feels like, by a larger organization that has never put the monetary and volunteer labor and maintenance into these local communities.”
Plant left Redcrest Community Center after its membership voted to rejoin the Grange in August, unwilling to become a Granger herself. To her knowledge, the hall — now called Redcrest Community Grange — is having maintenance issues. “Nothing has changed as far as what it means to be a grange. There’s no influx of monetary or boots-on-the-ground kind of help,” Plant said.
That said, things are looking promising for the Redcrest Volunteer Fire Department, which is in the middle of building a fire truck security building on the Redwood Grange property — a project that’s been in motion since before lawsuits began. Concern for the completion of the building is largely why Redcrest community members opted to rejoin the Grange, in hopes of maintaining control over the project.
“All these community halls — whether they are a grange or want to be independent — want to serve our communities, want to serve the needs and interests of local folks,” Plant said. “I’ll keep fighting.”