Saving the grange hall
Casey Campbell/Gazette-Times
Peggy Giles stands in the upstairs room at the Willamette Community Hall and Grange on Friday as she shares her vision of how the building could be restored.

The Willamette Community Hall and Grange has been home to weddings, funerals, barbecues and, of course, the annual Halloween party, since trick-or-treating would mean miles of walking for country kids.

But soon there won't be any big events at the structure, which sits at Highway 99W and Greenberry Road.

Last spring, residents decided the 1923 building was too rundown and, for safety, large gatherings wouldn't be held there until it's repaired.

Peggy Giles stood upstairs on Friday, pointing to the walls leaning out near the roof, the cracks near the ceiling.

"This is an old building, and it needs a lot of work. But if it goes away, we're going to lose a piece of history," said the 52-year-old secretary and treasurer of the Willamette Grange.

This was where her son was married, where she had her 50th birthday party, where her kids had slumber parties.

"You just look at it. If you squint, it really is a stately old building. It could be a big asset," Giles said.

Giles didn't know how much repairs would cost or when those might occur. She acknowledged it could be years.

Residents are working through concerns with liability for volunteers who repair the building, making sure donations are tax-deductible, and figuring out how to acquire grants.

The hall is owned by both the grange and the Willamette Community Association, to which all locals belong.

In May, some 50 residents attended a meeting about the building, and though some said it should be torn down, most wanted to save it, Giles said.

"We'd like to save the grange hall. If it can't be saved, we'll try to do something so the community has a place to meet," said Margy Buchanan, co-owner of nearby Tyee Wine Cellars. "To have that sense of community, you need a place to gather."

Tyee held its crab dinner for 11 years in a row at the community hall and grange, but the 12th annual event in January was switched to Adair Village, some 15 miles away.

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The last big event at the building was the Halloween party, Giles said.

The Willamette Grange, established in 1874, is dealing with another issue - declining membership.

"When I first started being secretary in the mid-1970s, there were 140 members," said Cleda Jones, 83.

Now there are only 26.

"I think most all organizations of that type don't have good attendance anymore. There are too many other things, TV, ballgames. People don't feel the need for the social aspect like they used to. There's quite a few people around. They just do other things," Jones said.

Oregon now has 200 granges, as about 30 folded in the last 10 years. Membership statewide shrank from 20,000 to 8,000 in the past decade, said John Fine, president of the Oregon State Grange Association.

"We are seeing some places where grange membership is increasing," Fine added.

The key is being relevant to the community. Often that means being involved in farm issues in the rural areas.

But the real priority for granges is providing a place for rural families to gather and making communities better, Fine said.

Benton County currently has five granges, including Fairmont near Albany, Hope Grange in Alsea, Marys River in Philomath and Summit.

There have been 12 other granges that organized and went dormant, including Mountain View Grange near Lewisburg in 1989.

Kyle Odegard covers Philomath and rural Benton County. He can be contacted at kyle.odegard@lee.net or 758-9523.

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