Oceana Center Grange’s roots run deep in agriculture

April 11, 2023

Oceana Center Grange’s roots run deep in agriculture

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor

HART TOWNSHIP — The Oceana Center Grange is an agricultural and social organization that focuses on community service.

Oceana Center Grange President Gordon Merten and Secretary Char Vanderstelt, who is Gordon’s daughter, inside the main room of the Grange hall.

The local Grange is part of a national organization that has existed for over 155 years in rural farming communities across the United States.

Wheat stalks are the Grange’s symbol.

Gordon Merten serves as the president of the local Grange, and his daughter Char Vanderstelt is secretary.

The Oceana Center Grange began at the turn of the 20th Century. There were multiple Granges in Oceana County back in the day, but now the Hart Township location is one of 22 Granges remaining in Michigan. 

“It was started as a way for farmers on the local level to get together to have a voice in Congress,” said Vanderstelt. “That was the roots of the Grange.”

“… And to get a better price for their products,” added Merten.

The over 100-year-old Oceana Center Grange Hall on Scout Road east of Hart serves as the venue for the annual Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, the Penny Fair at harvest time and other family and farm-oriented events. 

The 5-acre parcel the hall sits on was land donated by the Doolittle family, who were Grange members and local farmers, said Vanderstelt. 

The Oceana Grange hosted square dances for families for many years and has also organized sledding parties on Star Hill near Shelby.

The local Grange provides dictionaries for all third graders in Oceana County through the Words for Thirds program, said Merten. The organization also sponsors a hearing impaired child at the Michigan School for the Deaf in Flint every year, sending the youngster Christmas and birthday gifts. 

The Saint Patrick’s Day parade at the Grange.

The Grange’s Penny Fair has been ongoing for about a century. It is held at the Grange hall the second Saturday of October. The fair offers a variety show to give children an opportunity to perform on stage. After the variety show, the Penny Fair includes an auction of fresh produce and homemade baked goods. 

This year was the Grange’s 25th Annual Saint Patrick’s Day parade.

Members pay dues to belong to the Grange, but that money goes to the national and state level, explained Vanderstelt. The Penny Fair and the Saint Patrick’s Day parade are the main fundraisers for the local chapter. 

“During COVID, when we did not have those events, our money coffers went right down to where we could barely keep the lights on, because we did not have money,” she said. “We started thinking at that point, ‘What are we going to do?’ Honestly, I didn’t think we would stay alive, because there are not that many of us to begin with.”

The local chapter includes about 44 people, said Merten. “After COVID, my dad has done a good job of recruiting some new members.”

Gordon’s late brother and sister-in-law Herb and Ardith Merten were key leaders of the Oceana Grange for many years. Membership flourished under their leadership, peaking around 200, said Vanderstelt. 

More members, who are not required to reside in Oceana County, are encouraged to join the local group. Those who are interested can call Merten at (231) 873-4459.

The basement of the Grange Hall where potlock meals are held.

Leadership titles have changed over the years due to negative connotations associated with a term like “master.” Master has been changed to “president.” 

“There is no denomination, but we do recognize God,” said Merten of the organization’s religious affiliation. The meetings are “ritualistic,” with designated seating for the leaders. However, agriculture is the main focus. 

The Grange has a close connection to the local 4-H organization and sponsors a group called the Oceana Grangers. “We have done multiple animals — steers and chickens — through the years, but right now it’s swine only,” said Vanderstelt, who ran the program for many years. Now, her son Jonathon oversees the Grangers.

Motorists will notice a sign along Polk Road as you’re heading out to the Grange from Hart. Merten maintains the location by adding fun and seasonal signs and planting flowers there in the spring. “That’s where they used to stop and water their horses on the way to town,” said Vanderstelt. “It’s the old water trough.”

The Grange and 4-H’ers also pick up trash along Polk Road as yet another community service project.  

The national Grange community totals 150,000 members in 1,700 local chapters. The local chapters, like the Oceana County location, “serve as the center of rural life in their farming communities,” states the www.nationalgrange.org. “Each local chapter offers a wide range of locally-oriented programs and activities like potluck dinners, annual Grange fairs, and community service events. This charitable work is often the focus at local Granges with members giving thousands of volunteer hours and raising millions of dollars for important causes. Through this outreach, Granges help improve the lives of their own members and of neighbors in their rural communities. Whether by helping a neighbor in need or by organizing a bake sale to raise money for a local school, Grange members will be there serving their communities. The Grange is for the whole family. With Junior Grange and Grange Youth, anyone over age 4 has a place in the Grange. These young members conduct their own meetings, learn about leadership and service, and participate in fun activities.”

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