Bennett Valley Guild surrenders
By Craig S. Harrison, Editor, Bennett Valley Voice
In a message to Bennett Valley Guild members on April 6, Bill and Patty Allen announced that the guild had lost its fight to remain independent of the Grange organization. On March 18, Judge Arthur A. Wick, Sonoma County Superior Court, ordered that all personal and real property be delivered to the Grange. For decades, the Allens have been the heart, soul, and leaders of the 120-member
The Benett Valley Guild turned over ownership of its community hall to the National Grange of the Order of Ptrons of Husbandry and the California Statte Grange by court order, after a long legal battle Bennett Valley Grange (renamed the Bennett Valley Guild).
Judge Wick’s decision is the culmination of disputes between the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry and the California State Grange that surfaced in 2009. Initially, the problems seemed to stem from personality conflicts, and members could not grasp what the fuss was about. It later became clear that the dispute centered on property ownership and money. The National Grange wanted to commandeer valuable real estate at grange halls throughout the nation that could be sold for profit. It seemed to have little interest in the effects of its actions on local communities, such as the 120-member Bennett Valley Grange.
In 2013, the National Grange revoked the charter of the California State Grange, removing its elected officers and expelling all of its chapters. A newly-chartered California State Grange asserted in 2014 that it owned all halls and chapter assets, and commenced vexatious litigation designed to financially strangle noncompliant chapters. After a federal court ruled that the “Grange” trademark belongs to the National Grange, the Bennett Valley chapter renamed itself the Bennett Valley Guild.
Built in 1873, the Bennett Valley Grange Hall is the oldest continuously operating grange hall in America. Sonoma County designated it a historical landmark in 1979. The hall has served as a pillar of the Bennett Valley community for almost 150 years, and was the site of an annual June picnic for 147 consecutive years until the COVID-19 pandemic. Bill and Patty Allen barbecued for the community at the June picnics, and organized St. Patrick’s Day corned beef and cabbage feasts and turkey banquets in November. They were outstanding community events.
In recent times the hall has hosted meetings of the Bennett Valley Community Association, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the 4-H Club, the Bennett Valley Emergency Preparedness Group, local water districts, the Bennett Valley Grape Growers Association, the Kenwood Yacht Club, Sonoma County Radio Amateurs, and the Bennett Valley Cemetery Bennett Valley Guild – from page 14
Association. It also serves as an election polling station.
Oliver Hudson Kelley, a Minnesota farmer, started the Grange movement in 1867. He began a national organization that encourages families to band together to promote agriculture and the economic well-being of their communities.
In 1873, a group of farmers and ranchers met at the Strawberry Schoolhouse on Sonoma Mountain Rd. to form the Bennett Valley Grange, the sixteenth of what eventually became thousands of granges in the nation. The hall was built on an acre of donated land using lumber hauled by oxen from Occidental at a price of $292.82. Over the years the Bennett Valley Grange sponsored the first electric power lines (1926), helped found the Bennett Valley Home Economics Club (1937), the Bennett Valley 4-H Club (1945), and the Bennett Valley Volunteer Fire Department (1948). The organization evolved over time as fewer in Bennett Valley were family farmers, and its membership dwindled.
The connection of the new owners to Bennett Valley is tenuous. As far as Bennett Valley residents can tell, none have been members or have helped raise funds to maintain the hall, including repairing its leaking roof. Bennett Valley residents are heart-broken at the turn of events. The change of ownership seems unlikely to benefit the Bennett Valley community, and the ultimate result may be neglect of the hall and, ultimately, demolition. As the Kenwood Press reported in December, cannabis growers took over Hessel Grange near Sebastopol and, according to its former president, refused to accept former members. We hope this is not the future of Bennett Valley’s only community center.
While insurance covered defense of the suit, eventually the only remaining alternative was to appeal in federal court. This would involve many more years of litigation and require raising funds to pay for legal fees. There was no appetite among the members to continue.
The Allens were told that a new Bennett Valley Grange was organized shortly after the charter was expelled in January 2017. They hope the new owners will continue to operate the hall for the benefit of the community and provide a meeting place for local groups.