A weathered plaque on the Mall honors the 1867 founding of a group devoted to U.S. farmers.
Can you tell me more about a plaque that is located on the Mall at Fourth Street and Madison Drive NW honoring the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry? I assume it marks part of the early community that was next to the old canal before any development took place on the Mall? The plaque is getting pretty beat up. Before it’s gone, can you tell readers more about its importance?
— Andrew Krieger, Washington
Plaques, of course, aren’t important in and of themselves, but for what they memorialize. And what that plaque memorializes isn’t a settlement but an organization founded 150 years ago to represent the interests of American farmers.
Why stick the plaque there? Because nearby in 1867 was the office of William Saunders, superintendent of the propagating gardens of the Department of Agriculture. The propagating gardens — roughly where the National Gallery of Art is now — comprised a series of greenhouses where seeds and cuttings were cultivated.
Saunders was a Scottish-born horticulturalist and landscape architect and a towering figure in agricultural science. He sent the first navel orange trees to California, helping jump-start the state’s citrus industry. He also designed cemeteries for those killed during the Civil War.
While it’s because of Saunders and his office that the plaque is where it is, it’s because of a man named Oliver Kelley that the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry exists. Kelley was a Boston native who became a farmer in Minnesota and later toured the post-Civil War South at the request of the Agriculture Department.
Kelley saw the destruction caused by the war and noted that farmers were in especially dire shape. (Many had lost their source of free labor: slaves.) Kelley decided that Southern farmers needed help. On reflection, he decided that all farmers could use help, regardless of where in the United States they tilled the soil.
And so Kelley, along with Saunders and five others, founded the National Grange. The organization’s Declaration of Purposes stated that members of the “agricultural fraternity” would be devoted to self-improvement. It stressed the importance of cooperation, education, technology, and vowed to avoid prejudice and sectionalism.
Several of the Grange’s founders were Masons, and they incorporated Masonic elements in the organization’s practices. There are seven degrees that members may attain.
Unlike the Masons, women have been welcome in the Grange from the start. Several of the founders’ female relatives held high positions, including Kelley’s niece Caroline Hall, who told her uncle: “Your organization will not succeed unless you give an equal place to women.”
Today the group has around 150,000 members in more 2,100 local chapters. Though it lobbies on Capitol Hill, the Grange describes itself as nonpartisan. Its primary issues are those that involve agriculture and rural communities.
It supported President Trump’s promise to repeal the Waters of the U.S. — or WOTUS — rule, which broadened the EPA’s authority over wetlands and tributaries.
It’s against any measure that would curtail rural mail delivery and for increasing access to broadband. It also supports the FCC’s Lifeline program that provides discounted phone service to low-income Americans.
The Grange’s headquarters is in an 11-story building at 1616 H St. NW, near the White House. In the 1980s, the building engineer grew corn and tomatoes in the tree box outside.
The plaque on Madison Drive was dedicated in 1951, one of the few private memorials on the Mall. Amanda Leigh Brozana Rios, communications and development director for the National Grange, said it was polished a few years ago. It’s a bit scraped, Amanda said, but that seems kind of fitting.
“The Grange has weathered 150 years,” she said.
That’s the bomb
Memory time: Terry Gans attended Murch Elementary School in the District in the 1950s. It was during the Cold War and duck-and-cover drills — “pointless,” in Terry’s opinion — were common.
But was something else? “I have a memory of being issued dog tags,” wrote Terry. “I know this was done in other cities, particularly New York. Have I created a false memory or did this occur in the D.C. public schools?”
Well, readers? Any of you remember being issued dog tags in school?
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This plaque commemorating the foundation of the National Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry is at Fourth Street and Madison Drive NW along the Mall.