The Cannon Grange Hall at 25 Cannon Rd. (Photo: GOOD Morning Wilton)

On Tuesday, Aug. 30, alarm bells went off among members of the Wilton community familiar with the Cannon Grange. An email from Grange President Douglas Shepherd and Vice President Shahan Islam asserted that two or three other board officers were “trying to permanently close the Grange.”

The Cannon Grange is a community group that was started in Wilton in 1899, making it one of the oldest organizations in town. The Wilton Grange is a chartered member of the state and national Grange organization that is rooted in rural and agricultural interests. Members are involved in community service, family activities, associated legislative causes and other activities related to the local community.

The Cannon Grange No. 152, as the local organization is formally known, has owned the Grange Hall at 25 Cannon Rd. since 1933. It’s a historic structure originally built to be a Community Hall the same year the Wilton Grange was chartered, and the organization has been meeting there since shortly after it began. The hall sits on a small parcel of land in the heart of Cannondale, right across from the train station. It’s one of the many buildings that make up the Historic Cannondale Village on the National Registry of Historic Places.

The Cannon Grange (grey square in center) is on 0.2 acres in the middle of the Historic Cannondale District. (GIS/Town of Wilton)

Wilton’s Grange is perhaps best known for the annual Cannon Grange Agriculture Fair held on the last Sunday of every August. The most recent expo was the 90th anniversary fair, held just this past Sunday, Aug. 28. It had the traditional displays of home-grown vegetables and flowers, homemade baked goods, photography, small farm animals hand-made crafts and more. Many of the items are entered in judged categories, and winners, including “Best in Show,” are announced at the end of the fair.

So the attention that the email attracted less than 48 hours after a successful fair was surprising. And while Sheperd and Islam didn’t want to identify the members they said were trying to close the Grange, they did want to raise awareness about what they believed to be an imminent threat — that the effort to shut it down would happen at the Grange member meeting Thursday, Sept. 1.

According to Shepherd and Islam, that effort centered around diverging ideas of what the group’s purpose is and disagreements over how the Grange is being managed.

“Our feeling is, you can have differences, but that means you either try to change it, or if you can’t, you move on and you don’t try to take down the organization or try to close it up,” Islam said.

Shepherd agreed. “Exactly, you change from within. If it doesn’t work, we have a structure where you can vote on things and if it doesn’t go your way, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Changing Demographics, Changing the Organization

Like many long-standing organizations in Wilton, the Grange has seen its membership decrease and its age demographic increase. Recruiting new members means thinking about making changes.

“If our demographic was farmers, we may have very few members. So we have to change with the times. But with [interests] such as gardening, sustainable food growing, there’s a lot of land around here. You don’t have to grow a heck of a lot of stuff. We’ve had Earth Day, there was a lot of [education about] recycling and other issues,” Shahan said, adding “Yeah, we’ve had to change, our membership is getting older, so we do want to attract younger families with smaller and younger kids.”

In their email sent to “Neighbors and Friends of the Cannon Grange,” Shepherd and Islam wrote that the Cannon Grange would close if members voted to send the charter back to the State Grange.

Sending back the charter could have larger implications than the end of a 123-year-old community organization.

“If the charter were to be revoked or surrendered, all property of each local Grange belongs to the State Grange at that point,” Shepherd told GOOD Morning Wilton.

Islam picked up the explanation. “And they could sell to anybody. It’s probably valuable land for a developer of a condo, right? Right next to the train. The [Cannondale] Village is beautiful,” he said, adding later, “The state could sell it to a developer or whatever, we definitely don’t want that to happen. We want it to stay local and in the community and [continue to] serve the community.”

There has been periodic interest in the Cannondale district by developers, most recently with a pre-approval proposal for a 70-unit multi-family development at 19 Cannon Rd. that was submitted to Planning and Zoning earlier this year (and later withdrawn).

In the coming year, town officials also plan to develop a Master Plan for Cannondale that will integrate more mixed-use, residential and commercial development in the area.

The larger land parcel behind the Cannon Grange at 27 Cannon Rd. is currently for sale by a local commercial broker.

While the email Shepherd and Islam sent implied that a “developer could demolish [the Grange] and build whatever they want,” they told GMW they have heard of no current talks, offers or interest in the sale of Cannon Grange.

However, they did say that they were contacted by a representative from the State Grange. “We have had the State [Grange] contact us and say, ‘Such and such person wants to close the [Cannon] Grange and is asking for instructions on how to do it,” Islam said, adding that Shepherd “received messages” from another Cannon Grange officer identifying other officers who planned on resigning and “were looking to close the Grange on Thursday.”

GOOD Morning Wilton has reached out to State Grange officials and other Cannon Grange officers for comment but has not received any response as of press time. [see below for an update on the response from Grange Treasurer Michele Clark.]

Closing the Grange is a complicated process, and according to Shepherd, it can’t be closed as rapidly as Thursday, Sept. 1. “They have to send out notifications to all the members, and then you have to announce it and give them a certain amount of notice and there has to be a vote. So, I don’t think they can properly close it, honestly on Thursday. If they try it will be something that’s improper and wouldn’t be valid,” he explained.

“Urgent” Plea for New Members to Keep Grange Open

Before the email with the dire message was sent, the Cannon Grange had around 50 members, according to Shepherd.

But the email asked recipients to sign up as members online and attend Thursday’s meeting, in order to vote against turning in the charter to the state Grange. It was also shared multiple times on social media.

Since the email was sent, Islam estimated that about 20 new members signed up in the last two days.

“It’s been tremendous. I’ve had so many calls, and I talked to one other board member  — he’s had so many calls,” Islam said.

Despite the controversy, Islam and Shepherd are trying to remain diplomatic.

“We have no animus towards them at all. They are very good, hardworking people who have kept the Grange going during hard times. I think they’re tired — some of them are thinking of moving or their children are old getting older and they’re putting their house on the market. As they get older, they’re having a little bit less and less stake, plus there are small disagreements about direction, but at the end of the day, they’re really outstanding, excellent people, but you know, their vision is very different,” Islam said.

Shephard echoed this sentiment and added, “We are really grateful for the community support.”

Mystery Message

Late Wednesday evening, a message was posted on the Cannon Grange website homepage that read, “The Cannon Grange is not closing nor being turned over to the State Grange. New members are always welcome, not just for monetary support (always appreciated) but those looking to take an active role throughout the year in organizing and running events at the Historic Cannon Grange Hall.”

Islam said he did not know who posted the message on the website, but he was happy to read it, even though “it arguably makes me seem like I am fabricating — or at a minimum being alarmist.”

To prove what he and Shepherd were saying was true, Islam provided GMW with screenshots; one was an email from a State Grange representative confirming a request had been made about closing the Wilton Grange; and the other was a text purported to be from one of the disgruntled officers threatening to close the Grange.

GMW spoke with another member who has served in leadership positions in Wilton Grange for several years in the past but is no longer active in the organization. His assessment is that although some members are disgruntled and want to leave and resign, closing a Grange is “serious stuff.”

“This is something that the members can work out internally and that closing Cannon Grange is very unlikely. Those who are unhappy and disgruntled will do what others of similar ilk have done in the past: they will move on and go away so that the rest of the membership and Cannon Grange can carry on,” he said.

UPDATE: 7 a.m.: Cannon Grange Treasurer Michele Clark responded to GMW in an email that the Grange is “not in danger of being turned over to the state.”

“It is not about funds. We could always use members, but what is needed are members who are active throughout the year,” she wrote.

She contradicted what Shahan and Islam had said about imminent closure and said they “jumped the gun.” The inquiries to the State Grange were just to “learn about the process.”

“There were officers who inquired of the state Grange about the process of closing because several officers had expressed the desire to resign and no members had expressed an interest in replacing them at that time,” Clark wrote.

She wanted to stress a message about the need for more volunteers not just to join but to get more involved — that all Wilton organizations have.

“Like many organizations these days, there are many dues-paying members but just a handful who do the bulk of the work within the organization. Since several officers had expressed the desire to resign and, lacking active members willing to step up and serve as officers, some leaders wanted to investigate what happens to a particular Grange in the absence of leadership — that includes closing which is one option that needed to be explored but not necessarily the path that would be followed,” Clark wrote.

She said those who asked about it learned that closing a Grange “is a long process and can’t be done at the drop of a hat.”

Clark confirmed that the Cannon Grange is not closing. “Those remaining in leadership have stepped up and are happy to carry on with the Cannon Grange,” she wrote.

She acknowledged the outpouring of support Shepherd and Shahan’s email generated. “It is fantastic to learn how many people in the community care about the Cannon Grange. I hope that those who responded in this moment of perceived crisis will follow through and commit to being active Grangers.”

Clark made one more pitch for new members, specifically those interested in being active. “The Grange would never turn away new members and if someone thinks it’s an organization they would like to join and be involved in jump right in!”

Editor’s note: The story was updated on Thursday to clarify the officer position held by Michele Clark. She is the Cannon Grange’s treasurer.