EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - During East Brunswick’s agricultural years, one of the most active organizations in town was the East Brunswick Grange. Granges were fraternities for farmers that helped promote the well-being of farming in the community. There were many granges across the country during the late 19th and early 20th Century, and East Brunswick was certainly no exception. In the period up until the 1960s, they were they were responsible for various social affairs such as contests, dances, and of course, the county fair. Although, the organization is no longer active, their legacy in the community lives on.
The grange was formed on March 30, 1905, as Milltown Grange 151. Despite the Milltown name, they held their very first meeting at the old Dunham’s Corner schoolhouse in East Brunswick. At that time, there about 18 people in the organization. Elmer Van Duersen was the organization’s first Master. However, in that first year, the organization was not as active as they would eventually become. Some thought that they would have to give up their charter during that first year. By the end of the second year, however, thanks to the efforts of a decent few, the Grange had about 54 members, and began to hold their regularly twice-a-month meetings at Redman’s Hall in Milltown. By 1909, they moved over to Charles L. Walters Council 178, Jr. O. U. A. M. Hall in Milltown. In its early years, the Grange used to purchase their own farm seeds, lime, and fertilizers, but eventually, they could no longer afford to continue making purchases. They also had a library at one time during the years of 1915 to 1922 before they discontinued it. As the years progressed, membership started to grow, eventually reaching 200 members.
However, things took a downturn by the end of the first World War, when membership began to dwindle. Consideration had to be given to relocating meetings to members’ homes. The organization did not fully recover until 1924. For the next decade, they continued to progress and held several agricultural events such as strawberry, peach, vegetable, and flower shows. By the start of the 1930s the organization had 150 members. There were many components to the Grange organization. There was the Home Economics unit, run by women of the organization. There was also the Recreational unit, run by the organization’s younger members. On June 8, 1936, the Juvenile Grange was formed, where they were mostly responsible for activities gearing towards the members' children.
As the organization started to grow, it became apparent that they were going to need a larger facility. In the three decades prior, all their meeting places were rented. The plans for a new facility go as far back as 1907, when a committee was formed to explore such a possibility. Originally, they wanted to have it built somewhere along the Lawrence Brook for $300 to $500. By the time they had a sufficient number of members to keep the organization financially active, the plans were set in place to build a new facility about 100 feet from their first meeting place at the Dunham’s Corner schoolhouse (which at that point became the town hall). Construction for the building started on October 21, 1935 and was formally dedicated on March 30, 1936 in front of an audience of about 400. The building cost $3,200 to build. Its large auditorium could seat 300 people and was convenient for their many events. It was not until 1946 that they were able to pay off the mortgage for the building, and even held a mortgage-burning ceremony to celebrate the occasion.
Perhaps the organization’s biggest legacy that continues to this day is the Middlesex County Fair, which began under their watch. The origin of the fair goes back to June of 1930, when they held the first flower show at the Junior Mechanics Hall in Milltown as part of their regular meetings. Its success lead to the event being held again the following the year. In 1932, they held it in a larger facility at the Methodist Church in Milltown, and the year following, in the Reformed Fellowship Hall. As it continued to grow, and once they were able to get their own building, they saw potential for grander community activities. What began with just a set of flowers on two card tables, turned into one of Middlesex County’s biggest events of the year. On September 24, 1937, the Grange held the very first Middlesex County Fair on the Dunham’s Corner site. The two-day event was a celebration of all the agricultural work in the county. There were no games or rides, just exhibits of the farming community. It was a major success, with over 1,000 people attending opening day alone. The success of that fair prompted the Grange to make it an annual tradition. The following year, they tripled the size of the fair, not only focusing on agricultural products, but adding rides, as well as a variety of farm animals. The fair also ran as a four-day event rather than two. The fair continued annually until 1942, when they were forced to halt all county fair activities to conserve for the war effort. The fair was brought back in 1949, this time, being financed by the Middlesex County Fair Association. It remained at the Grange site until 1965, when it moved to its present-day site on Cranbury Road.
Throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, the grange continued to have a major presence in the community, holding spelling bees, dances, contests, recreational activities for children, and yes, even the annual minstrel shows (it was a different time). On May 9, 1949, the organization officially (and legally) changed their name to East Brunswick Grange 151. With over 400+ members, the Grange remained the town’s biggest draw to social events in the community. However, as the post-war years progressed, and more suburban developments were being built all over East Brunswick, there was a lot less farming being done in the community. This was the beginning of the decline of the East Brunswick Grange.
By the 1960s, membership dropped as the farmers were aging and there was not enough young blood to keep the organization as strong as it once was. By this point, the function of the Grange became less relevant in the township as its agricultural status was declining. By the latter part of the decade, they no longer had enough members to financially sustain their building and were forced to sell it.
In 1969, the building was sold to the Raritan Valley YMCA. Despite the YMCA ownership, the Grange members still met in their building as they had done in years past. By this point, their activities in the township had significantly reduced to mostly community service work rather than advocating for farmers. They still sponsored spelling bees, made stuffed dolls for the children at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital, as well as helped in soup kitchens. However, the days of extravagant socials affairs like those they had back during the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s were long gone. Any farm-related activity they engaged in was limited to the county fair. By 1983, the membership was down to about 100. By 2002, that number was down to 36. The last reported activity of the East Brunswick Grange was in January 2007 when they made their last stuffed dolls for Robert Wood Johnson. With their old building now demolished, the Grange was eventually disbanded after more than a century of activity.
Although no longer active, the legacy of the Grange lives on through the county fair, where there are still some farming exhibitions, despite it being mostly overshadowed by the entertainment attractions and food stands. The Grange will be remembered for how much it did for East Brunswick during a period where there was little to do and not much to look forward to in the community. The Grange helped fill in the gap for people that needed both local recreation and entertainment, without having to travel to major cities like New Brunswick and Newark. Most remaining members have since transferred over to the Hightstown Grange, the last remaining active grange in the county.