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Around The Grange
The View From Ekonk: Farm Life Is the Good Life
 

By Carolyn Battista, New York Times (5/13/1988)

  MAY 13, 1988 --

Rebecca Gray once won a prize for an essay she wrote about her favorite thing to do: working on her family's farm.

''I'm thinking about going to college, getting a master's in animal science and continuing on my father's dairy farm,'' said Rebecca, 14 years old.

The farm is in Ekonk, a small southeastern community where many people do stay on, working on their farms and socializing at the local Grange. It is a community where people know they have something not to be found in the cities and suburbs.

Ekonk lies partly in Voluntown, in New London County, and partly in Sterling, in Windham County. It got its name from an Indian word meaning ''long hill,'' and it lies atop a ridge along Route 49.

Lining the road are houses, old and new, and farms with clusters of barns, silos and other outbuildings. The rolling hills of Rhode Island are visible to the east. At the crest of the ridge is a white 19th-century church and a new tan building with its sign, Ekonk Grange.

''It's definitely very rural, and the Grange hall is kind of the hub of the hill,'' said Sue Gray, who lives next door to the hall with with her husband, Russell, and their children, Rebecca, Deborah, 9, and Mason, 13.

The Grays' house and cornfields are in Voluntown; the hall and the Grays' dairy barns, just up the road, are in Sterling. The church - where the Ekonk Grange was founded in 1888 - spans the town line.

Ekonk residents say they like their niche, far from shopping malls, and they note that young people who grow up in Ekonk often stay on to work their families' farms, as Rebecca Gray plans to do.

The biggest farm on the hill, with 600 cows, belongs to John and Helen Molodich. It once belonged to Mr. Molodich's father; now Mr. and Mrs. Molodich work the farm with their five grown sons.

One son, George, operates an orchard of about 300 trees on the property. The two married sons have houses on either side of the farm; George and two other single sons live with their parents in the 18th-century farmhouse. ''We told them if they wanted to stay, they could stay,'' Mrs. Molodich said. ''If they wanted to go, they could go.''

Residents joke about a fellow, still known locally as Charlie Dow, who didn't stay. Charles H. Dow once lived in what is now the Molodiches' farmhouse, but he left to found Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal.

Many say Ekonk has fewer farms and more houses than even a few years ago. But at a recent informal gathering at the Grange hall, about two dozen local men, women and children - old-timers and newcomers alike - spoke glowingly of Ekonk.

''We like it here,'' Mrs. Molodich said. ''It's pretty.'' .

''You can take time to look,'' said Dorothy Klein, who with her husband, Robert, runs a nearby chicken farm.

Kristy McGaw, 9, a junior member of the Ekonk Grange, said, ''The only thing wrong is cow manure.''

Many at the hall were from Ekonk ''proper'' - the area along the ridge with a population of fewer than 100 people. Although Russell Gray noted that more people lived in Ekonk's outlying areas, which stretch from Route 165 on the south to Route 14A on the north. Still, Mr. Molodich said, ''We've got more cows than people.''

Others people at the meeting live in nearby communities - in Moosup, Plainfield and other areas of Voluntown and Sterling - but are active in the Ekonk Grange.

The Grange is a fraternal organization with chapters in 36 states. It was founded in 1867 for the mutual welfare of farmers, especially those who suffered from the devastation of the Civil War. Today, the focus of most chapters outside major farming areas has shifted to community service.

But the Ekonk Grange, while a center for community service, is among a few of Connecticut's 124 Grange chapters where most members farm and where the schedule includes an annual agricultural fair. It is also one of the very few with an active Junior Grange - for young people aged 5 to 15 - and with many officers in their 20's and 30's, rather than in their 60's and 70's.

''We're one of the youngest groups in the state,'' said the youngest Molodich son, Michael, 26. But many members, like his father, have belonged to the Grange for a long time. ''I joined when I was 14,'' said the senior Mr. Molodich, who is 74.

Mrs. Gray, the secretary, said the Grange has 185 members. ''A lot of us milk,'' she said, explaining that the gathering would break up by 4 P.M., the time for the day's second milking. (The first was at 4 A.M.) Mr. Molodich added that ''some people sell cord wood, and one Grange member has a lumber mill.'' Still others - bankers, mechanics, teachers, draftsmen - work in nearby towns, but feel at home in the farming community like Cindy McGaw, Kristy's mother, who is the president of the Voluntown Board of Education.

''We're not farmers, but we love the farming community,'' Mrs. McGaw said. ''This was a place to come meet your neighbors and take an active part.''

Mrs. McGaw, who is from the San Francisco Bay area, and her husband, who is from North Stonington, moved to Ekonk because ''it's community oriented,'' she said. ''It's an ideal place for children.'' Mrs. McGaw is an assistant leader of Ekonk's Junior Grange.

Members keep records and a scrapbook detailing 100 years of Grange activity: bulk seed purchases in 1889, a fair that netted $17.12 in 1902, a wreath sent in 1918 to the family of a young man killed in World War I, a spelling bee in 1924, lawn parties in 1935, boxes sent to servicemen far from home in 1944, a chicken barbecue in 1957, a tree planted for Arbor Day in 1966, new storm windows for the hall in 1978, and in 1981, a terrible event - the burning of the Grange hall.

The Grange that started in the old church on the Voluntown-Sterling town line moved in 1893, buying as its own headquarters, for $400, the farmhouse where the Grays now live. In 1914, the Grange erected a big frame hall that was destroyed nearly seven decades later by the fire, which was caused by a poorly insulated furnace. Fire companies rushed to the scene and ''pumped out enough water to float the hall,'' Mr. Molodich recalled, ''but they couldn't put the fire out.''

The Grange received financial aid from the national organization and individual Grange members around the country. (''One lady in Wisconsin sent a dollar,'' Mr. Molodich said.) The Grange used the money to build its new hall on the site of the old one, and today the Ekonk Grange continues to operate much as before.

Meetings include rituals that were ''written by the original founders of the Grange, under President Andrew Johnson,'' Mrs. Gray said. Social events include square dances, picnics, fiddlers' contests, whist parties and hayrides.

Others described generations of neighbors and friends who had lived on the same parcels of land and had been active in the Grange. ''There's a lot of history here, and a lot of people are proud of the history,'' said Tammy Anderson, another member.

Change looms, even in Ekonk. New houses are springing up, and less land is farmed. Mr. Gray, who has watched the number of farms dwindle over the years, said that in years gone by, a farmer might sell his land to another farmer; now, a developer would offer more money for that land. And with so much to do elsewhere, not everyone seeks out the Grange, several residents said.

But Ekonk and the Grange are not considered to be on the brink of extinction. The Grange's agricultural fair in August grows larger each year. The Molodiches have sold the development rights to their farm to the state through the Farmland Preservation Program.

''My husband, his father and mother, our boys - they worked hard all their lives,'' Mrs. Molodich said. ''A lot of sweat went into this land.''

 
 
 

 
     
     
       
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