Deer Lagoon Grange Master Chuck Prochaska looks through a book of historic documents on the grange. (Photo by Kira Erickson/South Whidbey Record)

Deer Lagoon Grange Master Chuck Prochaska looks through a book of historic documents on the grange. (Photo by Kira Erickson/South Whidbey Record)

Deer Lagoon Grange at center of contention in community

A social organization and historic South Whidbey location wrapped in one recently caught the attention of community members increasingly concerned about its purported association with a group known for its support of the Second Amendment and a disdain for COVID-19 restrictions.

Deer Lagoon Grange, a charter of the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, saw a decline in membership numbers in previous years.

That is, until a spike in new members last fall.

Some of these new members, it was reported in a Seattle Times article, are also part of Washington Three Percent, a group labeled “far-right” and “paramilitary” by community members and militia-tracking experts, despite the group’s efforts to distance itself from national Three Percent organizations.

But since the article’s publication in December, the rift in the community has grown wider.

Community-wide efforts to encourage a new wave of members not part of Washington Three Percent to join the Deer Lagoon Grange were stymied, however, by current members who have not yet made a decision about the majority of the new applicants.

The controversy

Deer Lagoon Grange became embroiled in controversy last October when it became a meeting place for organizers of a maskless “Freedom to Worship” protest, though the event was later moved to a different location in Freeland.

The grange hall is located about halfway between downtown Langley and the Bayview area of South Whidbey.

Members of Washington Three Percent were present at the rally, which flouted COVID-19 regulations about limiting group sizes and wearing masks, and offered a platform for Republican political candidates to speak.

Some members of the group were encouraged by Clinton resident Erik Rohde, a Washington Three Percenter, to join the Grange.

“Telling people to actively get involved in your community, I don’t know how this suddenly makes you a pariah,” Rohde said.

He declined to answer if he was a member of the Deer Lagoon Grange and did not specify how many fellow Washington Three Percenters successfully joined the Grange as a result of his efforts.

Though Deer Lagoon Grange membership meetings are only open to members, the grange hall is available for both members and non-members to rent.

A video on one of Rohde’s social media accounts posted around Thanksgiving 2020 shows him inside the Deer Lagoon Grange around several other people, all sans masks. In the video’s background, a Washington Three Percent flag hangs on the far wall.

In response to the events at the end of last year, a group of people from across South Whidbey formed a steering committee called Reclaim the Grange, which encourages people unaffiliated with Washington Three Percent to join the Grange.

The movement, which spawned a petition with 651 signatures, calls for a meeting environment free from the threat of an armed militia and people who don’t abide by masking and social distancing protocols in place against COVID-19. The petition is available to view on the website, reclaimthegrange.org.

Craig Cyr, a member of Reclaim the Grange’s steering committee and Langley council member, recalled driving by the mask-free rally last fall and seeing people standing shoulder-to-shoulder in violation of social distancing protocols.

“We’re trying to stop people from dying. Wearing masks is really important,” Cyr said. “And no, it’s not an imposition.”

Rhonda Salerno, a Langley farm owner, recalled seeing a flyer about the rally. She said she called the manager of the Deer Lagoon Grange and told him it didn’t seem like a good idea to have so many people gathered. In the months since the rally, she and others have observed many cars in the Grange’s parking lot on a regular basis.

Salerno said she was interested in joining the Grange but was wary of large gatherings where people weren’t wearing masks. Her husband is currently undergoing treatment for cancer, and Salerno said she doesn’t want to expose him to the coronavirus.

“I just wanted a safe and inclusive space in the community,” she said. “I don’t care if they have different beliefs in there.”

Salerno is one of at least 60 applicants who is still waiting to hear back about her pending membership to the Grange.

According to Tom Gwin, Washington State Grange president, current members of the Grange vote to accept or reject each applicant during a monthly members meeting. Deer Lagoon Grange’s last monthly meeting was March 2, but a pool of applicants who applied as far back as January still haven’t been notified whether they’ve been accepted.

“I don’t know why the community is being shut out now,” Salerno said. “The community has been keeping it alive for a while.”

Keeping with tradition

Chuck Prochaska walks from room to room of the Grange pointing out awards on the wall won by members. He recalls details about renovations to the structure, many of which he helped complete.

Local granges serve as the agricultural center of their communities. The National Grange was founded in 1867, shortly after the Civil War. Deer Lagoon Grange was founded in 1927.

Granges work to support farmers and families through “grassroots action, service, education, advocacy and agriculture awareness,” according to the mission of the National Grange. Archived stories from The Record about the Deer Lagoon Grange include topics such as Whidbey Island Fair events, fundraising campaigns to update the hall and classes on various subjects.

Serving as the current management — or master — of the Deer Lagoon Grange, Prochaska possesses extensive knowledge of its history. He has a passion for not only the organization but the building itself.

“I’ve dedicated myself to the Grange,” he said.

Membership ebbed over the last few years.

“A lot of it was people dying, people getting too old,” he said.

According to Prochaska, about half of the new members who joined last fall are in their teens and 20s, which he finds exciting. He said he conducted research and is not concerned about some of the newer Grange members being part of Washington Three Percent, but he did agree they seemed “conservative-minded.”

“We’re political, but non-partisan,” he said of the Grange.

A batch of 60-plus applicants within the past few months is unprecedented in the history of the local grange. Prochaska said he expects decisions to accept or reject the applicants will be made at the Deer Lagoon Grange’s next meeting April 6.

Applicants who signed the Reclaim the Grange petition may have it weighed against them. A copy was provided to Prochaska.

“If a person signed the petition and got into the Grange, they have some explaining to do,” he said.

He referred to the petition as a “hate letter” that seeks to oust certain members of the Grange.

“They think the Grange has been taken by outsiders and they want to take it back,” he said. “From who? Grange members?”

Salerno, who has been trying to become a Grange member, said the intent is not to “take down” the organization nor the hall.

“We’re not trying to hurt him,” she said, referring to Prochaska. “We would honor him for all he’s done for the Grange. He saved the Grange several years ago from being this dilapidated building.”

Prochaska said the people behind Reclaim the Grange have no clue how the Grange works and refers to them as “a liberal organization” trying to take over what the liberals perceive as a “radical right-wing institution.” He said he and his wife are afraid to go out in public, where they might be attacked by those associated with Reclaim the Grange.

“These guys are worse than the Three Percent, in my mind,” Prochaska said.

Rohde said the backers of Reclaim the Grange are uncomfortable about conservatives getting together. He said their website is filled with “hyperbolic fears” and “vitriolic hatred.”

“Whidbey Island is a narrow island and it has a narrow bandwidth for inclusivity,” he said.

Christy Korrow, a steering committee member for Reclaim the Grange and a Langley council member, said the issue was cast by some as a political left-versus-right issue. She does not believe it should be.

“I think that there’s a really positive impulse behind our community at large who really want to build a community that feels safe and inclusive, especially for community members who are people of color who often feel like their voices are hidden or marginalized,” she said.

A better word, rather than “reclaim,” might be “revitalize,” Cyr said. Returning the Deer Lagoon Grange to its roots of agricultural practices is a priority for Reclaim the Grange.

Yet Preston Ossman, also a steering committee member, said he is concerned that members of a “far-right militia” have taken a foothold at a community space.

“Nobody should be afraid of joining an organization because people are carrying guns and not wearing masks,” he said.

He said there should be a shift in direction for the Grange to become more inclusive and focus on families, farming and social change.

“We’re really trying to be community oriented, and we’re interested in coming together with the people who are there if they meet us where we are at, at a basic safety level,” he said.

Community members wanting to join the Grange have voiced uneasiness about the transparency of the organization’s membership process.

As the president of the Washington State Grange, Gwin said he has no authority over local Grange Masters and cannot overrule membership decisions.

Prochaska has been master of the Deer Lagoon Grange off and on over the years. It is an elected office with a one-year term. He also holds a deputy position with the state Grange. He said new applicants would not be approved if they were known to be “an enemy” of the Grange, or “someone looking to start a fight.”

“We have an obligation that we ask every new member to take, and part of that has to do with believing in God and treating people fairly,” he said.

Prochaska and Gwin suggest that, if enough people get together, they could start their own Grange. According to the State Grange website, 13 people are needed for a charter.

In response to concerns about large gatherings on the premises, Prochaska said he cannot monitor every single group that rents the hall. Renters are asked to follow COVID safety guidelines.

Deer Lagoon Grange may be one of the few granges in the state to be holding in-person monthly membership meetings. Gwin said many granges have opted for online Zoom meetings.

“We tell the granges to follow the governor’s and the CDC’s recommendations,” he said.

“There are some areas of the state where that is strictly adhered to, other areas it is not.”

He declined to say how many people are members of the Deer Lagoon Grange. He said that information is not “pertinent.”

Local threats

Lindsay Schubiner is the director for the Momentum program at Western States Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to tracking movements of militia groups in the Pacific Northwest. The Momentum program works to defend democracy by supporting communities and civil society to effectively respond to social movements that exploit bigotry and intolerance. Washington Three Percent, according to her, falls under that category.

“The Deer Lagoon Grange may have been intended as a local democratic institution that serves the entire community,” Schubiner said. “However, it no longer serves that role when it’s taken over by a sliver of the community that holds extremist far-right views.”

Schubiner said the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6 was an energizing moment for far-right movements. Some of the groups that were allegedly involved in the storming include the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys and the national Three Percent group, according to an NPR article.

Members of the national Three Percent group have been referred to as “anti-government extremists who are part of the militia movement” by the Anti-Defamation League. The name comes from the notion that only 3 percent of colonists fought the British in the Revolutionary War, a number that historians say significantly underestimates the truth.

“Paramilitary groups pose a real threat to the safety of both communities and democratic institutions,” Schubiner said.

Members of the Washington Three Percent say they are not affiliated with the national organization. Matt Marshall, the founder of Washington Three Percent, has actively worked to distance his group from the other Three Percent movements. As an example, he referred to Chris Hill, the leader of the Georgia Security Force III Percent, as a “hillbilly idiot” whom he doesn’t associate with.

Besides having a different logo, Washington Three Percent is also registered as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization. The group participates in an outreach program called “Boots on the Home Ground” that provides shoes and meals to homeless veterans.

Marshall acknowledged that the majority of Washington Three Percent members carry firearms. According to him, there have never been any violent events his group was part of.

“We don’t claim to be a militia and we don’t focus on firearms,” he said.

An occupied protest was planned at the state capitol on Jan. 6, the same day as the national insurrection, but Marshall ultimately called it off for Washington Three Percent as things were heating up. Armed protestors made it as far as the front lawn of the governor’s mansion.

“There were people with Three Percent flags,” Marshall said. “We had no members there.”

Worries about threats of violence in the South Whidbey community have escalated since the insurrection.

During a city council meeting earlier this year, Councilmember Cyr announced that he has become the target of a threatening Proud Boy website. The Record was able to confirm that the name of the elected official does indeed appear on such a site.

Prochaska, on the other hand, said he does not understand the recent “fear mongering” around guns in the community. He said the Deer Lagoon Grange could write a rule that doesn’t allow firearms to be carried within the building, but it’s never been done because there has never been a need for it.

“I’m certainly not going to run the rules of the Grange according to the fears of the people in the city of Langley,” he said, adding that the citizens tend to be “left-leaning” and the Grange is not associated with the city.

While Prochaska found nothing objectionable about the Washington Three Percent, alarmed community members have pointed to what they perceive as troubling ties between the group and others, such as Oath Keepers and Patriot Prayer.

“Obviously we can’t see into their hearts, but we can look at their actions,” Schubiner said.

She said Marshall was photographed with the founder of the Oath Keepers and another Three Percent group in late 2019. Marshall has participated in events with Patriot Prayer Founder Joey Gibson, including one in late December 2020.

“We have tracked members of the Washington Three Percent and Patriot Prayer collaborating and appearing at many of the same events over the years,” she said.

“These groups, along with the Oath Keepers, occupy a similar paramilitary-oriented space in the broader far-right movement.”

Most recently, the groups have been present as counter protestors at Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Marshall said Washington Three Percent was there to show support for law enforcement and denied any formal affiliations among the other groups.

He said everyone has a right to protest peacefully.

Rohde said members of Washington Three Percent are of all races, sexual orientations and religious beliefs.

Schubiner said Washington Three Percenters also participate in anti-democractic activities by promoting “inflammatory anti-government conspiracy theories” and by using “threats and intimidation to achieve their political goals.”

Marshall and Rohde are not shy about the “Freedom to Worship” rally they took part in last fall. Marshall has a medical degree and has questioned the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions and its effect on personal liberties.

Rohde himself, who is Jewish, has been a target of an anti-semitic attack. Marshall explained that last fall, swastikas were spray-painted on a Trump campaign sign in front of Rohde’s home. Marshall said he witnessed the hurt and pain firsthand that this caused Rohde’s family.

“This is the kind of stuff that is happening to conservatives out on Whidbey that hasn’t been reported before,” Marshall said.

Chance for unity

When community members speak about the Deer Lagoon Grange, they often recall it as a site where dances, musical performances and birthday parties have happened.

These days, with the exception of a few drive-thru events, there haven’t been many celebrations — as far as the general public is aware of. Prochaska said he is hopeful that the Grange might be able to host an open house this spring so the public can learn more about the organization.

Emily Melcher, a faith leader in the South Whidbey community who has watched the controversy, is hopeful about the future.

“The Grange can be a really inclusive place that helps people grow and strengthen democracy and our connection towards one another,” she said.

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