Katherine Cheek has been president of Schley Grange, a rural club located about six miles north of Hillsborough, since 1983.
Cheek, who grew up near the grange, has been a member since she was 18 years old.
“This was the place to go back then — we didn’t have many places to be,” Cheek said. “There were always kids here playing games and people fellowshipping.”
The Schley Grange is the only Orange County chapter of the over 20 state grange chapters across North Carolina and of the dozens of National Grange chapters nationwide — organizations that began in the 1800’s to help connect and offer farming communities access to commodities at a lower price.
Its local influence started in 1931, and its facility, the Schley Grange Hall, was won by the chapter in a contest in 1948. After the building opened to the community, the hall truly became a gathering place.
“My favorite memories of the grange are from when I was in high school,” Cheek said. “They would have parties and square dances for us, and people would come out here on Sundays and bring a picnic lunch.”
Each week, Cheek goes about the usual business of the grange, helping to host a weekly “Picking and Grinning” every Thursday, coordinating with groups who want to rent the grange’s lofty, nostalgic space and planning for the members’ meeting and meal that happens every second Tuesday of the month.
But, according to Cheek, the Schley Grange group has not continued at the same pace for its entire run. In the 1980’s, when Cheek came into leadership, the grange had fallen on hard times.
“When I became president, we had six members left and barely enough money to pay the light bill every month,” Cheek said. “People had lost interest. The hall had cracked plaster and a leaky roof.”
The key to revitalizing the grange was educating the public about the organization’s mission and showing the community that the grange was more than a place to have a meal, as well as working to accommodate changes in the agriculture community of Orange County.
Cheek said that the farming population of Orange County shifted over the years from smaller, more numerous farms to fewer large commercial ones.
“We do basically what churches in the area do, with more education and healthcare work and plus sending resolutions to Washington D.C. and such,” Cheek said. “The farming population has dropped some. We work with farmers and also the extension offices but we also do other community outreach that touches lots of areas.”
Since Cheek began her presidency, the roof and plaster on the hall were repaired, and HVAC was installed in the building for the first time ever.
Now, the Grange hosts three fundraisers a year, all netting an average of $2,000 per event, and the group has developed a healthy source of revenue from community members looking to rent out the hall at $150 for the whole building — which includes a full kitchen, auditorium and spacious event room — for a day.
“Through the years, Katherine Cheek has been a loyal supporter of the Schley Grange,” Grange Secretary and Newsletter Editor Rachel Phelps, whose mother, Margaret Phelps, was also a large part of the Grange’s history and helped obtain the hall in 1948, said. “She has, with the help of others, re-organized the Schley Grange when it was about to ‘go under.’ She has worked tirelessly in giving her time, ideas and finances to making the grange what it is today, a success.”
The grange’s funds currently are spread among a myriad of causes. Each year, the grange sponsors a youth baseball team on the ballfield behind the hall, helps local kids attend summer 4-H camp, works with Future Farmers of America to host fundraisers, participates in political discussions — such as working for rural high speed internet and broadband access — and works on long-term projects, including handing out hundreds of dictionaries per year to third-graders in conjunction with the Dictionary Project.
The group also coordinates with Orange County institutions such as the Board of Orange County Commissioners, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and the Orange County Board of Education and other organizations such as the Orange County Rural County Alliance on efforts such as Meals on Wheels routes and home wellness check programs.
“It’s truly a collaborative effort,” Cheek said.
And, for Cheek, it’s also a personal one.
The mother of two, step-mother of three, grandmother of 25 and great grandmother of 32 met her husband, Milton Cheek, when she retired from the Farm Service Agency at 55.
The two went on a blind date, and a year later they were married on Feb. 14.
Milton Cheek passed away in 2013, but the Schley Grange Hall is a living memory of the two’s time together.
“We both joined the Grange around the same time, but didn’t really know each other then,” Cheek said. “He painted the building back when the Grange won it. We had a long and happy marriage.”