Matthew Johnson, master of the Massachusetts State Grange, speaks in March to a meeting of Laurel Grange No. 161, in West Newbury
Matthew Johnson, master of the Massachusetts State Grange, speaks in March to a meeting of Laurel Grange No. 161, in West Newbury.
Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

WEST NEWBURY — It is probably not what you think. You hear the word “grange” and you might envision farmers with dirt-cracked hands sitting around, smoking corn-cob pipes.

And although the National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry did start out in 1867 as an association to serve farmers’ interests — and continues to advocate for rural folks and agriculture — it has evolved over time to serve a 21st-century purpose.

“The big thing is family,” said Peter Carter, president of Laurel Grange No. 161, as he stood in the circa-1940 Grange hall on Garden Street in West Newbury before a Saturday gathering. “There aren’t many family organizations out there.”

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Represented in 2,100 communities across the country, the nonprofit and nonpartisan Grange is a fraternal order that has welcomed male and female alike.

Laurel, which is one of 55 local granges in the state, last week celebrated its 125th anniversary with a potluck dinner.

Beyond the milestone, Laurel also is cheering — along with its fellow granges in Massachusetts — a modest increase in membership. The state’s granges reported a net gain of 38 members for 2011-2012, and have 1,858 taking part in activities.

“We look at any growth as a good thing,” said state master and Laurel member Matthew Johnson of Haverhill. “People have decided that they like the grange again.”

Before joining his local grange in the central Mass. town of Rutland at age 16, Johnson was excruciatingly shy. He had trouble even interacting one-on-one.

But after 28 years of involvement on the local, regional, and state level, he has learned leadership, organizational, interpersonal, and public-speaking skills. In 2011, he was elected master/president of the Massachusetts State Grange.

“It’s an organization that teaches you quite a bit,” said Johnson, who manages a stockroom but stays close to his grange roots with a backyard vegetable garden.

Laurel, which charges $30 annually in dues, organizes plant and penny sales, craft fairs, bake-offs, public suppers, and farmers markets. Granges also provide college scholarships, send care packages to troops overseas, donate to and volunteer at food banks, and support the Reach Across America program, which works to provide free medical, dental, and vision care for impoverished, uninsured, and underinsured people.

Only a couple of Laurel members are active farmers. Some of its members are multi-generational, and have been involved for 70 to 75 years, said Peter Carter, he and his wife Jackie included. They raise 25 beef cattle, along with chickens, pigs, and vegetables, in Georgetown. The Carter family, Peter’s grandfather Raymond and his father, Charles, farmed a large area of Gloucester before the family relocated to Georgetown in 1990.

“You meet a really great group of people, and you get really involved in the community,” 11-year member Jackie Carter said as she tended to her 6-month-old daughter, Bellah, and 5-year-old son, George. “It’s definitely a place where you can give your opinion, and you’re not going to get criticized.”

Johnson agreed. “It allows everyone the opportunity to facilitate change,” he said, noting that 14-year-olds can work alongside 50-year members for the benefit of the grange and the community.

Erin Stack runs the New Harmony Farm in West Newbury, which grows organic vegetables.

Stack, who made a career change to organic farming last year, joined to seek out mentorships from longtime farmers and to cultivate relationships in the community. In her 50s, she described herself as a “grayhorn,” and she grows certified organic vegetables, herbs, and flowers.

She described the grange’s “strong ethical base” and the fact that it has been ahead of its time when it comes to equality. Members also understand that farming can be a “spiritual practice.”

“I love the history, and really respect what the grange stands for,” she said. “I wanted to support that tradition and keep it alive.”

At a recent Saturday gathering in West Newbury that included members from Laurel, Haverhill’s Bradford section, West Boxford, Rowley, and Beverly, tradition and modern practicality were combined. The hall was arranged with tables and three carved-wood columns, so as to create an enclosed space. At the center sat a Bible-topped altar; there was also a US flag, as well as staves, which resemble shepherd’s crooks and bear the grange’s seven-sided emblem of a sheaf of wheat. Gatekeepers, meanwhile, “guarded” the door.

A simple tune played on a piano began the proceedings; carrying the staves, two stewards walked to the Bible, opened it, then circulated the room to greet each member with a whisper.

Roughly two dozen members, wearing sashes of green velvet and gold trim, then said a prayer, and sang a short song. “It’s a grand good thing to be a granger,” they intoned, “and we welcome you all.”

Then it proceeded as a typical meeting: roll call, general business, assigning tasks for events, going over finances, and introducing resolutions. Secretary Brian Carr of Beverly read through the agenda.

Committee reports followed. Peter Carter, representing the agricultural committee, suggested that people make sure the salt they use on their walks is environmentally safe. Carr, of the home and community service committee, gave the group some valuable advice for spring cleaning: Use hydrogen peroxide to remove blood stains from furniture; apply car wax to sticking doors; use clear nail polish to repair tears in window screens.

Stressing the family aspect, members call each other “brother” and “sister” throughout, sometimes ascending to “worthy master” or “worthy secretary.”

It is admittedly pomp and circumstance, and, although they clearly respect the ceremony, members are not stodgy, and they do not take themselves too seriously. There is a lot of good-natured laughing and joking throughout.

As they took a break mid-meeting for a raffle drawing, Johnson summed up the feelings of many members.

“The reason I stay involved,” he said, “is because of the people.”