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Grange honors Two Rivers family for service to community

By Mary Beth Smetzer
Staff Writer, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Published January 27, 2008

In the spring of 1957 when the Don and Alice McKee family moved 25 miles out of town to homestead at 20 Mile on the Chena Hot Springs winter trail, they were the only family in the area.

“There was no electricity, no road, no school and no voting precinct nearby,” Alice said. “It was almost impossible to get anything without a group effort.”

So the McKees deferred to the family and community principles of the National Grange they learned while growing up in rural Minnesota and started the Two Rivers Grange.

With the combined efforts of grange members and the community, they eventually obtained electricity, a road, the Two Rivers School and a voting precinct, in addition to building their own grange hall.

In November, Don and Alice and eight members of the McKee’s extended family were honored as the Grange Family of the Year at the National Grange convention in Reno, Nevada, for their “outstanding service to the community and the nation.”

The McKees’ son, David, a treasurer of the Two Rivers Grange and the Alaska State Grange, and his wife, Connie, secretary of the local grange and vice president of the state grange, were on hand at the ceremony.

“I’m proud of it of course,” Alice said. “The grange has been a real family effort. We had a daughter who worked very hard in it in the ‘70s and ‘80s as well as other children who worked in it but who are no longer involved.”

Before the McKees relocated to Alaska in 1951, the grange had played an important role in their lives. Both were raised on farms, and their more than 60-year partnership began when they met at a grange dance.

It only seemed natural for the family to incorporate grange principles into their daily lives as they settled into their homestead, cleared acreage and started farming.

By 1964, the Two Rivers Grange was incorporated, and a year later members proudly held an open house to show off their newly built grange hall, which continues to serve as a polling place and community center.

The 30-by-40 foot building was built with donated logs and floor coverings and constructed by grange members and community volunteers. A kitchen and dining area came later.

“It’s just real rewarding to see what a community effort can accomplish,” said Alice, mother of six and matriarch of the extended McKee family. “The grange has so much potential if people would only make use of it.”

The National Grange is the nation’s oldest agricultural and rural communities organization. It was founded shortly after the Civil War in 1867 to help heal the scars of the war.

Oliver Hudson Kelley, a staff member of the Department of Agriculture at the time, came up with the idea of a fraternal organization composed of farmers to improve their economic and social position. The organization also encourages educational, social, moral and fraternal aspects of membership. By 1872 more than 1,000 granges were organized in more than half of the states in the Union.

From its beginnings, and long before women were able to legally vote in the United States, the National Grange was the first fraternal organization to recognize women and children ages 14 and up as voting members.

“Being farmers, they revered their women and recognized the importance of women to the family, home and farm,” Connie McKee said.

Early life

David and Connie live on a portion of the original family homestead close to the deteriorating log home David’s parents first built and where he grew up.

His memories of grange participation go way back to when the grange hall was being built.

“I was 7 when I was peeling the ridge poles for it,” he said.

Today, David and Connie continue the McKee grange tradition but only “hobby farm.”

“We raised 11 pigs last year,” David said.

The children in the family have to help. Butchering is done on Labor Day weekend. On Saturday the pigs are slaughtered. Sunday they are cut and wrapped, and Monday is cleanup day.

It’s a far cry from when David was growing up — the family was slaughtering 1,000 pigs a year between 1971 and 1986.

Although the McKees are known for raising pigs and built the first state-inspected slaughter facility in the Interior, they actually started out raising cows. A barn fire in 1962 cut their dairy farm dreams short. Only two animals managed to escape the flames, a Yorkshire boar and sow that Don had purchased in Washington state.

“That’s when our operation totally changed,” David said.

Grange honors

Over the years, the National Grange has evolved and extended into suburban communities as well. Non-rural granges can also have a wide range of activities.

One of the main projects organized by the Anchorage Grange is sending boxes to military in Iraq.

The grange has been active in the Alaska since 1937, but it didn’t get a vote at national conventions until there were six chartered granges. Recognition was finally received in 2004.

There are now grange organizations in Fairbanks, Anchorage, North Pole, Delta, Palmer and Two Rivers.

Now that they live in town, the elder McKees started the Fairbanks North Star Grange. Their first project was cleaning up Allridge Park.

There are 29 members in the Two Rivers Grange, and more are welcome to join. You don’t have to be a farmer to become a grange member.

As David McKee said, “If you eat, you’re involved in agriculture.”

Each year, the Two Rivers Grange participates in a national project, “Words for Thirds,” providing a dictionary to each and every third grader at Two Rivers Elementary School. They take part in the Adopt-A-Highway program and keep up Miles 18-21 of Chena Hot Springs Road.

Annually, the Two Rivers Grange awards educational scholarships up to $500 to four or five area youth for camp fees, musical instruments or tuition. The money comes from the Mutkala Youth Scholarship Fund, an investment fund from the sale of property deeded to the grange in 1981 by the late Wes Mutkala of Delta Junction.

The Two Rivers Grange also provided property for a home for the Two Rivers Rescue Squad, now part of the Steese Area Volunteer Fire Department.

Don McKee, 85, who is retired from the state Department of Transportation, and Alice, 80, now live in Fairbanks and spend part of the winter in Arizona, but their interest in the grange or in the land hasn’t waned.

Don keeps busy on what remains of the land of his land holdings, building houses or tinkering in his shop.

“He laughs everyday,” Alice said, “when he says when he worked for the state he drove into town everyday, and now he drives out to the country every day.”

In addition to Don and Alice and David and Connie, other family members cited in the national award are Yvonne, Dwane, Morgan, Danelle (Kirschner), Chuck (Kirschner) and Devlin.

Contact staff writer Mary Beth Smetzer at 459-7546.

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