Along the Way…Leonard Rhone had a Picnic

A row of tents at the Centre County Grange Fair

Along the Way…Leonard Rhone had a Picnic

By Norman Houser

In Good Day!, Vol. 6, Issue 3, October 2022

Reprinted with permission

The sun had barely peeked over the distant mountains as I walked the vacant grounds in search of breakfast – despite the fairgrounds being packed with visitors the night before, it appeared to be a ghost town.

After finding homemade doughnuts and a cup of coffee, I sat on a bench to enjoy breakfast in the cool, peaceful morning air. I knew it would only be a matter of time before the grounds would once more come to life as those who stayed the night – in either one of the almost 1,000 army tents or 1,500 campers – would begin another day of catching up with neighbors, enjoying the sights of the fair, or relaxing as summer comes to an end.

It is hard to imagine this family tradition grew from a simple, day-long “Granger’s Pic-nic” to a ten-day event that brings people from all over the world into rural central Pennsylvania.

When Leonard Rhone proposed a local grangers picnic, there is no way he could have imagined the small gathering of Grangers would become the Centre County Grange Fair.

Leonard Rhone was born on July 21, 1838, on the family farm west of Centre Hall, in the middle of Pennsylvania. He attended the public school before attending the Kishacoquillas Seminary in Mifflin County.

With his education finished, Rhone taught for a year, before returning to the family homestead Rhoneymeade, meaning “Rhone’s Meadow,” to pursue agricultural interests – he took over the responsibilities of the farm in 1865.

The newly-formed National Grange would capture Rhone’s attention and in February 1874, Rhone helped organize Progress Grange #96 in Centre Hall, followed by Centre County Pomona Grange #13 that September. Rhone would not stop with these two Granges and would be instrumental in organizing many of Centre County’s Granges.

Rhone was very active in the Grange at all levels. In 1875, he was elected Master of the Centre County Pomona Grange for the first of six times and two years later he was elected Master of Progress Grange #96. In 1880, Rhone was elected Master of the Pennsylvania State Grange, which was a position he held for eighteen years.

At the National Grange level, Rhone served on the legislative committee and – along with National Lecturer Mortimer Whitehead – was the first to appear before Congress to promote rural free mail delivery. In 1888, Rhone would begin serving on the National Grange Executive Committee and the following year would begin service as the High Priest of Demeter, which he held until 1895.

In 1874, Leonard Rhone suggested a Granger’s Picnic be held at Leech’s Woods, located near Linden Hall – roughly 3.5 miles west of Centre Hall and the present fairgrounds – on September 24, 1874.

The October 1, 1874 edition of The Centre Report (Centre Hall, PA) describes the one-day event: “The pic-nic of Centre Co. Grangers, in Leech’s Woods, near this place, on last Thursday, was a great success. An immense crowd, was present” with the “number of persons present was not far from 3000.” The size of the initial Granger’s Picnic covered eight to ten acres and included many speeches promoting the Grange fraternity and included a parade led by the band from Boalsburg.

The picnic was held in various spots around Centre Hall, Bellefonte, and the Agricultural College at State College (now Penn State University). It would not be until 1890 that the Granger’s Picnic found a permanent home. That year Progress Grange #96, under the guidance of Leonard Rhone, would purchase 26 acres on the western edge of Centre Hall.

The idea of a Granger’s Picnic was not unique to the region as Granger Picnics were encouraged in the early years of the Grange movement. Picnics were an easy, inexpensive way for Grangers to gather and share new information that would improve agricultural and rural life.

The other Granger Picnics which had been promoted in local newspapers only lasted a year or two before fading away. Despite these other picnics disappearing, the Granger’s Picnic organized by Leonard Rhone continued to grow each year.

Rhone was still at the head of the Grange Encampment and Fair at the time of his death. Unlike many organizations and events that fail after their founder passes, the fair continued to grow in size and magnitude.

In 2022, Leonard Rhone’s simple Granger’s Picnic celebrates its 148th anniversary as the Centre County Grange Fair – the 26 acres now spans over 260 acres, bringing families together from all over world. The mini-city is filled with those staying in campers and families in green military-style tents, which have been handed down through the generations.

Walking through the modern fairgrounds, it is hard to imagine this all started as a simple picnic, which grew over the years. So much has changed over the years, yet so much remains the same – traditions handed down from one generation to the next.

The entertainment has changed from speeches about agriculture to music from popular bands and artists at the grandstand, countless games and rides, and tractor and truck pulls. Vendors no longer promote just agriculture, but sell a variety of goods and promote services available in the region.

Despite the changes, so much has been retained from the early years of the fair. Livestock continues to be shown by members of the county’s 4-H and FFA. Contests are still held to see whose garden has produced the best fruit, vegetable, or flowers, made the best canned goods, or created the supreme handicrafts.. Tents are still being used to house families for the entirety of the fair.

As more people begin to wander out onto the grounds, I stand and stretch to prepare for another day at the fair. There is so much to see and do and so little time to take it all in.

Plus, I think I hear a homemade sticky bun calling my name.

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