Do you have a secret? I guess we all do to some extent, but in a way, to many of us it almost seems juvenile to keep secrets from others, especially joining a secret club or having secret handshakes. So, I was a little surprised when the 1888 book that this blog is based on devoted a fair amount of ink to “Secret Societies”. I had to read more.
Freemasonry and Odd Fellows groups still exist and from what I have read, are not secret at all. They can be best defined as fraternities, with the Masons being the world’s oldest and largest. Some Masons claim their beginnings to the 10th Century B.C. during the building of King Solomon’s Temple. Others suggest that the Masons began in the Middle Ages and were the builders of the great European cathedrals. Another fanciful theory is that they are the survivors of the 1307 purge of the Knights Templar. By the 1800s, they evolved into a club of men from the “better classes” who were believers in God and provided a moral influence, second only to the Church in their communities.
In the past, the Masons did not accept blacks as members, who formed their own Masonic groups. They did not allow female members nor members from the various immigrant groups, who were moving in large numbers to the United States. In 1830, an Anti-Masonic Convention was held in Philadelphia and in 1836, the Pennsylvania legislature attempted to learn the “secrets” of the Masons with no success. Even a short lived Anti-Masonic political party existed for a while.
In 1899, Erie had 11 Masonic groups with one for black community members. The purpose of all the groups was to provide good to society with aid to orphans, widows and the sick.
Probably the most noticeable Masonic group would be the “party animals” of Masons, the Shriners. The Zem Zem Shrine was established in 1892 and currently has over 2,000 members. Noted for their red fedoras and small cars, they provide the financial assistance to give pediatric orthopedic care to patients in this part of the country. I have also read on their website that they have a strong anti-bullying campaign, providing tips and tools to patients and others who may experience that senseless behavior.
Erie still has a Masonic presence, although I have only met one man who claimed to be involved, so far. They meet in the Masonic Temple on the corner of 8th and Peach Streets. The building itself opened in 1910 and in 2020 was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Erie Masonic Temple Preservation Foundation is a tax-exempt organization that maintains the building and houses offices and event space available for weddings and parties. There are 9 Masonic groups who meet there, including one for male and female members and, one for young men ages 12-21. There are also Masonic Lodges in Girard, Albion, and Corry.
Erie also has the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction Scottish Rite Valley of Erie with a facility on Old Zuck Road. There is a difference between this group and York Rite Masons, but being a member of neither group, I cannot explain what they are.
In 1959 there were 4 million Masons in the United States. Today, they number around 1.3 million members. They accept members regardless of race or religion.
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows began in London in 1730 and eventually spread to the rest of the world. Their mission is to “promote personal and social development of members, to visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan.” The late 1800s is considered the “golden age of fraternalism” in the United States, so membership was large. By the Great Depression in the 1930s, government social programs replaced the need for the social work of the group, and many could no longer pay the membership fees. In 1971, they removed the “whites only” clause for membership.
In 1851, the Odd Fellows was the first fraternal group to accept female members. In 1889 there were 6 Lodges in Erie. Today, from what I can tell, none exist, though the Odd Fellows still have lodges in other communities.
I know the Masons and Odd Fellows are not the only fraternal groups but are the most popularly known. They exist for the comradery of their members and for the good of the cities and towns in which they are located. That being the case, I wish them long life and happiness. I think that I will work on my own secret handshake now!