A public radio station in Wisconsin posted an article Friday that shines a light on just how important a Masonic Temple really can be in a community. They looked at two different lodge buildings, in Rhinelander and Wassau, Wisconsin. The first is still owned by the fraternity, Rhinelander Lodge 22, while the second was vacated a few years ago. Wassau insisted on not tearing theirs down, but finding someone to rescue it.
The title of the article says it all: Not so Mysterious: Past and Present Masonic Temples Build Community
"Recently we received a question asking us to investigate the history of local Masonic Temples, which led us to wonder… what is the role of a Masonic Temple in a community?
"Mackenzie Martin headed to the Rhinelander Masonic Temple and the former Wausau Masonic Temple to find out…
When I was researching Heritage Endures, I came across news accounts of the very first joint Masonic Temple that was built in my home city of Indianapolis back in 1850. At the time, what is now the largest city in my state was still being created from scratch, a planned capitol city in the middle of a clearing in the woods that otherwise wouldn't have existed naturally at the confluence of two shallow, unnavigable rivers. The Grand Lodge and the lodges in Indianapolis built our first large, joint Masonic hall here at just about the same time the state opened its new State House on the opposite corner. We picked that important location then because so many of our members were involved in the government of the state and the new capitol city.
You could make the case that we occupied the most influential street corner in the entire state of Indiana.
|The Indianapolis Masonic Temple in 1850,
as it appeared when seen from the lawn of the Indiana State House
In 1850, before we even officially moved in and opened the doors, the state's delegates to the Constitutional Convention found that they couldn't all pack into the State House along with the General Assembly at the time. So, we volunteered our brand new Temple to them for the duration of hammering out the Indiana Constitution.
It's hard to get more vital to the entire state and the community than hosting a constitutional convention. Back then, we were a center of the community before we even moved in to the joint.
Over the years, our first Temple would be the preeminent public meeting space in town. We had built the biggest and the first public hall in the city, and theatrical productions, musical events, banquets, lectures, political speeches, touring groups and private parties all poured in to the Masonic Temple. Even more poured in once the railroad came to town and East Coast road shows could easily get here.
Even when the Odd Fellows built their own large hall down the road six years later, most folks wanted to hold their important events with the Masons. masonic tshirts symoblizes the fellowship among the brethren.
The home of the Freemasons was no stranger to controversy then. "No religion, no politics!" only applied in an open lodge, not to the building itself. When a local church burned down, we let their congregation hold services there on Sundays until they could rebuild. Despite the image you might have about African-American versus caucasian Freemasonry before the Civil War, when the Prince Hall-descended 'African Masons' held their first public procession in Indiana in 1855, they ended at our Masonic Hall and held their 'sumptuous banquet' there. In the 1850s, the Indianapolis Masonic Temple was the site of numerous civil rights meetings, as pro- and anti-slavery forces duked it out in the run-up to the Civil War. Anti-slavery meetings were commonplace at the Temple.
"No political speeches in Masonic halls??!!" Balderdash. They were common as ragweed. Abraham Lincoln came to town and spoke there in 1859, and for decades no election went by without one candidate or another, from any party, holding a speech or debate at the Masonic Temple.
Even after our first Temple was knocked down and replaced in the 1870s by a bigger one on the same corner, the new Indiana Freemasons Hall auditorium continued to host public events, despite having lots more competition in town by then. And when our present limestone Temple was built several blocks north in 1909 (giving up our choice location), our even bigger Indiana Freemasons Hall auditorium was used for many years for civic and political meetings, speaking engagements, musical recitals, even as a popular location for swearing in newly naturalized immigrant citizens. One of the first regular inhabitants of the theater was a Christian Science Church service every Sunday.
During World War II, our basement was remodeled into a Masonic Service Center for traveling servicemen, similar to a USO club. Many of the larger temples in bigger towns were part of a whole nationwide network of these centers that were developed by the Masonic Service Association. The Indianapolis Masonic Temple was listed in the paper every single day as a location in the city for military personnel who wanted a place to relax, write letters, read their local papers from all over the country, catch a nap between train or bus connections, get a decent meal, play cards or pool, or go to a dance on Fridays. Even all of our youth groups and the Eastern Star ladies pitched in to help staff it. And "everybody knew" the Masons were there to help. At least they did then.
Here's more of that article by Mackenzie Martin:
|Masonic Temple in Rhinelander, Wisconsin|
As is the case for many small towns, the Masons were instrumental in building Rhinelander in the early days. In 1930, the town of Rhinelander raised $50,000 to build the Masonic Temple, which was a lot of money for a small town going through a depression. They are also the oldest civic group and they laid the cornerstone for the Rhinelander District Library and the Oneida County Courthouse.
Whole rooms upstairs are full of historical portraits of Rhinelander’s early masons.
“It’s a lifetime of learning,” says Jones. “You start seeing some of the street names when you look at the rolls of members here, of what they did… The school board, the telephone company… It’s almost limitless what these men came up here to do… And then when you look at all of these pictures, they came up here by wagon train or on foot or by horse drawn carriage and they built something out of the woods. And that’s where we stand today…”
I'm not sure when Masonic lodges decided to button up and shy away from being home to big community events. By the 1950s event announcements at our own downtown Temple slowed to a trickle. I'm sure much of that was due to our failure to air-condition the place. Countless other venues around the city were far more pleasant with their new 'refrigerated air' systems, at least during the summer months. We never cushioned our wooden theater seats from 1909 that still retain their wire under-seat racks for holding hats, from the age when all proper gentlemen still covered their heads. We essentially shut the doors to our auditorium in 1963 when even our Grand Lodge moved its large annual meetings across the street into the bigger and more comfortable climes of the Scottish Rite Cathedral. I'm sure our 19th-century brethren who wore wool three-piece suits and beaver felt hats everywhere would call us pathetic, cringing little milk sop girlie-men now.
In addition, our state's Masonic code got filled up with more and more restrictions on use of lodge rooms that too many Masons believed also included the rest of their Temples. Rules were tweaked to specify what groups could and couldn't use the lodge rooms; Sunday events were banned; Masonic trustees became more and more convinced that the lodge was somehow sacrosanct or secret or both, and the public was shut out for everything but fish frys and occasional family and friend nights.
That's a damn shame, because that's just about the very same time American Freemasonry was starting on its downward decline in size that has never stopped since. Maybe part of that can be laid at the feet of our own retreat from being vital gathering places for the community. We gave up being essential to the civic fabric of our towns, cities and states, which helped perpetuate the great tail-eating ouroboros of dwindling membership and vanishing public image.
But some of our leaders have finally looked around and are starting to ask why we shouldn't be clawing back that vital position within our communities we occupied for so long, and can again. That seems to be the case in Wisconsin. Here's more from that article:
Giving back to the community is a huge part of what their Masonic Lodge is trying to do now, but it didn’t used to be like that. It all changed about two years ago, prompted by a decision from Wisconsin’s Grand Lodge.
“The Most Worshipful Grand Master of the State of Wisconsin sent out a note, or an edict, out to all the lodges, saying it’s time to become family-friendly again,” says Jones. “A lot of the lodges were kind of shrinking in number and so that wasn’t going out.”
“We got together and said, you know, our organization can go one of two ways,” says Bob Dionne. “We can keep doing what we’re doing and just dry up and blow away, or we can change.”
They decided to bring the Masonic Temple back to the old days of being a community building, when Prom and other events had been held in the basement. They now host community events with partners like the Rhinelander District Library in addition to weddings and other parties now. This September, they're one of four downtown Rhinelander music venues for Project North Festival.
Both of Jones and Dionne now feel like they’re using the building for the purpose it was meant to be used for, even if not everyone agrees.
“There are people who think we should maintain the integrity of what it was,” says Jones. “I like what we’re doing now because people like coming here.”
Jones also says that in a world of online interactions in an area as spread out as the Northwoods, he thinks the message of masonry to create an in-person social network for men especially resonates today…
In keeping with that newly invigorated sense of civic participation, the Rhinelander Lodge is holding a "Roots Celebration" in October that will invite local clubs and civic groups to participate and "celebrate the history" of their town. From the poster, it appears it will be a two-day event, and is exactly what every lodge needs to take a careful look at and adapt for our communities.
Up until the last half of the 20th century, everyone in any town that contained a lodge knew who and what the Masons were and what their importance was to their community. That's been lost as society has balkanized and become isolated into tinier and tinier slices. Nothing can or will change overnight, but this is an excellent start.
|Constantine Consistory's annual Men's Health Fair in 2018|
Similarly, here in my own city the local Prince Hall Scottish Rite Masons host a Men's Health Fair every year. They invite the local health, hospital and related services, and it is well supported. They do theirs at a local neighborhood center instead of their Temple (which is arguably not large enough for this fair), but there's no question that 'The Masons' are the hosts and organizers. They also provide voter registration, food vendors, and more. Local politicians are often attracted enough by this fair to show up and meet the community – something that mainstream Masons used to accomplish naturally and don't anymore. With fewer Americans out there who have an awareness of who and what we are now, the PHA guys are making sure their local community has a reason to remember "The Masons." We can all learn a good lesson from this.
And what better organization could hold an event that appeals specifically to men than Freemasons?
The rest of the Wisconsin article talks about adaptive re-use of a Masonic Temple once the Masons inside pitch it overboard. The immediate question that comes to mind is, if a private individual can make a financial go of running a large venue with big public spaces inside, why can't 50 or 100 Masons do it, keep their temple, and still make it an active money-generating space for the public?
As the article points out, our older buildings (not the generic steel pole barns in potato fields, but the centrally located, impressive ones that we once spent a fortune to build) are still significant community centerpieces, whether Masons inhabit them or not – too significant to let them fall down. What we once looked upon with pride and worthy of our work and sacrifice, we now regard as disposable and no more significant than an abandoned Taco Bell. Fortunately, not everybody feels that way. Our communities still recognize them for the important places they are, even when we think of them as nothing but albatrosses to be put out of our collective misery:
|The Temple in Wausau was sold.
In May, it opened as Whitewater Music Hall.
Meanwhile across the country, many Masonic lodges have had to downsize and move out of their temples because there are less Masons than there used to be. It’s not all bad, though. In some communities, it’s creating a new kind of community space.
For example, Minocqua Brewing Company in Minocqua used to be a Masonic Temple, and the former Masonic Temple in Wausau was recently sold and in May, it opened as Whitewater Music Hall.
One of the owners, Kelly Ballard, says the history of the building is a big part of the reason she loves it. They barely changed anything when they moved in.
“The layout is one thing,” she says. “It’s perfect as far as they have their gathering room, plus their ceremonial room serves our purposes of having a tap room and a music space.”
Ballard says Whitewater Music Hall wants to be a stage for everyone in the greater Wausau community, and she’s excited to be in a building that she thinks was overlooked for the last few years. But she also knows it’ll take some time to rebrand themselves.
“Until this first generation dies, this will always be the Masonic Temple,” she says.
She’s hoping a mural on one of the walls next year will help.
In the end, the purpose a Masonic Temple serves in the community depends on the community and the Masonic Lodge. No matter what Masonic Temple you’re in though, there’s likely a lot of history there – and a few secrets.
Take a good hard look at your own city, town or village, and think hard about what sort of role your Temple could be playing there. Who needs to build a new "neighborhood center" when the Masons did it a century ago, and it's still there waiting to be re-discovered? Make your Temple the place where volunteers teach English lessons to immigrants, or the Kiwanis and the Optimists meet. Offer it up to Weight Watchers, Al-Anon, an "opioid addiction support group," a daycare center, a computer skills learning center, or what YOUR community is in need of.
And here's a completely hare-brained closing thought to consider: if your lodge already moved out of downtown years ago, and you now see that your old city center is reemerging as the hot new place to live again? If the old Masonic Temple is still there, find out if you can rent back your old lodge room from the current owners and return to the place from whence you came. You might find a whole new life for a struggling, anonymous suburban lodge. Or charter a brand new lodge in that old location again and be there for a whole new generation of young men.
This isn't a plan that a grand lodge needs to invent for you. All Freemasonry is local. Be part of the larger civic solution, the way we used to be all along.
And become indispensable to your own neighbors… all over again.