Wichita's forgotten fraternals

Wichita's forgotten fraternals

This photo, taken April 3, 1910, depicts the laying of the cornerstone for the Ark Valley Lodge No. 21 at 615 N. Main. Built by the Prince Hall Masons using materials salvaged from the original Beacon newspaper building, the hall was a central public space in Wichita's African-American business community for many years. It still stands today, occupied by a county office. Source: Wichita/Sedgwick County Historical Museum Source: Wichita/Sedgwick County Historical Museum

The Maccabees Hall at 144 N. Market is seen here in 1930. Formed in Canada in the 1870s, the Knights of Maccabee was a fraternal organization open only to "white persons of sound health and good character." Source: Wichita/Sedgwick County Historical Museum

The Emith Temple's 1947 Christmas party was held at the Dunbar Theater at 1007 Cleveland. The temple, like other local fraternal lodges, still exists, but at a fraction of its peak membership.

Young people today can be forgiven if they are confused about the nature of traditional fraternal organizations. Archaic, mysterious, inscrutable — "secret societies" whose members called themselves Eagles, Masons, Knights of Columbus, Odd Fellows, Daughters of Rebekah and Maccabees were once commonplace in American communities of every size. Their lodges were vibrant hubs of social interaction not to mention the very crucible of charity in a time before public assistance was widely available.

At least a few of these organizations had roots in European trade guilds going back to the 13th century and farther. In those days, craftsmen and laborers working in the same fields would form groups so as to have a ready pool of labor. The Masons, for instance, trace the name of their fraternity (if nothing else) back to guilds of skilled stonecutters, whose arcane knowledge was handed down for more than 1,000 years.

The Odd Fellows evolved over centuries into a modern fraternal organization from an unrelated string of trade guilds, each typically having formed in a small community. The term "odd fellows" acted as a catch-all to indicate that such a group was made up of skilled individuals from a variety of fields; there were merely too few people in the given area to support multiple guilds, each dedicated to one specific area of expertise.

By the 1600s, the Odd Fellows and others were no longer outwardly trade-related at all, though their meeting halls did serve as excellent venues for "networking" among the business class. Secret societies increasingly focused on fostering fraternity and camaraderie, contributing to the community and raising and distributing funds for the poor, hungry and ill.

By the time Wichita was established as a city in 1870, America was awash in these organizations. Less than a month after the city was incorporated, an existing Mason lodge in nearby Augusta was petitioned for consent to form a group in Wichita. In response, Wichita Lodge #99 A.F. & A.M. was officially established on Oct. 11, 1871. Its first meetings were held above a livery stable at Third and Main.

Of the various strains of Masonry known to Wichita over the years, the most successful group of all, by a significant margin, is the Scottish Rite. Their local lodge remains active today, and its beautiful building at First and Topeka is a popular venue for events and performances. This, despite remarkably humble beginnings.

The seeds for Wichita's Scottish Rite were planted in December 1886, when four Masons met at the luxurious Occidental Hotel in response to a notice in the Eagle. They set out to establish a lodge of their own in the young city, and, by May 21 of 1887, they had assembled a dozen members. On that day, they established the Elmo Lodge of Perfection Number 9.

The "lodge" in this case refers to the group of members, not their physical headquarters; the early Masons in Wichita had no dedicated place of their own in which to congregate. For several years, they rented third-floor rooms in the Hacker & Johnson Block on East Douglas (present site of Carey House), but as their membership grew, they needed more room. Additionally, the cramped space rendered the somewhat theatrical practice of the lodge's rituals moot. In the words of the Scottish Rite's official history, "The work of the organization was difficult under these circumstances, for it was performed without proper costumes, equipment, or facilities to render the sublime teachings of the several degrees in an efficient and credible manner."

In 1891, all that changed. The Jan. 1 Eagle of that year reported: "The members of the First Baptist church decided to accept the offer of $10,000 from the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite Masons for the church location on northeast corner of First and Market." By June 20, the paper followed up with: "The Scottish Rite Masons have begun work on the Baptist church building, which they bought some time since. The partitions are being torn down and the building altered to suit the purpose of a lodge room. The outside of the building will not be changed at present." A few short weeks later, on Aug. 9, came the conclusion: "The Scottish Rite Masons moved into their new cathedral yesterday."

In October 1891 there were 119 members in the local lodge, a nearly tenfold increase from the original dozen who had founded it four years prior. With the acquisition of their newly dedicated facility, the organization swelled over the next five years to 341. Suddenly, even the new, bigger building wasn't big enough to hold the ballooning membership.

It was to the lodge's benefit that Wichita's real estate bust occurred when it did. The Proudfoot and Bird-designed YMCA building (see April 10, 2013 F5), which had tripled its projected construction budget, coming in at the then-staggering cost of $60,000, was offered for sale at roughly half that figure. In December 1897, the Masons struck a deal to purchase the impressive limestone limestone building for $20,330. Several thousands more were spent remodeling and expanding the facility into one of the grandest lodge buildings in the country.

Ten years later, on June 8, 1908, the lavishly appointed temple held a formal dedication ceremony in which 520 Masons received degrees, an event that made news inside and outside the Masonic community. Wichita's Scottish Rite Temple would continue growing until it boasted the largest membership of any lodge in the Rite's Southern Jurisdiction, which, according to the Rite's official history, "encompasses all of the states south of the old 'Mason-Dixon Line' and West of the Mississippi River. This territory is comprised of fully three-fourths of the United States, including Hawaii and the U.S. Territories." At its peak in 1921, there were 7,000 members.

The Scottish Rite Masons weren't the only Masons in town; there were the York Rite Masons, and over on North Main, in Wichita's African-American business district, the Prince Hall Masons. Formed in 1885 by local black tradespeople and community leaders, the group built the Ark Valley Lodge No. 21 building at 615 N. Main in 1910. Purportedly designed by local black architect Josiah Walker, the two-story brick edifice served the bustling African-American community as an all-purpose gathering space for all manner of social events. Even other fraternal organizations are known to have used it for their own meetings. It is today the block's sole surviving building from the heyday of Wichita's black business community, and it is owned by the county, which operates its Developmental Disability Organization from offices inside.

For long years, the Odd Fellows gave the Masons a run for their money when it came to membership; there were numerous Odd Fellows' halls strewn around Wichita. Those with sharp eyes may see the IOOF (International Order of Odd Fellows) legend and/or their "three-link chain" device (representing friendship, love and truth) carved into the capstones of several buildings still standing today. The brick structure on the northeast corner of Douglas and Walnut and the old Stock Yards Bank building on the southwest corner of Broadway and 18th are two prime examples. Another fine IOOF building, purpose-built three stories high, once stood where the Eaton Place parking garage stands now.

Starting with the Baby Boomers, each generation of Americans has shown less interest in fraternal organizations. The ever-changing nature of our social structure and interpersonal interactions has created a world in which membership in secret societies is, for better or worse, neither common nor especially esteemed. This, in spite of the fact that even at today's fractional levels of activity, the Odd Fellows alone funnel three-quarters of a billion dollars annually into charitable aid. It is said that the Masons in America raise $2 million a day, and the Shriners (a subset of Master Masons) operate 21 children's charity hospitals in North and Central America.

With membership in most of these groups at their lowest levels ever, perhaps their only hope for survival is a takeover by a new wave of young people. That seems, however, unlikely, as so few among the younger generations have any idea what secret societies are, what they do or why someone would join them. Perhaps a fair amount of outreach is overdue.