Historic City Memories: The Fraternal Orders

St. Augustine and The Fraternal Orders

Part six of a series

The Odd Fellows – Memories of a Time Gone

By Geoff Dobson

Several years ago, the writer was on a rural road somewhere west of Ft. Lupton, Colorado. The cottonwoods were in bloom with wisps of cottonwood floating in the air. There in a cottonwood grove was a small brick building, a Grange Hall.

It brought back childhood memories of covered dish suppers in the local Grange Hall. It was an era of self-reliance and self-sufficiency in rural America. It was a time when communities provided through volunteers their own entertainment.

All across the United States small towns had a “Hall” constructed and maintained by a local fraternal lodge, sometime it would be the Grange, the Masons, the Woodmen of the World, or most frequently by the Odd Fellows. In St. Augustine, one such hall which served as a center for the Lincolnville community was the Odd Fellows Hall at 92 Washington Street constructed about 1908.

Functions held at a hall bring back fond memories. Little Richard, when he was in his 70’s, recalled performing at the Washington Street Odd Fellows Hall. It was the same in all of small town America. In St. Augustine, there were two Odd Fellows Lodges, San Sebastian Lodge on Washington Street chartered by the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows which was predominately African-American and Palmetto Lodge on Masters Drive chartered by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows which was predominately white, but it was the same whether the lodge was white or black.

All across America, in such halls there would be dances, covered dish suppers and other activities. And all such activities bring for many memories of a time gone-by. Elinore Pruitt Stewart in her 1914 Letters of a Woman Homesteader recalled the Odd Fellows hall in Burntfork, Wyoming. To the hall, settlers would travel miles for a covered dish supper and all-night dance. Children would be put to sleep under coats on benches along the walls of the hall while the adults danced the night away.

In Pinedale, as an example, when the Woodmen of the World constructed its new hall, a dance was held not withstanding that the hall had no heat and it was five degrees below zero. Music was generally by one or two volunteers on a fiddle, banjo, or guitar. Typically, the repertoire might be small, but it did not distract from the festivities.

Wyoming Governor William Ross wrote of attending a dance at the Burntfork Odd Fellows hall. The governor noted that the dance was one of his most enjoyable occasions. He recalled that the floor would bounce in time to the feet of the dancers. This caused doors downstairs to bang in time to the music.

The 1920’s are regarded as the “Golden Age” of fraternal orders. Some twenty-five percent of all American men belonged to a fraternal society. With the Great Depression, many American fraternal orders began a steep decline in membership. At one time, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows was the largest American fraternal order with over 1,700,000 members. It was larger than the Masons or the Knights of Pythias. The latter itself had about one and half million members. Today, it is estimated that the I.O.O.F. has less than one-twentieth of that number. At its peak, the Odd Fellows provided homes for their elderly members, cemeteries and other charitable activities. In Florida, the Odd Fellows home was in Gainesville.

American fraternal orders after a recovery following World War II, are again in a decline. Various reasons have been assigned for the loss of membership. Fraternal Orders are essentially family affairs. The Odd Fellows were the first to admit women. Parent lodges had organizations for teenagers, the Masons with DeMolay and Rainbow Girls, and the Elks with the Antlers.

Thus, was the loss of membership a result of the decline of the American family or was it something else? Some have attributed the decline of the Odd Fellows in the 1930’s as a result of an inability to pay dues as a result of the Depression. However, at the same time, the need for self-reliance in providing a place for social activities declined. All across the country, through the Works Progress Administration, the federal government constructed government-supported civic centers at which the activities previously conducted by fraternal orders could be held. In St. Augustine, The WPA constructed a Civic Center which is now the Visitor Information Center. In Hastings, the former Civic Center on North Main Street was a WPA project.

With the end of World War II, government support for public halls such as previously provided by the Odd Fellows declined. But once again, government is now providing or subsidizing public halls. In St. Johns County, there is the “Equestrian Center” in Armstrong. Government is subsidizing other venues for social or community functions. The Odd Fellows lodge has, in essence, been replaced by the Galimore Center at the end of Riberia. Other functions previously provided by local lodges are now held at a new center constructed on Marine Street. Other activities which used to be held in fraternal halls are now in other government supported buildings such as the Agricultural Center or armories. In such facilities, however, there is little self-reliance. Covered dish suppers have gone the way of the dodo. It is improper under governmental regulations for a facility which has a government certified kitchen to serve food that was not prepared in a licensed kitchen under the supervision of a licensed food manager.

One of the original purposes of the Lincolnville Festival was to raise money to assist the Lincolnville Restoration and Development Committee in restoring buildings such as San Sebastian Lodge. Last year, the Lincolnville Festival itself moved out of Lincolnville to the Activities Field. Other activities receive government funding through the TDC. The Lincolnville Festival receives none. It remains to be seen as to whether the festival will thrive outside of its home community.

In 1993, San Sebastian Lodge, Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, mortgaged the Lodge Building. In 1997 a deed in lieu of foreclosure was recorded in the Public Records of St. Johns County.

In other communities across the nation, one by one, lodges have closed their doors. The lodge in Burntfork, Wyoming is gone, the only thing left are warm memories. Mrs. Stewart’s daughter, Jerrine Rupert Wire later recalled: “I see again the rough two-storied building built of rough-hewn logs hauled from the nearby mountains. It is night and cold as all nights are in this high country. The yard around the building is filled with saddle horses and teams hitched to light wagons and buggies. From the building pours the sound of music, gay and loud and beautiful to the ears of the listeners. Warm yellow light from the kerosene lanterns in the “hall” cut bright slices in the darkness. Inside the families of the ranchers in the remote valley are dressed in their very prettiest and are happily dancing, awkwardly, with much stomping and scraping and whirling. Dancing to old tunes is almost forgotten now. The fiddlers are neighbors who just “picked up” music and who play only a limited number of tunes that they all know. The good smell of strong coffee and good cakes, of soap and water and perfume, of tobacco and liquor, and of children, and sagebrush and pine. The great stoves at each end of the hall roar merrily. Little children sleep on quilts and coats on the floor and benches back of the stoves. Older children scamper about or try to learn to dance.

In 1976, the little IOOF lodge on Masters Drive entertained the IOOF Grand Master of Florida with a covered dish supper. In Florida today, there are only 18 Independent Order of Odd Fellows Lodges left. Hopefully, of those lodges that are gone, there are warm memories of the covered dish suppers and the dances.

Next Article, The Benevolent & Protective Order of Elks.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 years, is a western and Florida history writer and was former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Transportation. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

Photo credits: © 2010 Historic City News contributed photograph Florida Bureau of Archives

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