|CRYSTAL LAKE I00F LODGE HALL. Built in the 1870s, the Post Mills Odd Fellows Hall house lodge activities as well as many community events. It still stands in the middle of that village.|
|Bradford lodge of the Knights of the Golden Eagle met for a few years following their establishment in 1898. Next to their banner is the stamp of the Improved Order of Red Men which met locally for a short time. |
July 25, 2018 Journal Opinion
“When a community gets the “get together” habit, reforms can be easier accomplished, and each man can look his neighbor in the face and say, with St. Paul, that he is the ‘citizen of no mean city.’” St. Johnsbury Caledonian, Dec.18, 1907
In 1835, visiting French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all disposition are forever forming associations.” In 2000, political scientist Robert D. Putnam wrote in his national bestseller Bowling Alone, that the nation was experiencing a decline of “active civil engagement.” That decline was characterized by the loss in membership and active participation by volunteers in traditional civic organizations.
Many organizations that have characterized local civic involvement for years in New Hampshire and Vermont have ceased to exist. Their memberships have melted away with age and conflicting interests.
This column describes some of the men’s groups that existed locally in times past. It is the first in a series that will, in future columns, cover groups for women and youngsters as well as literary societies. A future column will also describe the history of the Masons, Grange and Modern Woodmen of America.
This column details the history of just a few of the numerous organizations that have existed over the past 200 years. Those selected are examples of once vibrant groups that have faded to near or complete oblivion and is in no way meant to suggest that others were not just as important to their host communities.
The period from the 1860s to the 1920s was the “Golden Age of Fraternalism.” In 1899, there were over 200 different fraternal, benevolent, social, insurance, political, religious and temperance societies in the nation, many of them with secret ceremonies.
The International Order of Odd Fellows is an example of a fraternal organization whose chapters or lodges once played an important civic role locally. The organization began in London in 1730 and spread to the United States in 1819. The title is thought to have been taken from the “odd” behavior of gentlemen in carrying out charitable work.
The first local lodge, Moosehillock Lodge in Haverhill Corner, was established in 1848. Bradford’s Champion Lodge and a lodge in Orford followed. The Haverhill Lodge surrendered its charter in 1858 and was reestablished in Woodsville in 1876. Lodges were also formed in Post Mills (1872), Barnet (1880), Wells River (1881), Groton (1900) and North Haverhill (1902).
With hundreds of members in both states, the Odd Fellows focused on individual improvement and social service. They also played an important social function by holding public dinners and dances.
In 1851, the Odd Fellows became the first fraternal organization to have an affiliate auxiliary with open membership to both men and women. Known as the Rebekahs, affiliate lodges were opened in: Bradford (1890), Wells River (1892), Woodsville (1892), North Haverhill (1903), Barnet (1895), Post Mills (1895) and Groton (1902).
It was common for lodges to acquire property and erect lodge halls. Crystal Lake Hall still stands in the center of Post Mills. The Bradford chapter owned what is now the Old Church Theatre until selling it in 1970. At one time, Bradford was considered as a possible site for the Vermont Odd Fellows Home, but lost out to Ludlow, where it still exists.
All of the lodges mentioned above have ceased to exist. Some just surrendered their charter whereas others merged in a vain attempt to remain active. The Bradford Lodge closed in 1977 and merged with Barnet’s Connecticut River Lodge until it too closed in 2000. There are just seven active lodges in Vermont with 162 members remaining. From a high of 72 lodges, the Rebekahs have shrunk to six lodges and 109 members.
The Knights of Pythias was another fraternal organization that grew during second half of the nineteenth century. It was founded during the Civil War with the objectives of “reestablishment of friendship and confidence” among Americans. The organization’s Vermont Grand Lodge was instituted in St. Johnsbury in 1889. By 1929, there were 32 lodges or castles in Vermont with 2,536 members. Nationally, there were nearly a million members.
Locally, there were lodges in Groton, West Topsham, Haverhill and Woodsville. In 1919, 100 members gathered at West Topsham for a Field Day complete with a supper and torch parade The Mount Gardner Lodge in Woodsville had a drill team and band and provided various financial and medical for members in need. In 1908, one newspaper article described its annual Easter Ball as “one of the leading social events of the season.”
As with other fraternal organizations, the Knights had both several higher levels of lodges and both youth and women’s auxiliaries. By the 1940’s, the local lodges had disbanded. There is no evidence of this organization currently in either state.
One of the most unusual organizations was the New England Fat Men’s Club. It was established in Wells River in November 1903. At a time when “bulbous and overhanging abdomens and double chins” were indicative of wealth and success, this club met at Hale’s Tavern on the village’s Main Street.
Operating under the motto of “We’re fat and we’re making the most of it,” individual members observed “I’ve got to be good natured; I can’t fight, and I can’t run.” Despite that observation, the annual gathering often included athletic contests, like the 50-yard dash. That was in addition to a nine-course dinner and entertainment.
The United Opinion described the game supper the club held in 1911 at which time the club claimed a membership of 5,000. The event got front-page coverage as the club’s secretary was publisher Harry E. Parker. At its height, this professional network of businessmen had a membership of twice that number, including members from around the nation.
Between 60 and 100 members met in Wells River for the annual meeting. Each was required to be at least 200 pounds at time of registration. In 1923, former President Howard Taft, well-known for his portly stature of about 300 pounds, joined the meeting. But just four years later, after some of the original members died, the group ceased to exist.
In April 1909, the Bradford Brotherhood, a Methodist group, organized the Bradford Young Men’s Club. In its first year, the club organized baseball games and a fair. In 1926, the Bradford Men’s Club was established and, until at least 1939, promoted Bradford economically and provided social services in the community. In 1946, it was reorganized as the Bradford Community Club.
The Community Club made substantial contribution to Bradford for over 70 years. Those included assisting with the operation of the Connecticut Valley Fair, turning a swampy area along the Waits River into Memorial Field, building the Bugbee Landing, assisting with the development of the Pierson Industrial Park and holding an annual Strawberry Festival.
At its monthly meeting, the men voted to support youth groups, staff the local Prouty SAG stop, work at the Bugbee Landing and take stands on town issues. Prior to the completion of I-91, the club sponsored the information booth on Main Street.
In 2017, with membership declining, the remaining members decided to cancel further meetings, although individually several of the traditional projects have continued to be carried out by former members.
There have been several labor groups organized around specific local industries. In 1885, the South Ryegate local of the Granite Cutter’s National Union was organized. It stated purpose was, by collective action, to remedy the unsatisfactory working conditions for the approximately 100 men working at the Blue Mountain granite industry. The next several decades both confrontation and cooperation characterized the workers’ relationship with the granite companies’ management.
The Ryegate Paper Company was unionized in 1907 for a short period. The workers again unionized in 1944 as the East Ryegate local of the United Paper Workers International Union. The union remained through changes in management until the mill was closed permanently in 2001.
Beginning in 1921, three railroad labor groups met in Woodsville. They included the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, the Order of Railway Clerks and the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen. Their presence was indicative of the former importance of the railroad to that community.
Some organizations appeared briefly and then disappeared. The Ethan Allen Castle of the Knights of the Golden Eagle was established in Bradford in 1898. There was no mention of this organization in Vermont after 1907. The Improved Order of Red Men had 10 tribes in Vermont in 1906 including locals in St. Johnsbury and Barre. The Woodsville tribe was organized in 1899 and existed until at least 1905. Despite its title, the organization’s membership was exclusively white men.
The only evidence of this organization in Bradford is the following 1890 tongue-in- cheek news item: “There is no truth to the rumor that the Bradford Guard are to be called out to suppress the Hoccomocco tribe of Red Men in the area. The latter don’t indulge in firewater or the ghost dance. Their existence is somewhat shadowy though.”
There have been other short-lived men’s groups over the past century and a half. In Bradford those include the Oriental Palm and Shell (c. 1884). West Fairlee had an Athletic Club (1898) and Corinth had the Men’s Welfare Club (circa 1921). Haverhill had the Knights of the Maccabees (1899) and Woodsville had Moose and Elks Lodges. For a short time in the 1920s, organizers of the Ku Klux Klan in the area passed the group off as a worthwhile civic group as well as protector of the status quo.
Some of those short-lived organizations may have had a noteworthy albeit fleeting impact. One such group was the Connecticut Valley Jaycees. Targeting men under 35 from all walks of life, the group was chartered in Bradford in 1965 and immediately became a major participant in community activities. They held field days, sponsored the Junior Miss pageant and raised funds for the new local mental health office. The local won many awards from the state organization.
When the original group aged beyond 35, they rechartered the then defunct Bradford Lions Club and continued many of the activities for a short time before disbanding. The Thetford Lions cooperated with the Bradford group in hosting several field days at Gray’s Field in Fairlee. The Thetford group no longer exists.
There are currently several area Lions Clubs. The Cohase Lions Club gathers members from the Woodsville-Wells River area and is very active in sponsoring sports activities and granting scholarships. The Orford-Fairlee Lions have fewer active members and sometimes struggle to find workers for their activities. Both of these clubs opened membership to women in an effort to be both inclusive and viable.
The Cohase Rotary Club, originally named the Woodsville-Wells River Rotary, was formed in 1926. On the verge of disbanding last year, it has had a revival under the leadership of the new president Monique Priestley with membership going from 4 to 12 in the last few months.
In “Bowling Alone,” Putnam suggests that voluntary civic organizations have been replaced by the “individualization” of leisure time resulting from the rise of television and the internet. This is not the first time new technologies have raised havoc with local activities.
In beginning of the 20th century, local appearances by visiting musicians and lecturers as part of the Chautauqua circuit were very popular. Then, in the 1920s, that popularity waned. I asked the late Bernard Crafts, the local Chautauqua organizer, about the sudden loss of interest. He quickly responded, “the coming of the radio and the automobile.”
There is no doubt that residents of our area have new interests other than belonging to volunteer civic groups. Many are drawn to groups and activities that benefit themselves and their families with much less emphasis on the ceremonies that characterized some of the groups in the past.
\With that being said, thank goodness for those who are willing to devote time to the “getting together habit” in organizations that help to make our communities better places.