150 years of brotherhood
After mining the lucrative bullion in the hills during the day and eating pasties at sundown, 19th century gold seekers staking claim to Nevada County often found themselves at loose ends when night fell.
There were thousands of men, all seeking fortune in the gold camps between Rough and Ready and Nevada City. In a place they called Centerville, the men pondered social activities in a city with nary a woman in its ranks.
By 1851, a group of these men petitioned the Masonic Lodge for a charter, pledging to bring to the fledgling community a piece of one of the oldest fraternal service organizations in the world.
A dispensation was granted to start a lodge in 1852, with Zenas Wheeler as first master. Madison Lodge No. 23 was formally chartered May 5, 1853, when like-minded men gathered at what’s now Hennessy School to begin decades of community service.
Although the lodge has moved five times, the group’s basic mission has always remained the same.
“If morals and truth are not modern, then I guess we’re not modern,” said Glenn Smith, 71, the group’s secretary and historian.
“We take care of ourselves, first of all, then we help others, and all of our teachings are based in truth,” Smith said on a recent weekday afternoon inside the lodge, a three-story edifice on South Auburn Street where the group has met for the last 64 years.
Tonight, the members of the Madison Lodge No. 23 of the Free and Accepted Masons will invite its members to celebrate a century and a half of serving the community and uniting under the common bonds of brotherly love, relief and truth.
Most non-Masons know the group for its ornate meeting places, their compass-and-ruler logo, their charitable work and the Shriners – the Masons who raise money for children’s causes.
Still others are curious about the Masons’ rites of passage, their encoded messages explaining codes of conduct, and the credo of the group.
It’s a legacy that, since the days of colonial America, Masons have attempted to explain.
“We were bad-mouthed for so many years by the Catholic Church,” Smith said, indicating that Catholics believed Masons to be a secret society. “The one thing we ask is that a member be a clean man, an honest man who believes in a supreme being.” He’s been a member since 1983.
“It’s basically about brotherly love,” said Elmer Curtis, 70, this year’s worshipful master of the Madison Lodge, a yearly position.
Many prominent men have been Masons, among them Gen. Douglas MacArthur, George Washington and 13 other presidents. Some of Grass Valley’s pioneers, including the Hansen brothers of the same-named construction firm, have been members.
Today, the group includes 150 members.
The lodge is the second-oldest in the county. Nevada City’s Lodge 13 turned 150 two years ago. At one point, 10 lodges dotted the Nevada County landscape.
“It’s fascinating to be a part of history,” said Kevin Henderson, 50, one of the group’s newest members. “The lodge has been here as long as the community has.” Henderson is a social worker for Placer County who sees Masons’ contributions at schools he visits.
“Most of the schools I go to have plaques commemorating the work they’ve done,” he said.
The group has remained true to its roots, eschewing attempts to simplify the rules or the code. To this day, members aren’t recruited – one must ask a member to be a Mason candidate.
“There’s always that group that wants to simplify the rules, for the sake of membership, and that’s not what we’re all about,” Smith said.
“The old saw is, we take a good man and make him better,” Curtis said.
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