Pelican’s Masonic Lodge Nurtured Community Leaders for Eight Decades
On February 16, 1914, a delegation from the Cornerstone Masonic Lodge in Fergus Falls traveled to Pelican Rapids to assist in the organization of a local Masonic chapter, eventually known as Otter Tail Lodge Number 284. Businessman R. B. Strachan was selected Worshipful Master and began a tradition of community leadership that continues to this day.
The origins of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry are lost in the mists of history. Some trace the movement back to the Templars, a military and religious order of crusading knights who attempted to take Jerusalem back from the Turks in medieval times. The order, founded in Jerusalem in 1118, eventually fell into disfavor with the church. Its leader, one Jacques de Molay was burned at the stake, for alleged heresy, blasphemy, cannibalism, and sodomy. Later, the Templars’ beliefs influenced guilds of stonemasons who built Europe’s great cathedrals—hence the square and compass in the Masonic logo. By the 1700’s, the age of cathedral building being over, the guilds largely became social and fraternal organizations. When the Grand Lodge of Freemasonry was organized in London in 1717, not a single stonemason was among the members.
Freemasonry was highly respected in Europe, where its ideals of religious toleration and equality attracted many members. Masonry came to America in colonial times. Though goals including charity and improving society attracted Benjamin Franklin and George Washington to join, Freemasonry did not meet with universal acceptance. Secrecy surrounding elaborate rituals invited suspicion. In 1826 when Mason George Morgan of Batavia, New York, disappeared after threatening to reveal Masonic secrets, it was widely believed he was kidnapped and murdered by his Masonic brothers. The Masons were condemned by the press, various churches, and by many politicians. Hysteria rose to a fevered pitch. The election of anti–Masonic candidates to state offices in New York, led to the creation of a national political party. In 1831, the Anti–Masonic Party nominated William Wirt—oddly enough a Mason—to oppose Andrew Jackson, who, though not a Mason, was rumored to harbor Masonic sentiments. That campaign—of course—was unsuccessful. When national attention shifted to more pressing concerns—the abolition of slavery and the war with Mexico, the party gradually lost favor. Disconsolate members later formed the Whig party, the predecessor to the modern Republicans.
By the later half of the Nineteenth Century, Freemasonry regained it favor, with nearly half of the American male population professing Masonic ideals. The late Victorian Age was a stifling time for many, with tyrannical social restrictions and a strict code of public conduct. Masonry provided a socially acceptable escape from drab everyday existence. Once inside the Masonic temple, a member could shed his tie and collar, don elaborate robes and be transported back to grand and mysterious ancient times. Freemasonry grew at an astounding rate. Between 1896 and 1914—the year Pelican Rapids’ Masons organized—some four hundred new lodges were formed nationwide.
Imitators followed. There was a Knights of Pythias lodge in Pelican Rapids, Parkers Prairie, and Dent; the Knights of the Maccabees in Fergus Falls; lodges of the Brotherhood of American Yeoman and the Royal Arcenam scattered across Otter Tail and Becker counties. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the region’s second largest fraternal group, had members nearly everywhere.
American Freemasonry got a big boost in 1933, when Adolf Hitler lumped Masons with Jews and Communists and assigned them the blame for Germany’s defeat in World War I and the suffering of the Great Depression. Suddenly, Freemasonry became identified with patriotism.
With nearly three million members, the Masons remain America’s largest fraternal organization. They continue to exert enormous social, economic, and political influence. Locally, the names appearing on Masonic membership roles reads like an historical Who’s Who of community leadership—mayors, judges, bankers, doctors, politicians, and policemen. O. J. Lee, C. W. Sherin, W. R. Frazee, A. C. Meland, and Dr. Theodore Satersmoen were all members of Otter Tail Lodge Number 284 in the early days.
Ironically, the Masons’ influence and prestige continues to give rise to occasional criticism. The Masonic bond, some claim, transcends other social and religious obligations. The Catholic Church remains officially skeptical—though some Catholics are also Masons. The constitution of Zion Lutheran Church of rural Dunn Township, until fairly recently, contained a section cautioning against "conflicting loyalties" and even forbade Masonic rites at church funerals. And at the trial of members of the Posse Comitatus following the deadly shootout at Medina, North Dakota, several defendants objected to the judge and prosecutor wearing rings bearing the Masonic logo, calling them "Masonic devils." Even today, an occasional wild Pentecostal radio preacher blasting on the late night AM bands will pick apart the imagery on a dollar bill, citing George Washington’s Masonic membership, and trying to make something of the symbolism of the Great Seal of the United States, the pyramid, the "all–seeing Masonic eye" and Novus Ordo Seclorum—"new world order." After all, George Bush—who championed a new world order after the collapse of Communism—was a Mason, too.
People continue to fear what they do not understand. And history, as they say, continuously repeats itself.