On The Level 

The rise and quiet fall of the Masons in Idaho

Cowboy crooner Gene Autry and Revolutionary War traitor Benedict Arnold? Frontiersman Daniel Boone and Bugs Bunny voice Mel Blanc? Prime Minister Winston Churchill and singer Nat King Cole? Or heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey and Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle? What could these men possibly have in common?

Other than being remarkable and iconic individuals, they all shared the distinction of having been members of the granddaddy of all fraternal organizations—the Freemasons.

If that means nothing to you, chances are you were born into a recent generation. In earlier centuries, the Masons were so omnipresent and potent, they were often suspected by outsiders to be the origin of all clandestine schemes, either for ill or good. They have been given credit for conceiving the United States as an experiment in Masonic principles, yet five decades after independence, an anti-Mason political movement arose on a tide of fear that the fraternity was powerful and insidious enough to be an internal threat to the nation. Even though they require a belief in one God from their members, religious denominations as diverse as the Catholics, the Church of Latter-day Saints and Islam have, at various times, scorned them and demanded that their followers stay clear of Freemasonry. Masons have been accused of murder, of being the fathers of democracy, of being in league with the Devil, of being the moral and philosophical heirs to the Knights Templar who battled the Saracens in Jerusalem.

More recently, they have been praised for their prolific charitable activities and accused of looking awfully damn silly when they toot around during parades in their itsy-bitsy cars.

All said, the Masons have been the subject of controversy virtually since their beginning, and in the end, only one thing is certain: Whether the frame is the last 300 years of Western European history, the last 250 years of American history or the 140 years of Idaho history, the Masons have played a significant, if not central, part. To acknowledge that role, this summer—from Memorial Day to Labor Day—the Idaho Historical Museum will offer an extensive and ambitious exhibit, examining the presence and influence of Freemasonry in Idaho.

The Old World

"A Moral Order, instituted by virtuous men, with the praiseworthy design of recalling to our remembrance the most sublime truths, in the midst of the most innocent and social pleasures, founded on liberality, brotherly love and charity."

— from the Illustrations of Masonry (publ. 1772) by William Preston

Those organizing the exhibit didn't know what they were getting themselves into. Kurt Zwolfer, education specialist for the museum, said the scope of the project grew far beyond its relatively modest inception.

"We have a limited amount of space, and we didn't think it was going to be so complicated," Zwolfer said. "But once we started talking about this and stretching it out, we realized we had to cover so much information just so the general public understood. All of it's kind of multi-layered and connected. That's what makes it such a rich, wonderful story for an exhibit. But it also makes it difficult."

As with any history that involves as much myth and mystery as documented fact, the story of the Masons, whether in Idaho or on the international stage, has always been "multi-layered" and "rich." The world's first lodge dates to 1717, when four separate groups that had been congregating in taverns combined into the Grand Lodge of London. Grand Lodges in Ireland and Scotland soon followed, but Masons claim a much longer lineage than what began formally on the British Isles. Though historians cannot confirm it, Masons trace their heritage back to the builders of King Solomon's temple—in spirit if not actual records—and to this day, certain icons within a Masonic Lodge are said to represent Boaz and Jachin, the columns flanking the entrance to that legendary edifice.

Whether the craftsmen who erected Solomon's temple were conscious of being in on the birth of something that would later include such luminaries as J.C. Penney, Davy Crockett and Red Skelton (all Masons), it is true that a millennium later, Medieval stone workers organized into guilds which wielded a degree of power unknown among other trades or castes. To construct the magnificent cathedrals of Europe took a level of skill that by necessity had to be passed from the experienced to the inexperienced—from the master to the initiate. It is also likely that such skill fostered among the stonemason guilds a sense of independence, self-worth and indispensability—that the royal overlords and church hierarchies needed them a great deal more than they needed royal overlords and church hierarchies. That awareness may have been as close to the concept "all men are created equal" as the world would see for another few centuries.

In homage to those unknown artisans, the early "speculative" Masons (as opposed to the "operative" Masons who actually lay stone) adopted the stone cutter's tools—the square, the compass, the level, the plumb—as symbols for a progressive refinement of hearts and minds. The members call themselves "the Craft," referencing the principle that their mission is to chisel "good men into better men," just as a stonemason's calling is to shape rough substance into art and structure. And from their inception, they have referred to God as the grand architect of the universe.

By the middle of the 18th century, Freemasonry had migrated across Western Europe, with each nationality putting its own distinctive twist on the original model.

The New World

"Abstracting from the pure pleasures which arise from friendship so widely constituted as that which subsists among Masons ... Masonry is a science confined to no particular country, but extends over the whole terrestrial globe ... Add to this, that by secrets and inviolable signs, carefully preserved among the fraternity, it becomes an universal language ... The distant Chinese, the wild Arab, the American savage, will embrace a brother Briton; and will know, that beside the common ties of humanity, there is still a stronger obligation to induce him to the kind and friendly offices."

Illustrations of Masonry 1772 (Preston)

At the advent of the American Revolution, Masons were so common in the English-speaking world that it should come as no shock that a good percentage of our founding fathers—John Hancock, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, Alexander Hamilton, to name but a few—all belonged to the fraternity. Yet generations of historians, as well as generations of conspiracy seekers, have been intrigued with the possibility that the order's basic idealism—or covert intrigue, depending on one's view of Masonry—was inspiration for the direction our young country took.

Emily Peeso, curatorial registrar and event organizer of the Idaho Historical Museum Masonic exhibit, understands it as an unspecific relationship. "Those ideas of everybody being 'on the level' and being free from religion inside that structure, those were established in 1717," she said. "For their time, they were truly revolutionary, and they drew in like-minded people."

Others have detected more explicit, and sinister, agendas in play, far beyond the all-seeing Masonic eye that graces our dollar bill. Dan Brown, of The Da Vinci Code fame, is said to be capitalizing on the centuries of paranoia and will soon release a new novel about the Masons' influence on the U.S. government. He certainly won't be the first. It has even been suggested that the layout of the streets in Washington, D.C., are arcane Masonic signs and tributes to Lucifer himself. Persistent charges of occultism have dogged the Masons almost from their beginning.

In 1828, after an upstate New York Mason was allegedly kidnapped by brother Masons and thrown into the Niagara River to drown for exposing the order's secrets, a national political force arose with only one purpose, defined by the title they adopted—the "Anti-Masonic Party." John Quincy Adams (president from 1825 to 1829), not a member of that short-lived party but nevertheless an ally, was outspoken and ardent in his view that Freemasonry was "antithetical to the ideals of the United States."

Still, 14 U.S. presidents—most notably Washington, Monroe, Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman and Ford—were tried-and-true Masons. (It had long been thought that the man who penned the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, was a Mason, but no evidence has been found to confirm this.)

Idaho's leaders, from the state's territorial beginnings to the present, have been even more inclined to Masonic membership than U.S. presidents. Of the 30 men who have served as Idaho's governor, be it the territorial or state office, 17 have been Masons. A handful of the most recent include Chase Clark, Len Jordan, Cecil Andrus, John Evans and the man now leading the state, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter.

Freemasonry had manifested itself in Idaho even before it gained territorial status in 1863. At least 15,000 men crowded into mining camps near the Clearwater River in northern Idaho when gold was discovered there in 1860. Two years later, a log building constructed in Florence was thought to be the state's first Masonic Temple, though the men who assembled there were never granted a "dispensation" by a Grand Lodge—a prerequisite for official recognition.

The first legitimately chartered lodge was established in Lewiston in 1862, just slightly later than the Florence group. That lodge lasted only three years, by which time the migration of miners to other, richer gold fields left the Lewiston lodge with too few members to carry on. One of those richer gold fields was in the Boise Basin, and by 1863, a Masonic hall had been built in Idaho City (then called Bannock City). That hall was destroyed by fire in 1865, but within four months, a new lodge had been raised. That building is still there, is still used for occassional lodge meetings, and it holds the distinction of being the oldest functioning Masonic hall in the United States.

By 1867, there were five lodges in southern Idaho towns: Silver City, Idaho City, Placerville, Pioneerville and Boise. In September of that year, all five agreed to organize under the auspices of a Grand Lodge of Idaho, to be located in Idaho City, at that time the largest, boomingest town in Idaho Territory. The Grand Lodge eventually moved to Boise.

To say that Masons are responsible for everything that happened in Idaho's early history would be a stretch. But a journey through the resumes of the first 30 or so of the state's grand masters—not even counting the countless brothers who were never picked for that distinguished office—turns up an astonishing level of accomplishment and involvement. With so many postmasters, attorneys general, territorial legislators, judges, mayors, business entrepreneurs, county commissioners, sheriffs and governors among their ranks, one has to wonder how Idaho would have fared with no Masonic presence whatsoever

Today, there are 57 lodges in Idaho, scattered from the top of the Panhandle to the southwestern and southeastern corners of the state. At one time, there were many more.

The Secret World

"If the secrets of Masonry are replete with such advantage to Mankind, it may be asked why are they not divulged for the general good of society? To this may be answered; Were the privileges of Masonry to be indiscriminately dispensed, the institution would be subverted; and being familiar, like other important matters, would lose their value, and sink into disregard."

Illustrations of Masonry 1772 (Preston)

Among the artifacts the historical museum will have on display over the summer is the silk top hat worn by George Laird Shoup (governor when Idaho went from territorial status to statehood) as he performed his duties as grand master of the Grand Lodge. The exhibit will be abundant with such personalized items: the lambskin aprons worn by other Idaho masters, the ceremonial swords carried by others, fezzes from the heads of Shriners noteworthy for their place in Boise history and a detailed, walk-through simulation of a Blue Lodge room. There will also be ample representation of the Masons' auxiliary for women—the Order of the Eastern Star—as well as paraphernalia from Job's Daughters and DeMolay youth auxiliaries.

But one artifact will stand out for sheer bizarreness. It is a device that would seem to come from a masquerade soiree in the Marquis de Sade's basement. Used in some Masonic ritual, the Lone Ranger-style mask is meant to cover the face from the bridge of the nose to one's brow. Where the eye holes should be, there are metal blinders about the size of shot glasses, extending straight out from the face like bulging insect eyes. The end of each has a hinged lid, implying they can be either open or closed, allowing either extreme tunnel vision to the wearer, or no vision whatsoever. There is something about the device that implies whoever wears it is not intended to be the one who decides whether those lids are opened or closed. It's called a "hoodwink," and one can only hope it's designed for some symbolic or allegorical use.

But then, virtually everything about the Masons seems to be symbolic and allegorical. In other clubs, the top elected official would be called "president" or "chairman;" in a Masonic center, he is the "worshipful master" or "potentate." In other clubs, the members might sew patches on their shoulders, or have a special pin to stick in their lapel; the Masons wear lambskin aprons, on which each color, figure, letter and word denotes something different about the values of the order and the levels of mastery its wearer has achieved.

For the briefest of overviews: When a Lodge is referred to as "grand," it only means that is the administrative center for all the auxiliary lodges in a given jurisdiction. In America, each state has one Grand Lodge. Since many of the particulars of how Freemasonry is practiced from country to country—from region to region—are left up to the local organizations, the original tree of Masonry soon branched into varied factions, which in turn grew their own versions of advanced levels. The York Rite leads to the Royal Arch Masons, for example, which leads to the Knights Templar. The Blue Lodge, with it's three basic degrees, is the trunk from which all the others spring.

The Shriners—known more decoratively as the Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine—was the inspiration of two New York City Masons, Dr. Walter M. Fleming and William J. Florence, an actor who got the basic ideas for the Shrine from an exotic party he went to after a performance in France in 1870. The idea spread rather quickly; Boise's El Korah Temple opened in 1898.

Prince Hall Masons take their name from a free black man, Prince Hall, who fought with the Revolutionary Army in the Battle of Bunker Hill. He was a leather worker in Boston and went on to become a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He and 14 other free African-Americans were given dispensation for their own lodge, and by the Grand Lodge of London, no less. Throughout the world, there are now 1,400 Prince Hall Masonic lodges, including Idaho's largest Prince Hall Lodge in Mountain Home.

There is nothing fractious about the various branches. In fact, a Mason might belong to any one or all of these divisions. For instance, all Masons must belong to the Blue Lodge first and forever after, then proceed at their own discretion through the requirements of the separate rites.

Explains Kurt Zwolfer, "Originally, to become a Shriner, you had to be an ultra-Mason. You had to go through the Blue Lodge, and then you had to go through the Scottish or York Rite ... Only then could you apply for the Shrine. Now, since Shrine membership is going down, they have eliminated the Scottish and York Rite requirement, but you still have to be a Blue Lodge Mason before you can become a Shriner."

Incidentally, there is no such thing as a 33rd Degree Mason. There are 33rd Degree Scottish Rite Masons, but only that. If you want to fully understand, you'll have to join the Masons. And what will you have to do to earn those degrees?

Ah, but that's the secret.

"They say the biggest secret about Masonry is that there are no secrets," says Zwolfer. "If you do a lot of research, you can find out every single thing they do, initiation rites and everything. We feel [to expose those rites] would be unfair to the people we are cooperating with. We're going to hint at the edges ... but we feel that if we give everything away, we will have destroyed a little bit of the organization's integrity, their pride of ownership and belonging. That's not what we're here to do."

The Craft

"Finally; These rules you are always to observe and enforce ... cultivating brotherly love, the foundation and capstone, the cement and glory of this ancient fraternity; avoiding, upon every occasion, wrangling and quarreling, slandering and backbiting; not permitting others to slander honest brethren, but defending their characters ... Hence all may see the benign influence of Masonry, as all true Masons have done from the beginning of the world, and will do to the end of time."

Illustrations of Masonry 1772 (Preston)

Peeso and Zwolfer have arranged a teaser for the coming exhibit: a mannequin in full Shrine regalia—tasseled fez, embroidered waistcoat, cummerbund, pantaloons and spats. On the wall next to it is a photograph taken in the 1920s of the entire El Korah Temple membership, posing on the Capitol steps. There are at least 300 of them—more likely, 400—complete with their own brass band. Given the conditions one had to meet to be a Shriner in those days, we can roughly extrapolate how many other Masons must have called Boise home at a time when the city's population couldn't have exceeded 25,000. That old picture alone speaks volumes about affluence, influence and the potential for power. It's no wonder that historically, non-Masons have been a little concerned by what such a unified, dedicated assemblage might do if it took a mind to it.

Yet whatever power the Masons have seems to be restricted to the confines of their lodges. It is actually taboo to use lodge membership to promote one's own interests or pester lodge brothers over business possibilities. They are not even allowed to ask other men to become Masons. A prospect has to come to them.

While one of the few absolute requirements to membership is a belief in one god, religion and politics are not to be discussed within the Lodge. Ron Lowe, grand historian for the Grand Lodge of Idaho, tells why they insist that only deists need apply: "The reason you cannot be a Mason and an atheist is because, in our degree work, we ask that you swear allegiance in the presence of God. The feeling is that if you swear before God, that means something. If you're an atheist, that means nothing. So therefore, your word means nothing, so you have someone whose work cannot be trusted."

But except in the York Rite, it doesn't even matter which god you profess a belief in, as long as there's only one of them. In some temples the Bible, the Koran and the Torah are all displayed on the altar. There are Hindu Masons, Sikh Masons, Jewish Masons, Islamic Masons.

And yes, there are Mormon Masons, but that wasn't always the case.

Zwolfer is extremely careful how he words the explanation: "Joseph Smith was a Mason. This has been a difficult subject for us to research because a lot of it comes directly from the LDS church. Some of the Mormon symbols are very similar to Masonic Lodge symbols, so some people say that Joseph Smith perhaps borrowed them from the Masonic tradition.

"For a long time, Mormons were banned by the LDS church from becoming Masons, and it went the other direction, too," Zwolfer said. "The Masons banned Mormons from membership. That doesn't exist any more, but it was very interesting because Masons believed any religion was allowed, except for the Mormons."

In a state with a reputation, deserved or not, for its intolerance, one event is of particular inspiration. According to Peeso, the Idaho Grand Lodge was the first lodge to speak out against the atrocities of the Nazis in Germany. "The Freemasons were seen [by Hitler] as a threat," she said. "So it was dangerous for Masons to wear any of their symbols that might identify themselves. The story goes that, because Idaho Masons spoke out in 1936, they issued a proclamation. There were Masons in Europe who got the hint to get out or hide, and lives were saved." Instead of wearing Masonic symbols, Masons wore forget-me-not flowers. The irony is that forget-me-nots were Hitler's favorite flower.

There's a Jewish lodge in New York City, the Fiat Lux Lodge, that every year invites the grand master of the Grand Lodge of Idaho to come for a ceremony in gratitude to those Idaho Masons. They call it "Idaho Night."

These are not the best of times for Masons in general, and Idaho is no exception. The brotherhood is aging and there is little new blood coming into the fraternity to keep the ranks replenished. As recently as 1982, there were almost 11,000 Masons in the state, and now, even with the wildfire growth Idaho has been experiencing, there are only 4,400 Masons. The decline started in the 1970s and continues to this day.

Vern Patrick, the Idaho Lodge grand secretary, believes he knows why. "A lot of vets after World War II became Masons. I'm one of them. When those guys came out of the service, you lose something. You found it in the military, and when you get out, it disappears. You really don't realize what's happened to you, but there's a camaraderie there that is just gone," Patrick said. "We [the Masons] have what's missing. Worldwide, we all experience the same initiation process. We go through something that nobody else in the world goes through. That makes us brothers.

"Now they're all dying, unfortunately. Falling off fast. So we're just going like crazy to stay even."

That effort might explain the willingness of the Masons to participate so enthusiastically in the Historical Museum's exhibit. "They have been very helpful to us with this exhibit," says Zwolfer. "When we originally approached them, they told us, 'If you'd asked us about this 10 years ago, we'd probably have said no. We're just not into advertising ourselves.'" But now, since the group is aging, Zwolfer said, they were more interested in connecting with the researchers. "You wouldn't believe it," he said. "We go into these little lodges in these little towns and they open the closet, and there are all these items, sitting in cardboard boxes, that go back to the very beginning of territorial Idaho. The history is just scattered around the state in each one of these lodges and they're happy to loan it to us."

But what is it about a tradition that extends back into the mists of history that might attract a modern generation? The only answer can be the same thing that attracted the old generation. "There's a feeling of sanctuary when the doors close and the lodge is what we call 'tiled,' with an outer guard," said Vern Patrick. "And we know that everybody in there is equal. We call it meeting 'on the level.' Even though the governor of Idaho is a Mason, if he came into my lodge room, he'd be just as equal as anybody else, and no more.

"When we say we make good men better, we don't. We give them the opportunity to make themselves better," Patrick said. "And if you participate, after a few years you can't help but be better. It's just going to happen. You become a better father, a better citizen, a better brother, a better husband.

"Masons often say, 'When you're made a Mason, you're made a Mason in your heart. And even if you leave Masonry, it'll never go away.'"

Ron Lowe said Masonry represents a way of life. "Through my association with my brothers and to the teachings of Masonry, it has taught me to live a different kind of life and see things in a different light," he said. "I no longer look at different people with a certain disdain that I might have otherwise. It puts you in a different place. The whole world changes for you, your outlook on life, the things that you do. You go to help somebody that you wouldn't bother to, otherwise.

"It's a personal thing. You do it because it's inside you. It's about the internal man ... it's the internal man, not the external man who we welcome into the lodge.

"See, we have past governors, corporate men, and when we walk into that lodge, I'm on the same level with them. If I'm a carpenter, a ditch-digger ... when we're in the lodge, you're my brother and we sit together. You don't look down on me and I don't look up at you."

The Scotsman William Preston, almost 250 years ago, put it into words that linger still with his Masonic brothers. "The lapse of time, the ruthless hand of ignorance, and the devastations of war, have laid waste and destroyed many valuable monuments of antiquity, on which the utmost exertions of human genius have been employed," he is quoted as saying in Illustrations of Masonry. "Even the temple of Solomon, so spacious and magnificent, and constructed by so many celebrated artists, escaped not the unsparing ravages of barbarous forces. Freemasonry, notwithstanding, has still survived. The attentive ear receives the sound of the instructive tongue, and the sacred mysteries are safely lodged in the repository of faithful breasts ... and thus the excellent tenets of the institution are transmitted unimpaired, under circumstances precarious and adverse, through the succession of ages."

"Brotherhood: Freemasonry's Mark On Idaho" opens May 24 and runs throughAugust 31 at the Idaho State Historical Museum, 610 N. Julia Davis Drive in Boise. For more information call 334-2120.

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