A History of Freemasonry in Tuscola
by Frank W. Lincoln, PM
The local chapter of the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, No. 332, is the oldest fraternal organization in Douglas County and in Tuscola, having received its charter from the Grand Lodge of Illinois in October 1860, less than a month before the election of Abraham Lincoln as president. A group of twenty-three men who had played an important part in the forming of the new county and city were charter members. In 2010, Tuscola Lodge No. 332 celebrated its 150th anniversary with a redediction ceremony conducted by Grand Master Richard L. Swaney and his Grand Lodge officers.
During the first ten years of its existence, the new lodge met on the second floor of a frame building that stood on South Central Avenue near the Washington Street corner. Since the founding of the lodge, a new home had been anticipated and finally was occupied in 1871. It was on the third floor of the Commercial Block located on North Central Avenue just west of the present Community Building.
The new Masonic Hall was described as one of the most beautiful in the state. The lodge was not to enjoy the new home long for on March 11, 1873, the fire still referred to as “Tuscola’s big fire” razed the Commercial Block along with many other buildings. All the lodge records and the original charter were destroyed.
The lodge was then moved back south of the railroad and for the next seventeen years occupied the second floor of the Ervin Block. In 1900 Roy Helm erected a building on West Sale Street to house his buggy and harness shop, and the Masonic Lodge purchased the sky-rights to his building. The lodge took over construction from the second floor, and built the home which it occupied for the next 35 years. This building is still standing on the north side of West Sale Street.
In 1937 Gus Flesor, proprietor of the Tuscola Kandy Kitchen, purchased the Rathbone Lodge of the Knights of Pythias building at 107 North Main Street, and on September 28, 1937, deeded the second story of that building to Tuscola Lodge No. 332, Tuscola Chapter No. 66, Melita Commandery No. 37 and Tuscola Chapter No. 44 Order of Eastern Star for their fraternal uses. Ultimately, Brother Flesor gave the entire building to the Tuscola Masonic bodies. The lodge suffered another fire on October 7, 1974, when the entire second story of the present building was destroyed. Once again the charter was lost. Tuscola Masons rebuilt the second floor and reoccupied it as their home.
While several of the charter members attained wide prominence before their death, none became so universally known as Joseph G. “Uncle Joe” Cannon. It was only a few years after the lodge was formed that the young lawyer, began winning prominence in politics, as Douglas County’s first state’s attorney. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1873 and, with the exception of two terms, served in Congress for fifty years. He was Speaker of the House from 1903 to 1911.
Freemasonry is based upon religious, moral and charitable principles. Masonry in Illinois owns and operates children’s homes in LaGrange and Murphysboro, Illinois, and conducts an Outreach Program to assist worthy distressed brother Master Masons and their widows. On the local level, Tuscola Masonic Lodge annually awards a scholarship to a Tuscola High School graduate, sponsors a Little League baseball team, conducts annual blood drives, sponsors the Tuscola High School Scholastic Bowl Team and hosts their awards banquet, maintains two miles of U.S. Route 45 north of Tuscola, assists worthy children in Tuscola, conducts child identification programs in the Tuscola grade school, and has participated in the local food pantry.
APPENDANT MASONIC BODIES
A charter was issued to Tuscola Chapter No. 66, Royal Arch Masons, on October 7, 1864. There were 22 charter members. In 1873 the historic fire destroyed the charter. The charter was reissued on October 30, 1873.
Over the years the Royal Arch Chapters from Newman, Arcola and Mattoon merged into and became a part of Tuscola Chapter. Since 1864, Tuscola Chapter No. 66 has been an important part of Free Masonry in Tuscola.
In past years, one of the social events presented by the Chapter was in entertaining wives of members, at which time the “widows degree” was conferred.
Melita Commandery No. 37, Knights Templar, received its charter on October 26, 1870, the number designating the 37th body to be instituted in the State of Illinois. The first three candidates knighted by Melita Commandery on January 21, 1871, were Joseph G. Cannon, Albert H. Pike and James Davis.
The centennial of Melita Commandery was celebrated in 1970-1971 when Frank W. Lincoln was Eminent Commander. One of the members of Melita Commandery, Dr. William J. Jones, was elected as Grand Master of the Grand Encampment of Knights Templar of the United States of America and served from 2000 to 2003 as leader of all Knights Templar in the United States.
In 2005 Godfrey de Bouillion Commandery of Mattoon merged into Melita Commandery No. 37.
Okaw Valley Chapter, Order of DeMolay, was instituted with 33 teenage male members who were installed on April 21, 1948. The advisory council was composed of members of Tuscola Masonic Lodge No. 332, sponsoring body for DeMolay.
The Mattoon Chapter of DeMolay presented the ritualistic work for the local chapter. Wayne Robbins was elected the Master Councilor and with other officers was installed on May 12, 1948.
For several years, one of the outstanding social events sponsored by the Chapter was the presentation of the DeMolay Sweetheart Dance and the crowning of a queen. It was staged with a great amount of pageantry.
The Okaw Valley Chapter moved to Arcola Lodge, after a period of dormancy in the 1970s and 1980s. In 2011, Okaw Valley DeMolay moved back to Tuscola Lodge, and now meets on the second and fourth Sundays of the month at 2 pm.
Order of the Eastern Star
The Order of the Eastern Star is the largest fraternal organization in the world to which both men and women belong. It encircles the Earth with over 10,000 Chapters in the U.S., Canada and 18 other countries. Though its teachings are based on the Bible, the Order of the Eastern Star is not a religion and is neither secret nor political. Members are composed of men who are Master Masons and women with specific Masonic relationships.
Millions of dollars are raised annually within its membership for numerous projects that benefit mankind. Many national and local charities are among the projects supported by its members.
The Grand Chapter of Illinois chartered Tuscola Chapter No. 44 in 1878. Letitia A. Johnson served as first Worthy Matron and John M. Outcelt as Worthy Patron. Since the beginning of the Chapter many devoted members have served as Worthy Matron and Worthy Patron. The Tuscola Chapter has had many members serve the Grand Chapter of Illinois. In 1999 Cindy Wood served as Worthy Grand Matron. Tuscola Chapter has also been represented by several members who have served the Grand Chapter of Illinois as Appointed Grand Officers. Matt Ring served as Worthy Grand Patron in 2007.
In 1951, the Chapter voted to sponsor and organize Tuscola Assembly No. 55, International Order of Rainbow for Girls. Helen Wood, Worthy Matron in 1951, served as Mother Advisor from 1951 until the Assembly closed in the 1980’s.
Tuscola Chapter and its members have accomplished much. A quote taken from the history written for its 100th Anniversary in 1978, gives the true ideals of the Chapter: “If the past can be considered a criterion, there is full assurance that the Chapter will rise to all occasions that will be encountered in the days to come.”
THE TUSCOLA MASONIC TEMPLE
The Tuscola Masonic Temple located at 107 North Main Street is owned by Tuscola Lodge No. 332, Tuscola Chapter No. 66, Melita Commandery No. 37 and Tuscola Chapter Order of Eastern Star No. 44 and is managed by a Temple Board of Managers.