150 years of local Masons

Published 9:09 am Saturday, October 4, 2008

Members of Albert Lea’s Western Star Lodge No. 26, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, will be observing the 150th year of this organization with a dinner and program at the Elks Club on Oct. 25.

This Masonic Lodge is one of the oldest and still very active organizations in Freeborn County. In fact, it’s only a year younger than the county itself. There’s confirmation for this in the Tribune’s “Down Thru The Years” section in the 2008 Progress Edition. Freeborn County is listed first for being 151 years old. Second place goes to the Western Star Lodge for its 150 years of being part of life in Albert Lea and the county.

Further confirmation of 1858 as the year the local lodge being officially chartered can be found on page 323 of the 1911 History of Freeborn County book by Franklyn Curtiss-Wedge. The charter for Western Star Lodge becoming the 26th in Minnesota was signed on Oct. 27, 1858.

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However, several of the earliest settlers in this part of what was then the Territory of Minnesota were already members of Masonic lodges in other parts of the nation, especially Wisconsin. George Ruble, Asa White and five other men soon met and decided to organize the local lodge which gradually evolved between 1855 to 1857 and on into 1858.

One of the logical queries many people may have is based on a definition of what is a Mason. To help answer this query, Steve Claybourne, secretary of Western Star Lodge, wrote the following as part of an article in the Feb. 28, 2009, issue of the Tribune:.

“Freemasonry is the oldest and largest fraternal order in the world. It is a universal brotherhood of men who are dedicated to the principles of service to God, their country, their families and their fellow men. It has its roots in the Middle Ages in the days when operative masons were constructing the great cathedrals of Europe. In those early days, especially in countries where liberty was severely restricted, Masonry was a secret society. Masons met to discuss such new and radical ideas as truth, brotherhood, and the secrecy of the ballot. Then in 1717, the Grand Lodge of England was formed and Masonry became public. Ever since then it has been one of the first institutions to be established when a new community arose.

“In the American Colonies, Masonry appeared as early as the 1730s in New York. It spread rapidly through the country and by the time of the American Revolution there were prominent Masons in all branches of government. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence nine were known to be Masons and at least 10 more were thought to be. Among the 74 general officers in the Continental Army there were 33 Masons. Three of the five co-authors of the Constitution were Masons, as were one-third of those who signed it.”

For just over five decades the Western Star Lodge and several affiliated groups like the Royal Arch Masons, Appolo Commandry of the Knights Templar, and Order of Eastern Star which gradually evolved met in various places. These meeting places included the Webber Hotel at the corner of Main Street and Broadway Avenue, second floor of the Brownsill Wagon Shop at the site of the present post office, A.W. White Dry Goods at 106 S. Broadway Ave., the Hewitt Building at the corner of Broadway Avenue and William Street, and a building near the corner of Broadway Avenue and West Main Street. This last building, plus the Hewitt Building, even had the Masonic emblem carved in stone near the roof line.

Just a century ago, the decision was made by the lodge members to have their own building instead of paying rent for what became overcrowded quarters through the years..

An agreement was made with the Albert Lea Fire Department Relief Association to purchase the Samuel Eaton home near the corner of North Broadway Avenue and Water Street.

This historic home, site of the city’s first real library, was moved to Dunham Street. In 1909 construction was underway on the present building which then cost $17,700. The upper portion would be used by the Masonic groups and the first meeting was held there on March 10, 1910. The lower portion became an investment property for the volunteer firemen who were stationed just across the street. One of the earliest tenants in the lower portion was the Idle Hour Theater, where silent films and some vaudeville programs were the main attractions.

In 1919 the Masons purchased the portion owned by the firemen and became the sole owners of the building. The lower part was used as a recreation center, youth club, a temporary hospital during an influenza epidemic in the early 1920s, civic auditorium, and as a theater for live plays.

In the 1970s the Albert Lea Community Theatre groups was looking for a permanent place to rehearse and present their plays. The Masons offered to sell the building to the city for a dollar, then pay a dollar a year, plus real estate taxes on their portion of the building for 50 years. As a result, both the theater and Masonic Temple portions of the building have been extensively remodeled. An elevator was added and the heating and air conditioning systems modernized.

During its 150 years, there have been 1,825 members in the Western Star Lodge. Some of the prominent members of the past are Dr. Albert C. Wedge, T.J. Sheehan (Civil War and Sioux Uprising veteran and Freeborn County Sheriff), Dorr K. Stacy, John L. Gibbs, John F.D. Meighen, Frank Hall, Burt May, William P. Sturtz, LeRoy L. Gaarder, E.H. Ruhsam, W. Russell Voight and William W. Cargill (founder of the Cargill firm which started in Albert Lea) who served as lodge secretary in 1872-73.

There are presently 158 members of Western Star Lodge, according to Claybourne. He listed the affiliated groups using the city’s Masonic Temple at the present time as: Western Star Lodge No. 26, A.F. & A.M.; Albert Lea Chapter No. 30, Royal Arch Masons; Southgate Council No. 15, Cryptic Masons; Appolo Commandry No. 12, Knights Templar; Albert Lea Shrine Club; and Halycon Chapter No. 21, Order of Eastern Star.

The present officers of the Western Star Lodge are: Brandon Farris, worshipful master; Jake Loper, senior warden; James Sousa, junior warden; Past Master Don Rippentrop, treasurer; Past Master Steve Claybourne, secretary; Cohen Rautenkranz, senior deacon; Lynn Berven, junior deacon; Ray Hangge, senior steward; Past Master Milan Hart, junior steward; Past Master Robert Hahn, marshal; Past Master Mark Harig, lead education officer; Alfred “Lars” Anderson, chaplain; and Robert Dammen, tyler.