The bonds of fellowship fade

Waning membership signals social change

March 11, 2007|By Julie Scharper | Julie Scharper,Sun reporter

Tucked between storefronts in the middle of Towson, a glass door marked "Odd Fellows Temple, Towson Lodge No. 79" leads to a narrow staircase. At the top, a heavy door with a peephole opens to a hall where throne-like chairs face an altar.

In a back room, a skeleton lies in a casket.

Generations have met in this stone building to plan good works or hold mystic ceremonies. They were brothers in a secret society, founded in the Old World but, in America, first chartered in Baltimore. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows grew to become the most popular fraternal group in the country for a time. Former members include Ulysses S. Grant and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Now, the group - along with many clubs that saw booming membership in the post-World War II years - is in danger of dying out.

FOR THE RECORD - An information box that accompanied an article about the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in yesterday's Sun attributed a motto used by the group to two sources. The correct source is The Red Blood of Odd Fellowship, by Elvin J. Curry. Another box regarding the membership numbers of various groups failed to note the source of the information, which was Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert D. Putnam.
The Sun regrets the errors.

"It's like you've lost an art, the art of fellowship and being together," says Everett W. Smith, a member of the Towson Odd Fellows lodge for more than six decades.

When Smith joined the group just after World War II, clubs and organizations were bustling with new members. Americans, brimming with solidarity and patriotism, flocked to groups with names like the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks, Woodmen of the World and the Improved Order of Red Men.

Membership in nearly all fraternal organizations has plummeted over the decades. By and large, the baby boomers and their children have not joined. Fewer people have free time in the evenings, and those who do are now more likely to spend their leisure hours alone, sociologists say.

And though Odd Fellows lodges have started accepting female members and initiated new programs to attract young people, many people in their 20s and 30s prefer to do their social networking online.

By last year, the national membership had dropped to a little more than 300,000, down from 2 million in 1920. More than 150 of the 183 lodges the Odd Fellows once maintained in Maryland have been sold. The Towson lodge, home to 200 members in the 1950s, now has 30, Smith says.

Most Odd Fellows are well past retirement age. They wonder who will speak the passwords and exchange the secret handshakes once they're gone.

When asked about the organization's future, Smith, 80, whistles.

"I think if something isn't done very speedily," he says, "the Odd Fellows has another four or five years."

Baltimore beginnings

There was a time when the group held a position closer to the forefront of society. In 1919, more than 20,000 Odd Fellows flocked to Baltimore for the celebration of the group's centennial in America.

Wearing "glittering sashes and swords," members marched through the city for more than two hours. They were accompanied by 41 bands and floats representing heaven, Plymouth Rock and key moments in Odd Fellowship, along with a 3-foot-tall Canadian soldier and a goat, The Sun reported.

Future Maryland governor Albert C. Ritchie addressed the convention. "Through these hundred years ... the spirit of Odd Fellowship has ever been the same: the spirit of benevolence, fraternity, co-operation, making life better, sweeter, holier," he said. "It is this spirit of cooperation which the world needs more than ever."

At the time, the order was the country's most popular fraternal organization, The Sun reported.

The order traces its roots to 18th-century England, when a group of men gathered to do charitable acts. Observers, surprised that men would spend their free time this way, referred to them as "Odd Fellows," according to the group's lore.

In 1819, Thomas Wildey, a British immigrant living in Baltimore, posted a notice asking other Odd Fellows from England to meet him at the Seven Stars Inn, near the current location of the Holocaust Memorial. The inn was destroyed by the 1904 Baltimore Fire. Wildey and the four men who joined him are generally considered the founders of the order's North American branch.

Many prominent Americans, including four presidents, were members of the group, according to Walker Houchins, secretary of the national headquarters. A companion organization for women, the Rebekahs, was formed in 1851, according to the group's Web site. That group's membership has also dropped drastically, members say.

Busloads of European Odd Fellows still make a pilgrimage to Baltimore to see a statue of Wildey that looms over Broadway in East Baltimore. But there are fewer local members to meet them each year.

The North American headquarters for the order was moved from West Chase Street, just blocks from Baltimore's Washington Monument, to Winston-Salem, N.C., in the early 1980s.

A Romanesque building at Cathedral Street and Saratoga, which served as the national Odd Fellows temple during the centennial celebration, was sold decades ago. Developers renovated that building in the 1970s.

When they did, they found more than a dozen skeletons in lockers and steamer trunks.

Hidden traditions

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