Secrets in Stone

March 1, 2011 | By More

Freemasonry has been shrouded in mystery since medieval stone masons formed Masonic Guilds during the middle ages. Yes, they have secrets, but not what you might imagine. 

According to Freemason literature, they are not a “secret” society, but rather a society “with secrets.”

So, what are these secrets? The answer might surprise you. Early Masons were sworn to secrecy because they knew the “secret” to building vaulted stone arches. A revolutionary idea at the time, the secret within a secret was a simple wedged “keystone” which allowed stone masons to construct massive Cathedrals with large open spaces filled with light.

What must have seemed like magic at the time was actually a common sense engineering solution based on simple geometry. Look at the Freemason logo and you will see a “square and compass”, some of the same tools stone masons use today.

Keystones (or cornerstones) are no longer a best-kept secret, but some still hide secrets to the past. When the Masonic Temple #274 was built in downtown Russellville in 1926, and dedicated in 1927, its keystone contained a time capsule. The 84-year-old capsule was opened last September after it was removed as part of a major reconstruction project on the City Hall building.

Was this mysterious time capsule filled with arcane Masonic secrets? No. Inside the simple metal box were practical artifacts including a rosters of Grand Lodge Masters, membership of the Russellville Temple, a 1919 penny, a Masonic coin, a Bible and two local newspapers of the day. As ordinary as they might appear, these simple objects tell an interesting story.

Displayed in a glass cabinet at the Pope County Library in Russellville, the time capsule is an authentic piece of Russellville’s past. Both the Daily Courier Democrat from Wednesday, Sept. 14, 1927, and the weekly Tribune headlines reported in grandiose prose the official opening of the new Masonic Temple downtown at the south east corner of South Commerce Ave and West Second Street.

“The new Masonic Temple is one of the most substantial additions to the splendid building program in Russellville the past three years,” the Daily Courier Democrat stated.

“Whether you have the most worthy distinction of being a Mason or whether you haven’t, you are invited to attend the opening of the new Masonic Temple,” said the Tribune. A special invitation was also given to the areas “elderly women”, who were promised “special arrangements for their comfort and entertainment.”

Some news items of the day sounded like they could have been written today. A headline from one paper read, “Trade Day Attracts Few Buyers Today” and reported that “the financial condition of the county reflects in buyers who failed to take advantage of the bargains offered.” The story later explains that “no one expected much of a response, there being little money in circulation.” The popular movie playing on Sept. 27, 1927, at the Community Theatre, “The Pick of the Pictures,” was Florence Vidor in “The Popular Sin.”

A total of 84 years of progress has made a big difference in news reporting, too. A headline buried in the middle of the paper announced “James Colored School Opens New Building”. Bacon was advertised at $.29 per lb, lard cost 13 1/2cents per lb. and an ad for Sewell-West and Company, “The Family Store” featured “overalls, 23 ounce, soft pliable, best blue denim – $1.75. To put these prices in perspective, the cost for building the Masonic Temple/City Hall building was estimated at a whopping $40,000.

City Hall rented the first floor of the Masonic Temple until 1943, when the City of Russellville bought the building for $12,500. Being very community minded the Freemasons apparently gave the City a great deal.

Then in late 2001, the same year the building was listed on the Arkansas Register of Historic Places, the Masons vacated their beloved Temple. The group now holds meetings at 802 Boulder St, Russellville.

The current re-construction of this building is expected to cost the City of Russellville approximately $1.7 million.

The Building: Then and Now

Since Masonic literature describes their group as a “post-collegiate fraternal” (male only) organization, women were not allowed to join at the time. However, females had their own collateral organizations which were allowed limited access to the second floor.

Of course, this didn’t stop women from using the building on a daily basis. Many women worked or shopped on the main floor occupied by the Russellville City Hall, Chamber of Commerce headquarters, the city’s central fire station, the Smith-Tucker Candy Company, Vance Electric Company and dentist Dr. A.J. Carlson.

As times changed, other offices were added to the first floor. In 1962, offices were added for the mayor, city treasurer and police department which contained a small city jail. The fire department moved to a new location in the 1950’s and the Police Department in 1981. The Courthouse itself is still located in what had been the old Fire Station, its large double doors replaced by large windows to bring in the light.

Other windows had been replaced but were not historically appropriate; therefore ineligible for inclusion in the National Historic Register. In 2004, the city installed new windows that matched the original style on the front façade, so the building is now listed on the National Historic Register.

This brings us to the latest renovation. Although the first floor was basically gutted, few changes were made to the outside of the building. Freemason headquarters on the second floor were only slightly modified to add a conference room where the old Masonic kitchen had been.

According to Russellville Mayor Bill Eaton, who is Chairman of the Building Committee, one reason the building was rehabbed was to make it fully handicapped accessible, as required by law. Another reason was to put the first floor on one level, as various additions to the original structure had caused a series of step downs to accommodate the slope of the property. In addition, the first floor had been chopped up into small offices with dropped ceilings to cover up the maze of wires and ductwork necessary for modern operation.

When the suspended ceiling was removed, workers found a beautiful 15 ft high tin ceiling. Walls once covered by paneling have been restored to their original plaster finish and floors long hidden by carpet reveal their beautiful hardwood sheen. Modern reproductions of 1920’s style lighting have replaced fluorescent fixtures to enhance the vintage look.

Upstairs, the Masonic Temple Hall looks much as it did when it was used for Masonic meetings. A large central space is still flanked on both sides by step-up platforms for seating by various levels of Masons.

As a three-tier organization symbolic of the three levels of Masonry, the highest level or third degree are called Master Freemasons, followed by second degree Fellowcraft Masons and first degree Entered Apprentices, explained Eaton, who was once a member of this lodge.

The slang expressions the “third degree’’ and “black balled” both came out of Masonic practices. In order to become a member, Masons vote by using black or white balls put in a box. A white ball is a Yes vote while a black ball means No. One black ball in the box, and the prospective member was out, Eaton explained.

While the Russellville Lodge 274 remains all-male, a few Masonic chapters from different jurisdictions now have female members. However, most women today still join other Masonic organizations such as the Order the Eastern Star and a girl’s Rainbow Assembly. Young men of non-age may join DeMolay.

FREEMASONRY UNVEILED

Freemasonry has been a popular subject of fictional books and movies over the years, including The DaVinci Code, Angels and Demons and National Treasure. But who are they really?

Although the Freemasons have been linked rightly or wrongly to the Knights Templar, the Priory of Sion, and the Holy Grail, the current incarnation of Freemasonry began in the early 18th century in England and quickly spread to the colonies in North America.

It has been said that up to 50 of the 55 original signers of the Declaration of Independence were Freemasons, although recent Freemason literature says that less than 10 were actual members. However, there is no doubt some of the most prominent men of their day were Freemasons including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, Mark Twain, John Wayne, Harry Houdini, Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Ernest Borgnine and Nat King Cole.

The Freemasons slogan is ” Making Good Men Better” and their surprising “cardinal rule” is to “never discuss religion and politics” at meetings as “Masons are concerned with neither.” However, the practices of the group are based on “allegory and symbols” and consistent rituals “best communicated in a specific and concise manner.” There are “less mainstream” practices where its members can “investigate personal development, spiritualism and mysticism,“ according to the internet, The Masonic Traveler Magazine and book What is Freemasonry?

Whatever Freemasons are or aren’t, one thing is certain; they are a charitable group trying to better themselves and our nation through good works and good behavior. To join a man must have three qualities; he must have a good reputation, have a good moral disposition and he must have a personal desire to become a Freemason. Perhaps this is the magic combination that gives Freemasons its mysterious appeal.

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