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REMEMBER THIS: Newmarket's Odd Fellows 'rubbed elbows' at 156th Lodge in Canada

In this week's column, History Hound Richard MacLeod explores the roots of the Order of the Odd Fellows in medieval times to the founding of the local chapter in 1876

We continue our look at local service clubs, lodges and organizations from the past with the hope of bringing their history to light. The Odd Fellows had a fairly large following in the Newmarket area, having spread first from Britain to the United States and then north into Canada with the immigration.

While the exact date of the founding of Odd Fellowship has been lost in antiquity, we can trace its roots back to the medieval trade guilds of the 12th and 13th centuries. We do know it existed before 1650 as there were a number of Odd Fellow groups mentioned in England in the 1700s.

It is said the titles of the officers of the Lodge were taken from the Order of Gregorian’s‚ which met at St. Albans in May of 1736. Their origins may be from an organization known as the Ancient Order of Bucks that thrived in England in the 18th century and had as its emblem three bucks with their antlers intertwined. These men had as their leader a Most Noble Grand and met in clubrooms and taverns. One of their principal emblems was “a bundle of sticks,” familiar to modern Odd Fellows as signifying strength in union.

In 1745, Daniel De Foe, the writer, mentions the Society of Odd Fellows, and in the Gentleman’s Magazine, the Odd Fellows’ Lodge is mentioned as “a place where very pleasant and recreative evenings are spent.”

The earliest surviving printed official lodge record is said to be the Rules of Loyal Aristarchus Lodge no.9 in England dated March 12, 1748 — its number indicates that at least eight other lodges had existed prior to that time.

A song written in 1788 by James Montgomery, states the early English Lodges were supported by the members and visitors paying a penny to the secretary on entering the Lodge. We known that the Lodges were originally formed by workingmen for social purposes, and for giving their brethren aid by assisting them to obtain employment when out of work.

When a member could not obtain work, he was given a card and funds enough to carry him to the next Lodge, and if unsuccessful there, that Lodge facilitated his farther progress in the same way. Where he found employment, he deposited his card there.

At first there appears to have been little or no formal ritual, and no formal method of conducting the business of the Lodge, they would grow over time. I suppose that the English, being somewhat conservative in nature, are slow to yield to innovations but eventually many radical and necessary changes were made.

With the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, fraternal and friendly societies were suppressed in England. Fear of revolution was not the sole reason for persecution; Fraternal and Friendly Societies like the Odd Fellows were the predecessors of modern-day trade unions and could facilitate effective local strike action, levying all of their members to contribute to local benevolent funds, out of which payments were made to the families of members who were on strike.

The Unlawful Oaths Act of 1797 and the Unlawful Societies Act of 1799 suppressed almost all fraternal and friendly societies in England. This action by the government may be considered an interference in “people’s rights of association” if it were to occur today but life was different back then. As a result, many of the early lodges closed down while some went underground developing secret handshakes, passwords and ciphers for their meetings.

This also meant that many documents were deliberately destroyed to protect members from identification and arrest. Almost all traces and artifacts of the existence of the early lodges are now lost. In 1803, the Odd Fellows were revived by an organization called the London Union Odd Fellows, which later claimed itself as the Grand Lodge of England and assumed authority over all Odd Fellow lodges in that country.

In 1810, however, several lodges in the Manchester area declared themselves to be an Independent Order of Odd Fellows with the title the Manchester Unity. In 1814, they elected officers and proceeded to standardize degree work of the lodges. With their improved system, they were able to persuade other lodges to join their unity. They also chartered the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.) in North America in 1819.

As to the unique name of the organizatio,  one old and apparently authoritative history of Odd Fellowship gives this explanation for their existence - “common labouring men should associate themselves together and form a fraternity for social unity and fellowship and for mutual help.” This was such a marked violation of the trends of the times (England in the 1700s) that they became known as being ‘peculiar or ‘odd,’ and hence they were derided as ‘Odd Fellows.’ Because of the appropriateness of the name, those engaged in forming these unions accepted it. When legally incorporated the title Odd Fellows was indeed adopted.

Another explanation is that the original Odd Fellows were men who were engaged in various or odd trades that didn’t have the numbers to offer the security provided by a trade guild or union like the Masons. These workers of “odd jobs” banded together and initially met in the back rooms of pubs, paying a penny per week in dues intended to help members who fell ill or had passed away.  

Modern references state that the true reason for the name Odd Fellows isn’t known or documented. Whatever the reason may have been, the unusual name has been the object of public curiosity (and on occasion derision or mirth) for well over 200 years.

The Odd Fellows fraternity was founded on the North American continent in Baltimore, Maryland at the Seven Stars Tavern in 1819 by Thomas Wildey and four members of the Order in England. Washington Lodge No. 1 subsequently received its charter from the Manchester Unity of Odd Fellows in England.

The organization move north into Canada approximately 24 years later in  1843. This was the Prince of Wales Lodge No. 1 in Montreal, Quebec, where two American Odd Fellows living in Montreal petitioned the Grand Lodge of the United States for a charter. The authorities granted the charter after some very serious soul searching and deliberation.

Within 15 months, there were three additional lodges in the Montreal area who had petitioned and received a charter to operate as the Grand Lodge of Canada under the leadership of W.M.B. Hartley as their Grand Master. This was the beginning of a brief period of prosperity with the Order spreading rapidly to become a fashionable and popular society in Canada.

Montreal in 1843 was the capital of Canada and there were many prominent members of Parliament in the Odd Fellows. The lodges became private social clubs in the eyes of some of its members. 

The Canadian lodge apparently felt its operations should be more independent from the U.S. and petitioned the Grand Lodge of the United States for sovereign status as a quasi-independent jurisdiction. Subsequently, the Grand Lodge of British North America received this authority with some limitations on their powers.

This arrangement would prove to be short-lived, however. The Grand Lodge of British North America chartered four Grand Lodges and 28 Odd Fellow Lodges under their respective jurisdictions within eight years. Perhaps the burden on its officers proved too heavy or perhaps the novelty of membership in the Order may have proven an obstacle but by 1853 the British North America Lodge had defaulted on its charter. All lodges in Montreal formally disbanded and the debts of the Grand Lodge were paid by the remaining subordinate lodges.

In 1854, the Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of the United States recommended that the seven orphaned Odd Fellow Lodges in Ontario and one in Nova Scotia be brought under the umbrella of the Grand Lodge of the United States. Over the years the Order flourished in Canada and the seven jurisdictions were created under the Sovereign Grand Lodge.

The three commissioners sent from the U.S. head office were to be successful in instituting 10 Odd Fellow lodges in Canada West, all chartered by the Grand Lodge of Canada. In addition, a new lodge was instituted in Bytown (Ottawa) in 1846. In 1847, two more Odd Fellow Lodges were instituted in Toronto and Oshawa. Records show 22 lodges were operational with 2,280 Odd Fellows contributing to the Order in Ontario.

On Jan. 19, 1847, the new Grand Sire of the Grand Lodge of British North America called into session the first meeting of the recently chartered body. Six officers and 21 representatives answered the roll call. This session adopted a constitution and divided British North America into eight subordinated Grand Lodge Jurisdictions, namely, Toronto, Kingston, Montreal, Quebec, Fredericton, Halifax, Charlottetown, and Newfoundland.

In 1853, Wilmot G. De Saussure, the Grand Sire declared that Canada would be divided into three districts, with a District Deputy Grand Sire in charge of each. These were the Lower Provinces, Canada East, and Canada West.

The first Odd Fellow Lodge was instituted on June 17, 1845 in Ontario, known as Victoria Lodge No. 6 and was in the village of Belleville. New lodges working under the authority of the Grand Lodge of Canada were numbered in the sequence of their creation. The actual location of a lodge within the country was not relevant. Although Victoria Lodge became the sixth lodge in the country, it was the first in Ontario.

We know that Newmarket’s Lodge was the 156th lodge granted a charter as it was named Pyramid Lodge No. 156.

Although the Ontario members were considered small players in Montreal, they would become big players if a lodge was created in their hometown. In 1846 they prevailed upon the leaders of the Order to try to expand and open this vast virgin territory.

The delegation of three special deputies were charged with the authority to visit the populous sections of the province, with the power to establish lodges wherever there were opportunities. It was just such a committee that granted Newmarket and Aurora charters. The commission was permitted to initiate Odd Fellows on the spot, receive applications, grant dispensations, and institute lodges.

Ontario still practises the principles and objectives of the Order 179 years later.

Many events and achievements have occurred since that time. Ontario created an Odd Fellows and Orphans home and formed an Odd Fellow Insurance company for the collection and payment of benefits. Ontario has enjoyed a great period of fraternalism since its revival and at its peak in 1920, it had 403 Odd Fellow Lodges containing 61,833 members. Our area contained some of these 403 lodges.

In 1851, I.O.O.F. became the first fraternity in the U.S. to accept women when it adopted the Degree of Rebekah. This was before the U.S. government allowed women to vote or to run for public office.

The IOOF has been fully co-ed since 2001 and all genders can join Odd Fellows Lodges.

So, what about the Newmarket Lodge? According to an article in the local newspaper, the Newmarket chapter of the Odd Fellows was instituted in February 1876 and received its charter Aug. 7, 1876. There were 70 members initially and the founding members are listed as a Mr. L. Atkinson, Mr. F. S. W. Cook, Mr. Thomas Gaid, Mr. George Fox and Mr. James Spear.

A Sept. 24, 1880 article details Odd Fellows Day and how the community had turned out in mass. From a small ad in the Newmarket Era on Jan. 5, 1883, we know that Pyramid Lodge No. 156, Newmarket, had been occupying rooms over the Hodges' Tin Shop, but during the summer of 1883 it had secured "more commodious and convenient apartments" over Dr. Bentley's new drug store on Main Street (where the fine Cake Shop was located).

We get a clue as to other local chapters from a report from a Newmarket meeting when it was reported that brethren from Bradford, Barrie and King City lodges were in attendance. It was reported that year that there were more than 800 Lodges and 14,000 members in the Ontario region.

The Mechanics Institute of Newmarket was first formed in December 1856. In 1865, the Mechanics Institute had erected a hall adjacent to the Grammar School on Lot Street, now Millard Avenue, on the north side. The building had been a landmark in our community for more than 50 years.

In 1912, the building was purchased by the Pyramid Lodge of the I.O.O.F., the International Order of Foresters. During the Second World War, it became Club 14, a dance hall that sported great live music and food, offering the men from the Newmarket Military Camp an opportunity to relax and meet the local population off base.

In the late 1920s, the town had its eye on the I.O.O.F. hall, a preferred location available at the time for purchase for $2,000. The Town of Newmarket, as you remember, had considered it an excellent location for a library  and had attempted to convince the Library Board to approve the expense from its building fund without luck.

Max Boag stepped forward and offered the Odd Fellows $2,200 for the building, vowing to turn it into an entertainment hall that would include a downstairs area for our soldiers. Donations to the project committee began in earnest in the winter of 1941/42 and by January, the hall was ready to open. It included a small reading room equipped with donated books and magazines, a large, furnished clubroom with games and a piano, kitchen and canteen.

One of the things that appealed to me during my research was the fact that Odd Fellows, unlike many other organizations, made no special effort to attract “name” members. It was said to be a warm, personal type of affiliation that didn’t rely on “rubbing elbows” with the famous to give them satisfaction.

My Grandpa was a member, and I gave the archives two of his medals from the provincial gathering of the Odd Fellows in Newmarket in the early 1900s. I remember him telling me that their numbers reached about 160 at its peak and how it was a fun and status-free group.

If your ancestors belonged to the Odd Fellows, then it would be great to hear about them in the comments section.