Bumpy start for Columbus Masons chapter

Members of St. Johns Masonic Lodge are joining with their brothers across the state to celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of the organization in Indiana this year.

The Grand Lodge of the Free and Accepted Masons of Indiana, which governs all local Masonic lodges in the state, was constituted Jan. 12, 1818, which was 14 months after Indiana was granted statehood in December 1816.

If not for a few rocky beginnings, St. John’s would have been celebrating its own bicentennial in four years, according to historical newspaper reports and St. Johns’ own records.

Preliminary approval was given March 29, 1822, by the Grand Lodge to establish Lodge 20 in the two-year-old Bartholomew County community that had changed its name from Tiptona to Columbus months earlier.

Tiptona had been named for General John Tipton, a Freemason of high rank who once held the office of Grand Master of the State.

The first charter for St. Johns Masonic Temple was formally signed on Oct. 8, 1822. Among the first lodge officers was Luke Bonesteel, recognized as a key founding father of Columbus and one of the first generation of Bartholomew County commissioners.

But after the new chapter didn’t meet the requirement of sending representatives to statewide Grand Lodge meetings from 1824 to 1826, the state organization began to make inquiries.

On Oct. 11, 1826, the second most powerful officer of the lodge in Columbus, William A. Washburn, attempted to surrender the four-year old charter.

Washburn informed the Grand Lodge that “several of the members had been guilty of gross un-Masonic conduct towards each other,” which kept the lodge from holding a meeting for a year.

Prime principles of Freemasonry that Washburn advocated include religious and secular tolerance toward all mankind, as well as establishing bonds of brotherly love and affection.

But other new and fledgling lodges throughout the new state were experiencing the same problems at that time, said Barry White, an honorary St. Johns member who has been researching the lodge’s history for about 10 years.

Although the Grand Lodge didn’t accept Washburn’s charter surrender, they ended up taking it away themselves the following year in 1827, White said.

A second charter for St. John’s was issued in 1831, but the lodge again failed within a few years, he said.

In his written history of the local lodge published in 1879, St. Johns member William Henry Harrison Terrell wrote to future generations: “It must be remembered that in those days the state of society in Indiana, and particularly in Columbus, was not altogether favorable to the vitality and progress of benevolent and moral institutions.”

Third time sticks

A number of mid-19th century Masons had a role in establishing St. John’s Masonic Lodge, but it would be a copper and tinware maker who moved his family from Pennsylvania to Columbus in 1837 that many consider most instrumental in the lodge’s launch, White said.

Viewed by neighbors as a devout Presbyterian, Capt. Francis Lytle (1767-1854) kept a calm demeanor and avoided expressing controversial opinions that tend to create adversaries, Terrell wrote.

But Lytle was also unsurpassed in his devotion to the teachings and principles of Masonry, according to his contemporaries.

“When he saw that public opinion had changed to make the old Lodge possible, (Lytle) entered upon the work with such determination and energy as to make failure impossible,” Terrell wrote.

Retaining the old name and number, the 17-member lodge received its third and current charter on May 23, 1843.

The brotherhood first built a two-story frame lodge situated on Walnut Street, now Fourth Street, east of Franklin Street, across from the railroad station.

In 1884, St. John members moved into a three-story brick structure at 305 Washington St. Since the temple only needed a portion of the space, it was able to generate a steady income by renting out portions of the building.

When it first opened, the temple was home to Collins & Co. Shoe Store and the New Era Theatre, which provided vaudeville shows and other entertainment until closing its doors in 1915.

Although St. Johns publicly announced it had purchased a building near 7th and Franklin streets in late 1914 for a new Masonic Temple, the deal fell through, and the lodge would remain near Third and Washington for another 55 years.

Above that building that now houses Johnson-Witkemper Insurance, the words “Masonic Temple” as well as a number of Masonic symbols, are still visible to the public.

When Camp Atterbury opened at the beginning of World War II, membership at St. Johns began to soar. Freemasons in the military stationed at the camp near Edinburgh were invited to the Columbus lodge to work on their training, current lodge members said.

Establishing a legacy

Over several decades, members of St. Johns would be called upon to lay cornerstones for some of the most significant buildings in Columbus.

They include the Bartholomew County Courthouse in 1872, what was known as Central High School in 1904, at the Bartholomew County (now Columbus Regional) Hospital in 1916 and at the Columbus High School gymnasium in 1922.

“You could almost say that the whole city of Columbus was founded in the institute of Freemasonry,” White said.

On Aug. 18, 1979, the cornerstone of the current Masonic Temple of St. John’s Lodge was dedicated. Construction of the 10,000-square-foot, one-story steel and stone building was completed later that fall.

With other nearby lodges located in both Hope and Jonesville, St. Johns is one of almost 400 Masonic Temples located through the Hoosier state.

With nearly 50,000 Masons in all 92 counties, Indiana has one of the largest memberships of any state in the nation.

The current worldwide membership totals 3.6 million members, which includes 1.6 million in North America.

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Modern Freemasonry can be traced to the stone masons guilds that formed during the Middle Ages in Europe, which were developed to train men in skills needed to construct magnificent cathedrals and castles.

Over time, these guilds allowed some who were not actual stone masons to join their ranks, known likely as “admitted” or “accepted” masons.

The concept was to draw men of thought to the idea of creating “cathedrals of men,” a metaphor for character, balance and a spiritual belief in something beyond what is seen on earth.

The Grand Lodge, or association of four principle lodges of Freemasonry, was founded in 1717 in England. In America, the oldest Masonic Lodge was instituted in 1729 in Norfolk, Virginia.

Source: “The Genesis of Freemasonry” by Douglas Knoop, published in 1947.