Grand Forks' masonic center opens doors of 'secret' society
It may come as a disappointment to some that there are no subterranean pens holding goats to be offered in ritualistic sacrifice. No torture chambers for intruders or revealers of secrets. No dragons.
But in the cavernous dark of the Grand Forks Masonic Center, the book is still open on ghosts.
"Some specialists came in here and set up their cameras once," said Carol Martell, the office manager. "They said there are a couple of hot spots, whatever what means.
"And the delivery man, when he brings us something, he always runs out of the building."
For the imaginative and the mystically minded, there are ceremonial sabers and a brass gong, plush altars and tall embroidered chairs for costumed potentates. An expansive auditorium boasts a wraparound balcony and a stage outfitted with drop-in sets of late-medieval and Renaissance background scenery. Formal lodge rooms, named the red and the blue and so appointed, are lined by Doric and Ionic columns.
A stroll through the many-chambered Masonic Center at South Fourth Street and Bruce Avenue is like a wandering through time, tradition, ritual and secrecy, with enough old lamps, artwork, leather chairs and tables of burnished wood to fill several antique shops.
You can take the tour Saturday night, when the Shriners open their century-old fortress to the public and explain -- up to a point -- what it means to be a Mason and a Shriner.
You don't have to know the secret handshake.
The objective is to bolster membership in the fraternal organization, Shriner Bill Steckler said, although he notes that Masonry is holding its own regionally and bucking a national trend toward dwindling membership. A banner hangs in the center's entrance, in fact, boasting of 12 straight years of membership growth.
"We're not having an event because we're struggling," Steckler said. "We're having an event to stay healthy. Every organization needs to do that at times."
And while holding steady and even growing in numbers, the membership is aging, he said, a challenge facing many other fraternal organizations and service clubs.
The Masons share their grand building with several other societies, including DeMolay and the Order of the Eastern Star. They also rent it out for weddings, receptions and other private gatherings, and the auditorium has been used for plays and musical performances.
A big socializing room features a bar, a spacious wood dance floor and a well-appointed kitchen.
Not all Masons are Shriners, but one must be a Mason to become a Shriner, whose fez-wearing members are known for their participation in parades and hosting of the annual Shrine Circus, which raises money to maintain the Masonic Center and to support the Twin Cities Shriners Hospital in Minneapolis.
Just more than 1,200 Shriners, hailing from Bemidji, Minn., to Williston, N.D. but mostly in the Grand Forks area, count the Grand Forks Masonic Center as home.
Of approximately 5 million Masons worldwide, about 3 million are in the United States, according to local officers, with about 3,000 in North Dakota.
Freemasonry grew from obscure origins in Europe centuries ago, probably from stonemasons' guilds of the late Middle Ages. Many of the symbols used in Masonic ritual reflect those origins, as do greetings used by Masons to identify each other. Centuries ago, traveling stonemasons used handshakes to indicate their craft level and what they should be paid.
"It was like having a union card," Steckler said.
The society became popular in colonial America, and members at the time of the Revolution included Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and George Washington, one of at least 14 presidents who were Masons. Mozart was a freemason. So was John Wayne.
Freemasonry came to Grand Forks in the 1870s and '80s. The Grand Forks Masonic Center was built in 1913 and often was called the Kem Temple, but not so much today. "We're trying to get away from 'temple' because people associate it with religion," Steckler said.
The only requirement for membership "is that you believe in a supreme being," he said. "That said, once you become a Mason there is no mention of religion or politics when you're here. It isn't allowed."
In the past masters room, portraits of "worshipful masters" dating to H.T. Caswell in 1880 line the walls. The room also features a large portrait of Washington in Masonic regalia.
It is an all-male society, though Steckler said that women -- wives -- play an increasingly important role in Masonic activities. He said he expects and hopes that women will be admitted as members in the near future.
Freemasonry has a long history of segregated membership, as well, with separate lodges for black Masons. But Steckler said that, too, is changing, and his Malta Lodge -- one of four in the Grand Forks area -- has welcomed several black members in the past few years.
"It used to be a rich group that ran here, mostly business owners," he said. "But there are fewer local business owners now, so we are more working class and professional."
When people raise questions about it being a "secret society," members are likely to respond that they are more a society with a few secrets. "And most of those are on theIinternet," he said.
"What I like about the group is the tightness of it, and how quickly we come together for each other and for other people," he said. "That's why it appeals to a lot of people with a background in the military or fraternities. They appreciate that strong bond."
Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send email to email@example.com.