By T.S. Akers
To contribute to the relief of all worthy distressed Master Masons, their wives, widows, and orphans is a phrase Freemasons wherever they may be dispersed are familiar with. Relief is itself one of the three Tenets of Freemasonry and the practice of relief a vital component of the Fraternity. Though Freemasonry was young in what would become the state of Oklahoma, the dedication to Masonic relief was innate.
While funds were certainly limited, the men who worked to establish the Grand Lodge of Indian Territory in 1874 knew that they must perpetuate the practice of Masonic relief. The care of orphans during this time fell upon the constituent Lodges. Ten years after the establishment of the Grand Lodge of Indian Territory, the relief of Masonic orphans was either sparsely reported to the Grand Lodge or the need at the local level was minimal. In 1884, only Ok-la-ho-ma Lodge No. 4 reported tending to the needs of children, expending $64.70 (roughly $1,500 in today’s money) to assist children in attending school.[i] To better see to the needs of orphans, a resolution was passed in 1888 requiring that:
A Special Committee be appointed to devise a plan for the systematic Education of Masonic orphans, raise funds therefor and secure legal title to a suitable body of land on which to erect a Masonic Orphanage for the Grand Lodge of Indian Territory.[ii]
By 1898, little had been done towards establishing a home for Masonic orphans. Grand Master James A. Scott spent the duration of his year in office visiting Lodges in an effort to secure funds for a home, resulting in the first $1,000 being designated solely for the project.[iii]
While no home had been established, the care of orphans during this time continued by local Lodges and the number of children requiring assistance rose. A total of forty-nine children were being cared for by Lodges in 1898.[iv] It was likely this growing need that led Grand Master Scott to call for the establishment of a per capita tax to be levied on the membership for the purpose of establishing a children’s home.[v] By 1900, the number of orphans being cared for by Lodges had risen to seventy-one, and still no home had been created. That same year, the Grand Lodge of Indian Territory made Henry M. Furman Financial Agent for the Orphan’s Home with the direction to travel the Territory and solicit funds for the Home. Furman was opposed to the taxation that Scott wanted, believing the relief of Masonic orphans should be a “free will offering, a labor of love.” Furman was ultimately overruled and the Grand Lodge chose to designate twenty-five percent of its gross receipts from constituent Lodges for the purpose of a home. By 1903, a total of $16,159.37 had been designated for the Orphan’s Home.[vi]
It took until 1907 for the Grand Lodge of Indian Territory to actually move forward with a Children’s Home, passing a resolution to locate it temporarily at Atoka. To head the enterprise, McAlester businessman William Busby was named president of the Board of Control.[vii] The accommodations secured at Atoka were actually located at the Murrow Indian Orphans’ Home.[viii] Joseph S. Murrow, Past Grand Master and Grand Secretary of Indian Territory, had opened his Indian orphanage in 1902.[ix] The location of the Masonic Children’s Home at Atoka was to be very temporary indeed. By 1908 the Murrow Indian Orphans’ Home needed to sell the property occupied by the Masonic orphans.[x] The Murrow Indian Orphans’ Home would itself move to Bacone College in 1910.[xi]
In the Oklahoma Territory, William L. Eagleton had closely been watching the efforts of the Grand Lodge of Indian Territory. When Eagleton became Grand Master of Oklahoma in 1900, he sought to create a fund for a Masonic Home, calling for a twenty-five cent per capita tax on the membership and a ten percent appropriation from the Grand Lodge each year.[xii] With the consolidation of the Grand Lodge of Indian Territory and the Grand Lodge of Oklahoma in 1909, a combined effort to contribute to the relief of Masonic orphans was born. The Federal government had abandoned the Cheyenne and Arapahoe Agency at Darlington and was selling the property as surplus. The city of El Reno had been given the option to purchase the property, but they chose to surrender their rights to the Masons.[xiii] For the sum of $73,882, the newly formed Grand Lodge of the State of Oklahoma purchased 676 acres and twenty buildings which comprised the Darlington Agency. Moving from Atoka in 1910, the new Masonic Home would house both children and the elderly.[xiv]
The location for the Masonic Home at Darlington proved to be a poor choice. The twenty buildings that comprised the old Indian agency and its associated farm were in bad need of repair. The property was five miles from the city of El Reno and weather could make the roads leading to Darlington impassible. Owing to this, schooling was conducted on site and the Grand Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star of Oklahoma erected a chapel on the grounds for church services in 1913. It was ultimately decided to move the Masonic Home in 1922. The location decided upon was Guthrie, home to the Grand Lodge offices. The City of Guthrie offered twenty-eight acres, along with access to Guthrie schools, and the Methodist hospital offered a reduced rate for services.[xv]
While construction of the new Masonic Children’s Home was being completed, the 125 children and 20 elderly persons from Darlington moved into the old Guthrie Convention Hall in 1922. Now owned by the Scottish Rite Masons, the Convention Hall was converted into a dormitory to temporarily house the Home residents.[xvi] The cornerstone to the new Home was laid by Grand Master Leslie H. Swan in early 1923.[xvii] The building, in the federal style, was designed by Hawk & Parr and completed at a cost of $500,000. The new Home included a gymnasium and an indoor swimming pool with marble tile, a gift of E.W. Marland. The children would finally move in on November 23, 1923.[xviii] The decision had been made to house the elderly Home residents separately and the Home for the Aged would open in 1927 with thirty-seven residents.[xix]
For children who find themselves without parents, the world can be a frightening place. The Masons of Oklahoma made every effort to make life for the orphans at the Masonic Children’s Home as normal as possible. The storerooms at the Home were stocked with over fifty varieties of food and every article of clothing necessary. The children were also supplied with the various notions necessary to life and clean bed linens. At Christmas the Order of the Eastern Star provided the children with gifts. There were also trips to Belle Isle Park in Oklahoma City in the summer, with transportation provided by the India Shrine Temple.[xx]
Additionally, effort was made to prepare the children for adulthood. A garden was established in 1932, which the boys tended to along with the orchard. These provided for fresh fruits and vegetables; the surplus was canned by the girls for the winter. The girls also learned needlework and household management. Some of the children even received further education ranging from college courses to summer school.[xxi] To further vocational education at the Home, the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of Oklahoma appropriated $12,000 for the erection of a building to house a print shop.[xxii] The older children who came to work in the Masonic Print Shop learned linotyping, press work, and binding. The shop provided most of the printed material for the Masonic Fraternity in Oklahoma, which in turn allowed the children to earn a wage.[xxiii] The Second World War would also see former Home children answer the call, with at least fifty-four entering the service. One of whom, Roy Watkins, would not return from the Philippines.[xxiv]
The Masonic Print Shop at Guthrie
Interior view of the Masonic Print Shop at Guthrie
(Courtesy of the Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of Oklahoma)
A print block used for the Grand Commandery proceedings produced at the Masonic Print Shop.
(From the collection of T.S. Akers)
The number of residents at the Masonic Children’s Home dipped to its lowest point in 1944, with just thirty children living there.[xxv] This trend continued over the years with a sort of ebb and flow. A resolution approved by the Grand Lodge of Oklahoma in 1957 allowed for children without any Masonic background to be admitted to the Home. By 1966, of the fifty children residing at the Home, only six were the children of Masons. The year 1972 would find only twenty-one children being cared for by the Masons. This prompted proposals in 1974 to close the Home and either secure a large house in Guthrie for the children or send them back to their sponsoring Lodges. Ultimately, just the dormitories were closed and all of the children moved into the main Home building. This was short lived though, as in 1978, only three children were still at the Home. Other accommodations were made for the remaining children and the trust that operated the home was dissolved by court order. The $95,000 that remained in the trust was dispersed to other Masonic charities.[xxvi]
A chapter in Oklahoma Masonic relief closed, the property that was the Masonic Children’s Home sold in 1982 to a developer intending to turn the main building into apartments and build townhomes on the twenty-eight acres.[xxvii] This project never came to fruition and the property sat neglected for many years. Today, the former Masonic Children’s Home stands as the Dominion House, an event center, hotel, and restaurant.[xxviii]
[i] Proceedings of the M.: W.: Grand Lodge A.F & A.M. of the Indian Territory: Tenth Annual Communication (Sedalia, Missouri: Democrat Steam Printing House and Book Bindery, 1884), 31.
[ii] Proceedings of the M.: W.: Grand Lodge A.F. & A.M. of the Indian Territory: Fourteenth Annual Communication (Muskogee, Ind. Ter.: Phoenix Steam Printing Company, 1888), 23.
[iii] Charles E. Creager, History of Freemasonry in Oklahoma (Muskogee, Oklahoma: Muskogee Print Shop, 1935), 214.
[iv] Proceedings of the M.: W.: Grand Lodge A.F. & A.M. of the Indian Territory: Twenty-Fifth Annual Communication (Muskogee, Ind. Ter.: Phoenix Steam Printing Company, 1898), 52.
[v] Proceedings (1898), 20.
[vi] Creager, 218-219.
[vii] William H. Phelps, Memories: Oklahoma Masonic Children’s Home (Oklahoma Lodge of Research, 1995), 1.
[viii] Creager, 234.
[ix] “Murrow Indian Orphan Home Atoka County Oklahoma,” Oklahoma Genealogy Trails, accessed March 27, 2018, http://genealogytrails.com/oka/atoka/murrow.html.
[x] Creager, 234.
[xi] “Murrow Indian Orphan Home Atoka County Oklahoma.”
[xii] Robert G. Davis and James T. Tresner, Indians, Cowboys, Cornerstones, and Charities: A Centennial Celebration of Freemasonry in Oklahoma (Guthrie, Oklahoma: The Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of the State of Oklahoma Library and Museum, 2009), 100.
[xiii] Creager, 235.
[xiv] Pamela Webb, “Taking Care of Their Own: History of the Masonic Children’s Home in Guthrie, Oklahoma,” The Chronicles of Oklahoma 95, no. 4 (2017-2018): 436.
[xv] Webb: 438-440.
[xvi] Ibid.: 441.
[xvii] Davis and Tresner, 108.
[xviii] Webb: 444.
[xix] Davis and Tresner, 110.
[xx] Phelps, 19.
[xxi] Ibid., 18-23.
[xxii] Norman E. Angel, History of the Grand Chapter of the Royal Arch Masons of Oklahoma (Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons of Oklahoma, 1964), 48.
[xxiii] Phelps, 23.
[xxiv] Ibid., 25-26.
[xxv] Ibid., 26.
[xxvi] Ibid., 32-34.
[xxvii] Marilyn Staton, “Masonic Home for Children in Guthrie Sold,” The Oklahoman (Oklahoma City, OK), May 19, 1982.
[xxviii] “A Rich History,” Dominion House, accessed March 27, 2018, http://www.dominionhouseguthrie.com/about/history/.