Human beings are a gregarious lot. To survive there needs to be at least two of them to continue and when successful—have more of their kind around. It’s called a family. Somewhere in time, families joined together and were now a tribe eventually evolving into a village, community, then a nation until today.
Human beings seem also to be a disgruntled lot and parallel to history’s mankind evolution is their tendency to poach on each other’s territory. In between this simplified sociological sketch, various imperatives led to leadership by some, rebellion by others and the saga of history continues to delight and dismay every generation. Amid the formal structures of any civilization, there still was (and is) the need to simply meet others of the species. From a casual greeting to an anonymous conversation with a stranger, humans are prone to communicate for other reasons than having some purpose.
So, too, our civic ancestors went from social gatherings of family and friends to include prescribed purposes. Some of these historic gatherings still do so today, others have faded into the shadows of time, and still others have a relatively new beginning. Each has or had a purpose; each deserves consideration as all enrich the fabric of any community and provide insight into human behavior.
In his seminal study of this county, History of San Luis Obispo County, Myron Angel devotes three of his lengthy 47 chapters to what he calls “secret societies.” This wasn’t an attempt to lure readers into some sort of mysterious world of intrigue … either for good or evil … but simply a caption for a wide variety of fraternal groups formed with a specific purpose or purposes and designed to enroll a certain group of like-minded participants. Each—even if unknown today—deserves more recognition than possible here.
Here’s the story.
If there is a common thread weaving its way through various fraternal organizations, seeking the benefit of others is a major theme. Originally, the gatherings were meant to help each other during traumatic times of hunger, illness, unemployment, or even in death. There were no public institutions to pay for doctors or medicine or rebuild a home or barn burned in the many fires of the time or even a decent burial outside a church service. Today, such charity, either individual or institutional, is not unusual. For past times, such kindness was, well, even odd, and thus the name.
Historically tracing its roots back to England centuries before, the Odd Fellows in America recognize their founder as Thomas Wildey who with a few other men established Washington Lodge No. 1 in Baltimore, Maryland on April 26, 1819. According to its history, the purpose was to “visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan.” At various times, epidemics, unemployment, debtor’s prisons, and parentless children plagued much of a nation. As with other noble aspirations, various lodges accomplished varying degrees of success. Today, the local Lodge is best remembered for its attention to the deceased.
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a new name by the mid-nineteenth century was expressive of its separation from England. By the late 1880s, the Order included the Rebekahs, the first fraternal society to include women. Soon, there were lodges in every state including California. For the 31st state, an initial attempt as early as 1847 fell prey to the gold fever as most of the membership headed for the promised wealth of Midas buried elsewhere. Finally, exactly a year before statehood, on September 9, 1849, California Lodge No. 1 was established in San Francisco.
Locally, the first to organize in the county was Chorro Lodge #168 on March 3, 1870 and continues in the community. Emulating lodges across America, a major imperative was to build a hall for its members. An initial attempted to do so proved unsuccessful, but in 1878, the Lodge became residents in the upstairs of the Schwartz building on the corner of Monterey and Court Streets. Angel describes it as “fitted up in an elegant manner.” Pioneer Lazare Landeker was elected as the first Noble Grand to head the lodge while another notable pioneer, Peter A.
Forrester would become the District Deputy Grand Master. The current lodge on Dana Street was built in 1942. San Luis Obispo was not the only community to establish a lodge as another, Hesperian Lodge No. 181, was founded in Cambria the following September and housed in the most impressive community building of the time. Cambria was the second largest community in the rural county of under 5000 residents. Arroyo Grande’s was established in 1878 and disbanded in 1985. The IOOF Hall built in 1903 now houses the South County Historical Society. In a commentary on individual communities at the time, hundreds of IOOF halls beckon residents and visitors alike across America.
For the mission community of 2200 residents, it was not long before the decision was made to open a cemetery not maintained by the Catholic church. In April 1871, 40 acres located then one mile from town became the Odd Fellows Cemetery. While then and now, internments are for other than Lodge members and while the name has changed, history buffs still referred to it as the Odd Fellows Cemetery. Touring its oldest section is visiting the final resting place for many of the county and city’s pioneers.
“The Three Link Fraternity” exemplifies its historical charter of Friendship, Love, and Truth. In deeds large and small, the Odd Fellows were far from secret in their service to the community. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, fraternal organizations continued to multiply in virtually every corner of the country. It was not long before there were more choices.