MARCH 2020 MAY SEEM LIKE A LIFETIME ago, and while some may have hoped for a quick resolution to the COVID-19 crisis, event organizing committees and logicians were clear on the need to postpone or cancel most public events through the end of the year. The 2020 Olympics in Japan, more than seven years in the planning, was one of the most notable, but any local event, athletic endeavor, or performance with more than a few people expected to attend was quickly reevaluated for feasibility.
The King David’s Masonic Lodge (No. 209) in San Luis Obispo had already been counting down for some time to celebrate its 150th anniversary in September 2020. But by March, said Robert Sachs, an organizer on their Sesquicentennial Committee, state and national leadership for the fraternal order were already taking their cue from the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, with its knowledge
of surge patterns and the value to be found in an abundance of caution.
Records of how the San Luis Obispo chapter weathered that world-shaping event 102 years ago reside in the organization’s temple “vault” along with the minutes of meetings and documentation through 15 decades of history. That would make an interesting article of its own someday, but access to the lodge is restricted for the moment.
One certain generational difference, however, is that rather than cancel their entire planned celebration for Sept. 20, 2020, the Masons of the 21st Century are able to hold a Virtual Event. Without the risks of handshakes and airborne virus transmission, the brothers are still mindful that a day-long slate of presentations is still too much to sit through on Facebook Live and Zoom log-ins, said Sachs, so they’re working on a 90-minute presentation schedule which will go out in real-time but be recorded online for later viewing as well.
“My son has been involved [in a] collective doing virtual concerts for the entire county,” Sachs add- ed. “He’ll be at the Lodge orchestrating and putting all the little pieces together, recorded and live.”
They’re calling in the technical expertise to have pre-recorded introductions, hopefully, from San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon, District Attorney Dan Dow, and the Master of the Grand Lodge of California, who would normally be in attendance as a representative of 63,000 California Masons.
The Lodge’s Centennial in 1970 would have been the next largest event they had hosted with hundreds in attendance, but the Lodge No. 209 has gotten a lot of attention more recently as the building on Marsh Street in downtown San Luis Obispo turned 100 years old itself. One of the Masons’ several resident historians, Peter Champion, released a book on the occasion, now available at the San Luis Obispo History Center, housed in the historic Carnegie Library near the Mission.
Among the Lodge building’s notable features was the architect himself, John Davis Hatch, who designed many of the state’s public facilities of the era in the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, built to stand the test of time.
Unfortunately, due to the new virtual format of their September 20th celebration, the public tours with docents stationed to explain the Lodge’s unique features will not be taking place, but many locals would recognize the grand halls and adjoining rooms which include a “Templar Armoury” and accommodations, where brothers who worked on the region’s railways in the last century were housed.
A common misinterpretation among visitors to the hall for occasional outside events, one which docents would have dispelled, is that the mural on the interior walls depicts enslaved people. The painting in reality shows a trial explained in the founding stories of the order. In the artistic depiction, three men who tried to extract trade secrets by violence stand in chains. Their victim, who did not jeopardize the public trust in the knowledge he possessed, is held in high regard. To Masons, said Sachs, the symbolism is a reminder to uphold honor and professional standards, else they’ll be held to account.
The 1870 anniversary being celebrated is not that of the first Mason hall in the region but surrounds the occasion when Masons from throughout the State congregated in San Luis Obispo to bury Alexander Murray, brother of local noted community leader Walter Murray.
There had been a short-lived lodge previously, but this one was founded as a need was felt for a regional hub near the home of the County government, and brothers committed themselves to the establishment of needed infrastructure.
Even through this current pandemic, noted Sachs, they’re endeavoring to continue local education fundraising and scholarships to the tune of $50,000 – 74,000 per year in special projects and scholarships. Hawthorne Elementary School is a beneficiary in particular.
In 2005 the Estero Lodge in Morro Bay consolidated its coverage of Morro Bay and Los Osos into the San Luis Obispo chapter.
A slate of 200 recently minted souvenir “Challenge Coins,” which will be given to dignitaries to mark the anniversary, bears an embossed representation of statuary that locals may recognize, with a format similar to the ones produced when they held an event to finally seal the famous Dorn Pyramid in the Oddfellows Cemetery on Higuera Street.
The current plan is to mail these commemorative pieces, which would have been presented in person, to participants with a postcard giving login details for their virtual event. A more public in-person event is being planned with a public showing of their historic, and rare as well as symbolic George Washington portrait, for September 2021.
Camas Frank has been a San Luis Obispo County print journalist for over a decade. First drawn to the Central Coast for a stint at Cal Poly, he’s focused on community affairs, people and technology.