Think on this too. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows in California started over 170 years ago. Do we realize the actual technological changes that have occurred in that time? In just 30 years we have gone from telephone to pagers to cell phones to being on the verge of implanting cellular devices within our bodies. In more than five times that time change has been so pervasive as to almost obliterate the past. Someone who feels that we can imitate the order from 1850 is oblivious to what that time was really like. Why, for instance, do you suppose the normal member was required to memorize his (women were not allowed) part of the Odd Fellows ritual? Simple, many members were unable to read or write. Internet searches estimate between 33-50 percent of the population at that time was illiterate. Usually, it was the village elders, the doctors, the lawyers, the merchants, who led a lodge. The illiterate members were forced to memorize their lines. The world 170 years ago was very different. Did you realize that slavery was legal until 1850 in California? In other states, of course, it was even later.

Anyone who has studied the history of California would find that the settling of California was filled with incredible hardship. Of course, the 1840’s and 1850’s were legendary for the California Gold Rush, but most settlers were poor and very needy. Many had families who were hungry and virtually lost in the gold country. Gold was not as readily available as widely rumored. An Odd Fellows lodge which promised food, security and some temporary shelter from the ongoing hardships was clearly a welcome port in the storm. Is it any wonder why we were at our most vibrant at that time? We filled a need. It is hard to relate to those times. Lodges often were comprised of a great percentage of the town where they were situated. Not only that, in some of the older gold country towns, the building next to the lodge, often was a Masonic lodge or other fraternal set up. Often there were several fraternal groups in a small town. It is not difficult to imagine that members found sustenance in being Involved with multiple groups. There are towns where one can still see the remnants of this. This was truly the time when fraternal groups showed their real value.

Lately there are some who feel that we, the Odd Fellows, should return to at least the vestiges of that time. They like the idea of the old robes, regalia, long dresses, and memorized ritual work. While I find the image of an historic lodge attractive to look at, we miss the forest for the trees. Much of the old dress, rote memorization and secret work was the product of a time long gone. Remember, that was 170 years ago! It is hard for me to even believe we must debate this at all. How would we recruit with this type of attitude? Being a past state officer, I have worn my share of robes and regalia, and it can be fun, and to me, an excellent disguise for my unwillingness to wear a tuxedo, also a part of the past, although not as long gone, but in my view, it’s just an exercise in masquerade. What we don’t realize is that in another time the robes and regalia may have well been a covering for the dusty clothes the old settlers wore during the day. When one member of the order puts on an old robe, one might take a moment to think of those who may have worn the same robe decades ago. It can be a bit sobering, wondering whether they were wealthy or poor, tired, or enlivened. A bit of all types, but poor and bedraggled was definitely the predominant type.

So, how do we try and repeat historical events? Of course, we’re all more literate now, so returning to yesterday’s world is really an exercise in illusion. We can’t return to yesterday we can only emulate its more admirable traits. We can don the robes, act like we’re in Elizabethan England (which of course is gone now even in England), recite the ritual, but what are we telegraphing to the onlookers wondering what we are doing? That we admire the past or, that we want to return to it?

In my own view, while candlelight was romantic, light bulbs are more illuminating. We need to move forward, accept that the world has changed, and we have to connect with that change. Everyone outside our environs says this with their actions as they move about, it’s not about yesterday, it’s more about where we go today. We need to move forward, we can admire the past for all its quirks, but we need to see that the time has come to ask ourselves who we are, not keep trying to explain who we were.

In F., L., & T.,

Rick Boyles
Past Grand Master, Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF)
Jurisdiction of California

 

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