The First Lodge West Of The Blue Ridge Mountains

Winchester Hiram Lodge in Virginia has an interesting history and many unique frescoes.

All Photos: ©2002 Bro. John P. Westervelt, 32°, Westervelt Studio, Winchester, Virginia

On October 1, 1768, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania granted a warrant, or charter, to a number of Masons living in or near Winchester to form a Lodge, to be known as Winchester Lodge No. 12. This was the first Masonic Lodge established west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the first in Virginia to be designated by a number. The charter named three members, who were to be the Station Officers of the Lodge, but at the first meeting there were four members present. By the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, the Lodge had 21 members.


The leader of the movement to form a Masonic Lodge in Winchester was James Gamul Dowdall, who was named Charter Master. The date of his arrival in Winchester is unknown, but he became a prosperous merchant and importer of goods from Europe. He served in the Revolution as a "Cadet" in Company 7 of Daniel Morgan's Regiment of Riflemen. Morgan Alexander, a member of Winchester Lodge No. 12, was Captain of this company. This regiment served with distinction and won renown in the battles around Saratoga, New York. In addition to organizing Winchester Lodge No. 12, Brother Dowdall also organized Winchester Royal Arch Chapter No. 12 in 1799. After the Civil War, this Chapter was reconstituted as John Dove Chapter No. 21.


In 1777, Winchester Lodge was invited to meet with other Virginia Lodges to form the Grand Lodge of Virginia. This invitation was declined because of the Lodge's affiliation with Pennsylvania. However, Winchester Lodge did suggest that George Washington be selected Grand Master. It is doubtful if this suggestion had much weight, but George Washington was asked to be Grand Master, but he refused because of the pressure of other business (this was the winter of Valley Forge) and because at that time he had never served as Master of a Lodge.


George Washington was well known in Winchester. He had come to the Winchester area as a boy of 16 in 1748, and he was intimately associated with the area for the next ten years, five of them as a surveyor for Lord Fairfax, and five as a soldier, holding a commission from the Colony of Virginia. In addition, he represented Frederick County in Virginia's representative assembly, the House of Burgesses, for seven years. He owned an "in-lot" and an "out-lot" in Winchester. The in-lot was on the east side of Braddock Street just north of the present Post Office. He undoubtedly knew many of the early members of Winchester Lodge.


Other pre-charter Masons in the area included Dr. Robert Johnston, whose memorial tablet, originally displayed in the Anglican Church at the corner of Winchester's Loudoun and Boscawen Streets, can now be seen in the banquet room of Winchester Hiram Lodge. Most of the early members were already Freemasons, having joined the Fraternity before coming to Winchester. For example, John Crockwell, the first regular Tiler, had been made a Fellowcraft in a military Lodge during what was known locally as "The Braddock War."


In December 1777, due to lack of attendance, meetings were suspended until February 2, 1785, when four members met to resume work in the Lodge. Of the 21 former members, six had been killed or died of disease contracted in military service. These are now commemorated by a bronze tablet to the left of the entrance to the anteroom of the Lodge. Ten others had moved to other localities, and one had died. The Charter from the Provincial Grand Lodge was exchanged for one from the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania. However, it was not until December 1807 that Winchester Lodge No. 12 became Winchester Hiram Lodge No. 21 under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of Virginia.


The first meetings were held at John Sexton's Tavern, later at various places. In 1809, when the community wished to build a market house, the Lodge assisted financially in the project and had a room in the building for its use. In 1821, the old Market House was razed and a new Market House built. The Lodge again assisted and secured a room in the new structure. In 1845, the Common Council "enclosed" the market, and the Lodge protested that they should have access to their room at all times. This protest was allowed, and access has been provided ever since to the room in the Market House and the room in the Rouss City Hall, which was furnished to replace it, when the Market House was razed and the City Hall built on its site. When the Temple was built on Loudoun Street, the Lodge donated the room in the Market House to the Royal Arch Chapter.


With the secession of Virginia in April 1861, Winchester found itself in the path of contending armies. On six occasions, the town changed hands due to battles fought within a radius of five miles of the town. On numerous other occasions, it changed hands due to actions at a distance. During this time, there were two periods of rather long occupation by Federal troops. On Christmas Eve 1862, General R. H. Milroy occupied the town and stayed until the early morning of June 16, 1863. In April 1863, the Lodge secured permission to open, and 23 members of the army were made Master Masons and two were made Fellowcraft. In October 1864, General P. H. Sheridan settled in Winchester to spend the winter. When first approached, General Sheridan refused to permit the Lodge to open. During the war, Brother Edwin S. Brent had spent some time in Baltimore and had there met the Honorable Montgomery Blair, Postmaster General in President Lincoln's Cabinet. Bro. Brent secured a letter of introduction to General Sheridan from Postmaster General Blair and visited him at his Headquarters in what is now the Elks Club and pled the cause of the Lodge with him, but Sheridan was still adamant. Then Dr. C. H. Allen, a Past Master of Aurora Lodge in Vermont and a member of Sheridan's staff, intervened and persuaded the General to allow the Lodge to open, promising that he would personally attend every meeting. The Lodge was opened November 28, 1864.

Between this date and June 24, 1865, the Lodge raised 231 Candidates, 207 of them from the occupying army. One of these, Captain William McKinley (1843-1901), later became President of the United States in 1897. As the army was using the Market House, these meetings were held at 172 North Loudoun Street. The building was razed several years ago and the land converted into a parking lot by the Commercial and Savings Bank.

May 20, 1899, Brother McKinley visited Winchester Hiram Lodge. He climbed the steps to the Lodge Room, and, although Lodge was not opened, he greeted all who came to meet him and signed the Lodge's guest book. On May 1, 1965, the Lodge celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the initiation of William McKinley. Among the visitors were Grand Masters Walter A. Porter of Virginia and Edgar L. Ott of Ohio, accompanied by many members of William McKinley Lodge No. 430 of Canton, Ohio. After a tour of the Temple, they all repaired to the Commercial & Savings Bank, where the two Grand Masters unveiled a bronze tablet, which the bank had attached to their building, marking the site where William McKinley had been made a Mason.

In 1865 with the coming of peace, Winchester Hiram Lodge had over $4,000 in its treasury. At first, it was planed to enlarge the room over the Market House, and negotiations were started with the Common Council with this in view. Although the Council was willing to agree to this, the Lodge changed its mind and purchased its present site. The cornerstone of the building was laid May 29, 1867, and the Temple was dedicated July 22, 1868, missing by less than three months the centennial of the first charter of the Lodge.


The distinctive features of the Lodge Room are the frescoes on the walls and ceiling. The work was done by a Mr. Ango from the Peabody Institute of Baltimore. As far as we know, Mr. Ango was not a Mason. The images could have been taken from a Masonic Monitor of that time or from other sources. Even if the frescoes are not the result of an original talent, the artist is due full credit for reproducing the images in soft, natural colors and using unusually fine perspective. The frescoes on the east and west walls give the illusion of additional rooms, rather than the flat surfaces, which they really are. The three beams in the picture in the center of the south wall have entirely different appearances when viewed from the east and west ends of the room. The molding around the frescoes, which may not have been the work of Mr. Ango, appears to be a solid molding attached to the walls. The colors are as bright today as when they were first applied, although they are over 100 years old and have never been retouched. The cost of the frescoes was $826.00, about 4% of what it would cost today to reproduce them.


The original building extended back from the street only as far as the east end of the Lodge Room, and the present hall was occupied by a narrow stair and a small store. The building has now been enlarged by the two-story addition at the back, and the small store has been converted into the present hallway with its wide stairway. The front of the building was faced with stone in 1901. Originally the building was lit by gas, but electricity was installed in 1900. The adjoining Keller Building was purchased in 1937.

On Saturday, October 5, 1968, the Lodge celebrated its 200th anniversary. The program included a tour of the Temple in the morning, followed by a luncheon in the afternoon and the raising of a Candidate at Frederick County Junior High School. During the late afternoon, visiting ladies enjoyed a historical tour of the city of Winchester, and the busy day closed with a banquet at the George Washington Hotel in the evening. The Honorable John O. Marsh, Jr., a member of Rockingham Union Lodge of Harrisonburg, Virginia, and of Congress from this district, made the address, and additional entertainment was furnished by the Justin Lawrie Singers of Washington.


Winchester Hiram Lodge enters the third century of its existence with high hopes for the future. Physically, the Lodge is in good shape, and, what is more important, there is an interest in and enthusiasm for the Lodge, especially among the young members, which augers well for the future.

The above article is reprinted from a brochure distributed by Winchester Hiram Lodge No. 21.

NOTE: Winchester Hiram Lodge No. 21 is located at 118 N. Loudoun Street, Winchester, Virginia. Its Stated Communication is every second Tuesday at 7:30 pm, and visiting Masons are cordially invited to attend.

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