DMC-History of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows

Dear Dedicated Members for Change,

It’s generally accepted that Odd Fellowship came to North America on April 26, 1819 when Thomas Wildey and his small group of brothers formed a Lodge in Baltimore. That was 200 years ago. What was life like 200 years ago in America?

At the start of the 1800’s, most everyone lived on a farm or in a rural existence. Folks spent most of their time planting, weeding and harvesting, and taking care of the farm animals. People typically went to bed when it was dark, and got up when the sun started peeking over the horizon. When folks wanted to go somewhere they generally walked, or they rode a horse or donkey, or took a boat. There was no electricity and no natural gas for lighting, cooking or warming. Many people were enslaved, or close to it, and virtually no one had the right to vote. Clothing was so expensive that the vast majority of people possessed only one outfit. In the North, cows and cattle provided milk, butter and beef. In the South (where cattle was less common) venison and other game provided meat. In the era before refrigeration, preserving food in 1819 required smoking, drying or salting meat. Vegetables were kept in a root cellar or pickled. Jobs on the farm included milking cows, churning butter, carrying buckets of water from a well to the house, bringing in wood for the stove, cooking, sewing and mending, feeding the livestock and chickens, and much more.

Very few people in 1819 went to school, and only about one out of ten people (most men) could read. Some children did manage to get an early education, and they typically learned to read, write and do math at home. Or if they were fortunate, they attended a one-room schoolhouse where one teacher taught all grades. Usually the teacher was a single woman, and she could be as young as 14 or 15 years old. Sometimes, children had to walk 2 or 3 miles to attend the schoolhouse, carrying a slate, a book or two, and a lunch pail. Many children in 1819 did not spend their days learning in school or playing. Quite a few children – some as young as 8 – had jobs where they worked all day long. Some of the jobs were hazardous.

“Bath day” in the early 1800’s was infrequent. At best, folks would bathe once a week (or on special occasions) in warm water with homemade soap, usually set up in a tub in the kitchen. The family would take turns in the bath. Fetching the water, the wood for heating, and preparing the bath was, in itself, a big chore.

Establishing a fraternal order, and setting up a Lodge, was challenging in the early 1800’s. Since transportation was primarily limited to walking or horses, Lodge Halls had to located close to the membership. Ritual books and rules necessarily had to be memorized because only a small minority of members could read. Keeping accounts of financial transactions was even more difficult as very few members had the skills to do so – and accordingly a complex system of checks and double-checks was instituted. In the early 1800’s, sickness was rampant, early deaths were frequent, and families were often bereft as a result of illness and death. Because government provided virtually no support to people when times were tough, Odd Fellowship stepped in and provided hospitals for the sick, orphanages for orphans, cemeteries to bury the dead, old folks’ homes for the elderly and infirm, support for widows, and even helped members find jobs. As a result, secret passwords and signs developed so that “frauds” who passed themselves off as Odd Fellows (in attempts to get benefits) could be discovered and exposed. In 2019, Odd Fellowship operates no orphanages in America, no hospitals, very few cemeteries and even fewer retirement communities.

Life in 1819 compared to life in 2019 was (and is) as different as night and day. And yet, in this day, the Codes till require memorization of parts of the ritual, secret passwords and signs are still mandatory, and the ancient admonitions of the Order (e.g. “educate the orphan” or “bury the dead”) are still recited even though they have little relevance or meaning in the 21st Century. To the young men and women of 2019, strange, curious and anachronistic concepts such as “educate the orphan” and “bury the dead” have little meaning, and may even be off-putting. How much more relevant would it be if the Order adopted new admonitions such as “help children in need” and “protect the environment”.

To advance in the coming years, the Order must look forward to the future, not backwards to the past.

F – L – T

Dave Rosenberg
Past Grand Master
Jurisdiction of California

 
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