Saturday, November 12, 2005 - Last Updated: 7:59 AM 

Masonic lodge celebrates 250th year


The Post and Courier 

When one of the area's oldest Masonic lodges formed in a Broad Street tavern, America was still a British colony, George Washington was only 23 years old and the first shots of the Revolutionary War were still a couple of decades away.

Now, 250 years later, members of the Union Kilwinning Lodge No. 4 - the second oldest in South Carolina - will celebrate the anniversary of its founding with a 2 p.m. lunch today at a local lodge on Dorchester Road.

Like civic groups nationwide, Masons in South Carolina and beyond are struggling to drive up membership, gain visibility and transform the misperception that the ancient society, famous for its symbols and secretive rituals, is anything other than a charitable organization.

'We're not a secret society. We're a society with some secrets,' said Don Burbidge, historian of the Union Kilwinning Lodge No. 4. 'We're a fraternal organization where men get together, have a good time and do charitable work.'

Often shrouded in mystery, the story of the Masons is much more benign than many might suspect.

The organization, with about 1.8 million members in North America, started as independent stonecutters who built the great cathedrals in Europe, forming guilds to support each other.

The handshakes and passwords that have accentuated the mystery actually developed more as means for members to identify one another in a era when much of the population couldn't read or write.

The Masons are closely tied to American history. Some of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence were Masons, as were more than a dozen presidents, including Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.

Despite its history, the organization has struggled to attract new members. Ron Mitchum, grandmaster of Masons in South Carolina, said membership has dropped from about 70,000 Masons statewide in 1980 to about 45,325 today. The organization has lost about 1,000 members a year, he said, and the average age of members is 66 to 68.

'There are so many things for people to choose to do these days,' Mitchum said. 'We are trying to let everybody know what we are about.'

Union Kilwinning Lodge No. 4, which had about 96 members at the end of 2004, started in Shepheard's Tavern on Church and Broad streets in downtown Charleston when the city didn't stretch much beyond what is now Calhoun Street. Over the years, the lodge has moved several times. Membersnow meet for the monthly meeting at the Masonic Center on Orange Grove Road in West Ashley. At the center, a one-room museum is dedicated to telling the organization's history.

Centuries-old books on display show early drawings of Masonic symbols.

There is also a silver compass, stolen during the Civil War and later recovered, as well as a mallet made from the original timbers of Shepheard's Tavern. Burbidge said the organization's goal is charity.

Each year, Masons sell Christmas trees at the center to raise money to buy gifts for poor children. The organization also offers speech-therapy classes. Nationally, officials said the Masonic fraternity contributes the equivalent of nearly $2 million a day to charitable causes.

'It's good fellowship,' Burbidge said. 'You try to do something good and honorable that helps the community.'


Contact James Scott at 937-5549 or at jscott@postandcourier.com.


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