HISTORY OF WEBSTER LODGE NO. 538 F.&A.M.

Out of adversity, strength is born. Webster Masonic Lodge is one of the many lodges established after 1836 that helped Masonry recover from the Morgan episode which led it to its lowest ebb in the State of New York. Penfield Union Lodge, the Mother Lodge of Webster, was one of the victims of this affair.

Penfield Union Lodge No. 335 was established on April 5, 1821; but its initial life was short- lived as it surrendered its charter shortly after the William Morgan episode at Canandaigua on September 12, 1826. It was reestablished as Penfield Union Lodge No. 154 on August 1, 1849.

William Morgan was a stonemason who also worked in a brewery. He was a “big talker and small doer”, but his life made an important chapter in history. His career resulted in the formation of a national political party, the Anti-Masonic Party which received 255,000 votes in the election of 1831.

Morgan was vouched for by an employer and visited Wells Lodge in Rochester. He was unable to get work on a Lodge building in Leroy, but in 1828 signed a petition for membership in a new chapter of the Royal Arch Masons being formed in Batavia. He was refused admittance to a meeting and determined to get even with the fraternity by publishing secrets of the order.

The threat aroused many fanatical members of the fraternity as has been well reported by Arch Merrill in “Pioneer Profiles”.

Grand Lodge refused to be disturbed by the actions of this “disturber”, but overwrought brethren determined to halt publication of the secrets. This they were unable to do and twelve editions of the exposé were published in Rochester. The first book sold for one dollar, but gradually waned in popularity, and finally the price went down to ten cents. The public was more interested in Morgan’s fate than the revelation of secret grips and passwords.

Morgan was in the Canandaigua jail for debt when a “friend” paid the debt and “liberated” Morgan who was” taken for a ride” to the Niagara frontier. Apparently the Canadians were not desirous of receiving Morgan in exile, and many believe he drowned. No proof of his fate was ever established in many court trials involving his captors. Only 69 men plotted and carried out the kidnapping of Morgan, but the resulting anti-Masonic furor caused New York State Lodges to dwindle from three hundred and sixty to seventy-five between 1826 and 1836. Membership decreased from 22,000 to 4,000.

Prior to 1863, Penfield Union Lodge No. 154 exercised jurisdiction over all the territory from Fairport to Lake Ontario. Early in that year, with the consent of the Penfield Lodge, about twenty Masons living in the area of Webster raised the sum of $178.75 to establish a Lodge in Webster. Thirteen charter members petitioned the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons in the State of New York for a charter or dispensation to organize a Masonic Lodge in Webster. The thirteen were:

  • Byron W. Burnett
  • Asa Jennings
  • James K. Vosburgh
  • George Curtice
  • James M. Knight
  • Loren R. Weeks
  • H. Nelson Curtice
  • Walter K. Poole
  • James D. Wright
  • Alanson Dunning
  • Asa Twitchell
  • James Ellsworth
  • Thaddeus Van Alstyne

The first years of Webster Lodge were trying years. The Lodge was started in the middle of the Civil War and both money and man power of the area were needed to support the war effort.

It is of interest that H. Nelson Curtice was Master for the first three years and then on seven other occasions between 1865 and 1880. Of the thirteen charter members, only three later became Master – H. Nelson Curtice, Thaddeus VanAlstyne, and Byron W. Burnett.

The first meeting was held under dispensation from the Grand Lodge of the State of New York on June 13, 1863, in the Corning Building on the south side of Main Street just east of the four corners. Charles S. Wright, the first candidate to petition for membership, applied at that meeting. He was initiated June 20, 1863.

The condition of the finances at the time is illustrated by this sentence in the minutes of September 12, 1863: “Resolved that we pay Brother H. Nelson Curtice’s bill of $41.27 and Brother B. W. Burnett’s bill of $4.83 when there are sufficient funds in the Treasury.”

In 1863 the initiation fee was fixed at $18.00. The Lodge had risen from thirteen to twenty-seven members when the Charter was granted in 1864. Meetings were held in the Hendee property on the southwest corner of Main Street and South Avenue.

HENDEE PROPERTY 1864 - 1884

The next ten years were active as the Lodge struggled to improve its financial condition and increase its membership. There was even a dispute with the Mother Lodge when candidates initiated by Penfield were claimed by Webster which requested Penfield to refund the initiation fee to Webster. However, the problem was resolved and the secretary’s minutes of May 18, 1867, conclude, “Peace and Harmony prevailed.” But growth was not steady. Between the years 1863 and 1880, membership rose to 153 and dropped to 40 with an indebtedness of $725. During this period the Lodge had been incorporated on January 9, 1869.

After this period membership and finances increased and in 1884 the Lodge moved to the third floor of the Leaty Block. This was in a new building built by Stafford Nason on the site on the Corning Building where the first meeting was held.

LEATY BUILDING 1884 - 1898

In the next decade the Lodge continued to flourish. In 1887 it succeeded in paying off its debt to grand Lodge and during this period sponsored a Lyceum course until it was taken over by the school and community.

The Lodge was not only active in community affairs, but when trouble struck it was quick to aid its Brothers. On June 4, 1887, the manufacturing plant of the O’Dell Brothers was destroyed by fire. The Lodge promptly called a special meeting and raised a considerable sum of money to assist the O’Dell Brothers in their great loss.

By 1892 the Lodge succeeded in paying off all its debts and a resolution was adopted that fifty cents of the dues of each member and ten dollars of each initiation fee be deposited in the Monroe County Savings bank as a building fund. By 1898 the Building Fund reached $800, and the Lodge decided to build its own home. The trustees entered into a contract with Brother Frank M. Jones to erect a Lodge room on the north side of Main Street just west of North Avenue. The Lodge owned one-third interest in the lot and the entire upper story. Brother Jones owned two-thirds of the lot and the lower part of the building. The Lodge agreed to pay $2,000 as its share, and the trustees were authorized to issue bonds of $10 each bearing 4% interest, to be paid in ten years.

One hundred nineteen bonds were sold to members, and the cornerstone was laid May 5, 1898. The Lodge was dedicated on September 8th by Grand Master William A. Sutherland. It is interesting to note that all the bonds had been paid off at the end of five years instead of the ten originally planned. A formal burning was held in December, 1903 amid great rejoicing.

JONES BUILDING 1898 - 1928 (Lodge room was on the left, above the large awnings)

The Webster Chapter No. 171, Order of the Eastern Star, was chartered June 14, 1899, and the Webster Chapter No. 296, Royal Arch Masons on February 3, 1904. Both were valuable adjuncts to the Lodge.

Progress continued in the Lodge until by 1914, its 50th anniversary year, membership had grown to 322. During this period the Past Masters Association was formally organized and Professor Wallace W. Rayfield became Master. Worshipful Bro. Rayfield went on to later fame as the leader of the Webster Forest of Tall Cedars and as District Deputy Grand Master in 1918-19. Also in 1912, Brother Harvey Bergh travelled to Jerusalem and King Solomon’s Quarry and spirited away with the stone which has ever since adorned the wall in the lodge room. (Brother Bergh was also well known for his promotion of chickens, providing the cause was just.)

By 1917, membership dropped to 206 and many of the Brothers were serving with the armed forces in World War I. Among them were Dr. William Stanton and Dr. James B. Foster who enlisted in the Medical Corps, U.S. Army.

After the War, membership climbed steadily until by 1927 it was back up to 293. On April 8, 1926, the Lodge voted to purchase the old Webster High School on South Avenue for $6,000. The Committee on Ways and Means reported on October 28th that they had received $1,465 and had given their note of $535 to complete the first payment of $2,000. Another note for $4,000, balance due January 1, 1927, was also given. The money was paid when due. The school was in bad state of repair when purchased, but through the diligence and hard labor of the Brothers over the years, the building was substantially improved and represented value considerably more than the original investment.

The Dedicatory Ceremony for the new Webster Temple was conducted October 22, 1928, by Grand Master John A. Dutton and Past Grand Master S. Nelson Sawyer. On November 15, 1928, the trustees were authorized to sell the Main Street property to Harry Herman for $5,000.

SOUTH AVENUE 1928 - 1978

The years 1930-1940 were depression years for the lodge as well as the nation. Membership declined and finances became tight, but enthusiasm for Masonic principles did not wane and in 1939, the Lodge celebrated its 75th Anniversary. Social events were well attended and much fellowship was experienced as the brothers put on dinners and plays to keep the Lodge solvent. In spite of these efforts, by 1940 the Lodge owed Grand Lodge $3,000. A strenuous campaign spear-headed by G. Robert Witmer, then Master, of collecting back dues and operating money-making social events enabled the lodge to pay its debts and regain good financial status. Soon after this, Webster Lodge became the largest rural Lodge in Monroe County.

The years during and soon after World War II were a period of rapid growth for Webster Lodge. As many as thirty-eight candidates were initiated in a single year with many special meetings held and with dispensation from grand lodge to confer degrees on more than five candidates at a time. As a result, the 500 membership mark was reached in 1995 and hovered around it for many years.

In May 1952, under the direction of Rt. Worshipful Bro. Emerson Struck, the first Communion Breakfast was held and the occasion was observed annually for many years.

Also in 1952 a five year program of remodeling the south wing of the Temple was completed, and the last note covering the $25, 000 cost was paid on November 10th.

Improvements to the temple did not stop at this point. Over the years a chair lift and ladies powder room were installed, an electronic organ was purchased, and the kitchen and dining room improved, to mention a few. For all of this the Lodge was greatly indebted to the ladies of the Eastern Star, the Webster Forest of Tall Cedars, and the Fellowcraft club.

In 1960 Worshipful Bro. Emerson Struck was appointed Grand Steward by Grand Lodge. It should be noted that Bro. Struck wrote a Masonic Funeral Service that was reviewed by Grand Lodge and accepted for use. He recited it many times over the years and the last time it was ever used was for his funeral service.

A singular event occurred in 1960 which promised to have a strong influence on the future history of Webster Lodge. It was on October1, 1960, that Webster began an annual exchange of visits with Ionic Lodge No. 549 of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. This was the result of a desire of Worshipful Bro. Robert Torrens to establish a fraternal friendship with our Canadian Brothers. He was ably assisted in this endeavor by Bro. Thomas Marshall of Hamilton. This friendship proved to be long and fruitful between our two Masonic bodies. Although those visits no longer occur, there is still that a strong bond among some members.

Beginning in 1961 the annual Ladies’ Night moved from the Lodge premises to one of the many “party houses” in this area. The increasing success of the succeeding annual affairs upheld the wisdom of this move. It seemed only fair that for the many nights during a year that the significant other gave up for the business and sociability of Lodge meetings, they in turn should be repaid in royal fashion at least once each year.

As Webster Lodge progressed through the decade of the 60’s and into the 70’s, its membership was maintained at approximately 500 members. On October 3, 1964, our 100th Anniversary was celebrated in fine style with a banquet at R.L. Thomas High School. The Lodge prospered with Xerox Corporation as its principal tenant. Through the years various improvements and additions were added to the Temple. A modest saving was even realized in our various accounts.

It was during this period the Rt. Worshipful Bro. Herman Sarachan was made an honorary member of Webster Lodge and two of our Past Masters were appointed to Grand Lodge offices –Rt. Wor. Bro. Clinton Ballard and Right Worshipful Bro. Walter Schattner. In 1976 the Lodge, as part of an American Revolution Bicentennial project, raised and donated $100 to the George Washington Masonic Memorial Endowment Fund.

It should also be noted that in the 1970’s Webster Lodge was privileged to honor two of its very worthy members with Distinguished Service Award Aprons; Bro. Willy Fuchs and Bro. James Hopper.

During the middle 1970’s, it became apparent that with the loss of our principal tenant, along with increasing inflation and maintenance costs, that the time was approaching to make some major decisions regarding the temple. Thus we find in 1976, the decision was made to either sell or rent the property. After many long meetings and discussions the building was formally sold in 1978 for $13,000 in cash with the Lodge still holding a $52,000 mortgage on the structure. The building housed the Rochester Academy of Performing Arts and was later converted to upscale apartments.

With the sale of the old lodge, Webster Lodge found itself meeting, for a period of time, in its mother lodge, Penfield Union no. 154 in Penfield. During this time a strenuous building fund campaign, spearheaded by Worshipful Bros. Robert Wyble and Horace Denton, was embarked upon and $34,000 was realized from their efforts.

That feat generated the ground breaking ceremony, with Deputy Grand Master Bruce Widger presiding, on December 3, 1978, on land donated through a very generous contribution by our long time Treasurer, Bro. Willy Fuchs and his wife Pauline. Our new address would now be known as 30 Orchard Street, Webster, New York.

ORCHARD STREET - 1979

The new structure rose rapidly through the winter and spring of 1979. Many Brothers of the Lodge, Ladies of the Eastern Star and Companions from of the Royal Arch Masons devoted countless hours in helping to raise the new building. Brothers and sisters who acted as masons, plumbers, carpenters, painters, cooks, electricians, pipe-fitters and sheet-metal workers all aided in helping to reduce the overall cost of the building. When all was said and done, it was estimated that the Lodge had invested approximately $194,000 in cash and labor. All the hard work enabled us to meet in our new home in June of 1979. In September of that year we had the honor of sheltering and entertaining our Canadian Brothers in our new Temple. During the fall Bro. Niketas Haldoupis became the first member received in the new building.

On November 4, 1979 Worshipful Bro. Paul A. Moore led a procession down South Avenue to the new Temple to officially transfer our charter to our new home. This was followed by the Cornerstone Laying and Dedication of the Temple Ceremonies presided over by the Most Worshipful William R. Punt, Grand Master of Masons of the State of New York. Dedication ceremonies for the Eastern Star and Royal Arch also followed at later dates which consummated a labor of love and dream of our all our memberships.

Webster Lodge roared into the 1980’s determined to face the statewide problems of decreasing membership and a declining public image. During this time the Lodge began to actively participate in community events such as: Webster Good Neighbor Days, annual blood drives, local parades, manning a booth at the annual Shrine Circus, and instituting a successful bi-annual euchre party/steak roast.

Right Worshipful Bro. Donald MacTarnghan was appointed to a Grand Lodge office in 1982. During the middle of the decade Dedicated Service Aprons were bestowed on Bro. Charles Moore, Bro. David Walker, and Bro. Wesley Beard for their long-time aid to Lodge.

The ever continuing money “crunch” motivated the Lodge to engage upon the raising of a $25,000 endowment fund. Although the goal was a lofty one, the Lodge remained optimistic. Enough funds were raised to provide a small interest bearing investment to help tide us over.

The middle 1980’s also saw a change in our Constitution that limited Trustees to serve no more than two successive terms. During the same period, Webster Lodge saw Brothers from the regular membership elected as Trustees which signified the first time that men other than Past Masters would hold this office. In the spring of 1985 our current Master, Donald L. Evans unexpectedly passed away suddenly and Bro. L. Warren Patterson, Senior Warden, ably stepped forward to complete the year.

With the declining financial state of the Temple in downtown Rochester, many Lodges looked for other places to meet and Craftsman Lodge began renting our building for their communications. This led to long talks and negotiations about a possible merger, but that union never took place. As the average age in the older lodges increased and rents soared, many mergers began to occur throughout the Monroe Districts. Webster was able to maintain its trend of younger members and the Lodge stayed stable. In 1989 we celebrated the 125th Anniversary in fine style. Also in 1989, Worshipful Bro. Horace F. Denton was elected Most Excellent Grand High Priest of Royal Arch Masons in New York State. His untimely death while in office left a huge gap in our ranks and he is fondly remembered by all who knew him. Masonry continued to move forward in Webster as we approached the 1990’s.

Up to 1991 Lodges traditionally installed new officers in January while Grand Lodge changed in May. The State by-laws now required that local Lodges now follow the Grand Lodge timeline. As a result Worshipful Bro. Ronald S. Hollender had the “opportunity” to serve as Master for an extended term of one and half years.

MASTERS OF WEBSTER LODGE
  • H. Nelson Curtice* 1864
  • H. Nelson Curtice* 1865
  • H. Nelson Curtice* 1866
  • Thaddeus Van Alstyne* 1866
  • H. Nelson Curtice* 1867
  • Byron W. Burnett* 1868
  • H. Nelson Curtice* 1869
  • H. Nelson Curtice* 1870
  • H. Nelson Curtice* 1871
  • Jay E. Thompson* 1872
  • Jay E. Thompson* 1873
  • H. Nelson Curtice* 1874