By Dina Story for the SNAP
Wednesday, September 26, 2012 —
On Sept. 11, Stanly County Museum presented “Stanly County’s History of Freemasonry” lecture with guest speaker Robert E. Gresham, the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons of North Carolina in Raleigh, and lecturer, Jonathan Underwood, Stanly County Museum director and member of Albemarle Lodge 703.
To understand the modern day fraternity of freemasonry, one must understand its history. Dating back to 16th Century Europe, and perhaps more specifically Scotland, the guild is said to be the oldest fraternal order in the world. Originally created by stone artisans and craftsmen as a society to prove their specialized skills, secrets were created to identify and protect members. Membership within the guild was revered, as the intelligence and abilities of these craftsmen were greatly admired. As the culture changed, and along with it the demand for these craftsmen, so, too, did the freemasons. Membership was opened up to nobles, clergy and others of high standing within communities.
Early freemasons often challenged the ideals of science, politics and religion, which could well be considered blasphemous according to the church and royalty alike; therefore, the freemasons were understandably concerned about their vulnerability and met secretively — often with an armed guard at the door.
Freemasonry evolved as it made its way to America. Virtue and education became the means with which to gain power and rise through the ranks of the organization. While freemasonry was first noted in Pennsylvania around 1731, there is also evidence that freemasons had made their way to the backcountry of North Carolina by the 1750s. Salisbury was considered frontier territory at this time, and Underwood noted that Freemason Street existed around this time, so it is highly likely a group of freemasons had gathered unofficially before being able to form an official order in North Carolina.
In 1787, the NC Grand Lodge of Ancient, Free and Accepted Masons of North Carolina in Raleigh, a primarily all white institution, was established and has now marked more than 200 years in existence.
“There is another Grand Lodge that was established in North Carolina after the Civil War and was a primarily black institution — the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of North Carolina,” Underwood said.
“Prince Hall was a black man who was made a freemason in Massachusetts in the 1780s … He and several other black members founded their own Grand Lodge that was eventually named after him. There are several Prince Hall Masonic Lodges in Albemarle, Badin, Norwood and Oakboro. They are an important part of Masonic history.”
Throughout the last 200 years, there have been lodges that have come and gone within the region and many freemasons that have made their mark. Montgomery County was named for Gen. Richard Montgomery, a freemason. Stanly County was named after John Stanly, a freemason. John Stokes, of Stokes Ferry, was appointed by George Washington to be the first judge of the United States District Court for the District of North Carolina, also a freemason.
During the Revolutionary War years, freemasonry became more of a political movement in the nation’s quest for liberty. Masons kept in touch through correspondence, and that correspondence enabled them to share news of differing regions and piece together what was happening across the colonies. Many freemasons were “devoted to the cause of American independence until it came to the backcountry,” according to Underwood. Opinions differed but respect for the brotherhood remained intact. After the Battle of Colson, a slain adversary, Boston Saltz, was given a Masonic burial simply because he was a freemason, and freemasons know of no political or religious boundary that could prevent them from denying respect to another.
The first official lodge in Stanly County was the PeeDee Lodge formed around 1852. Robert Melton, a 21-year-old aspiring professor, served as the 1st Master. Preston Wooley was the 2nd Master of Pee Dee Lodge, or the first Master after the Lodge was officially chartered. According to Underwood, Wooley also founded the newspaper that would eventually become The Stanly News & Press. After several years and changes, the lodge eventually moved to the Norwood area where they focused on farming and agriculture. They also opened a school and home for the poor and indigent in Norwood and staffed them both.
From 1826-1840, there was a wide range of anti-Masonic sentiment. Freemasons adapted and reorganized through the Yadkin & Pee Dee area; there were approximately seven lodges during this time. They shed secrets, adopted temperance as a cause and became more Christian in nature.
As the Civil War approached in 1861, the Pee Dee Lodge encouraged the preservation of the union, but by the time succession seemed imminent, most had joined the Confederate army. Many did not appear to be whole-heartedly devoted to the cause and likely came home within the year. Capt. Richard Anderson, along with lieutenants John Simpson and Martin Schoffner, were in the 14th Regiment; Major Alex Underwood and Capt. John McCain were in the 52nd Regiment. Once returned, the freemasons looked after widows and children and kept the school open.
After the war in 1868, dissention fractured the group and it was taken off the books.
It was 1875 before Samuel James Pemberton, an attorney, became the 1st Master at Stanly Lodge 348. After calling together freemasons to attempt to reform, friends with many of the upper echelon of the area, the local lodge was formed, prospered and exists still today. Pemberton also worked hard to extend lodges within the area.
Albemarle Lodge 703 was chartered in 1956 and is still in existence today. Both the Stanly Lodge and Albemarle Lodge share facilities in Albemarle.
These lodges and many others around the county and state donate funds to a variety of charities that benefit our communities. They support three specific charities: The Home for Children at Oxford, The Masonic & Eastern Star House in Greensboro and the NC Masonic Foundation, which helps support the other two charities. They also support the Shriners and their missions.
According to Gresham, discussions of politics and religion are now avoided at modern lodges. And although freemasonry is not a religion, according to Gresham, they have definitely contributed to the betterment of society as a whole. As Underwood’s Masonic grandfather quoted, they are truly “a society of do-gooders.”
The Stanly County Museum and the Historical Society of Stanly County invite the public to attend the next community event “Tales from the Haunted Uwharries” featuring stories from Heather Ross Miller and a performance by Mark Stephenson at 7 p.m. Oct. 11 or Oct. 25 at the Great Lodge of Morrow Mountain State Park.
Tickets are $10 per person and can be purchased at the museum. Proceeds will benefit historic preservation.