NEWTON — Meetings of the Newton Masonic Lodge used to depend on the full moon.

When the lodge formed in 1856, there was no electricity in the city. In November of 1870 members agreed to begin meeting on the Saturday evening which fell on or before the full moon so they could see more easily on their way home.

Scheduling meetings around monthly full moon occurrences was common for lodges in this era, said Brad Koehler, Worshipful Master of Newton Lodge No. 216.

In honor of the Newton Masonic Lodge’s 150th anniversary, Koehler earlier this year spent months researching the ledger books from 1856 to the present, gleaning bits and pieces of mason history to compile together and share with Masons during the celebration of the lodge’s history, held during a weekend last month.

“We’re just thankful they (the records) were saved all this time,” Koehler said.

Koehler pulled the most interesting tidbits of history from the books and put together a piece titled “Newton Mason Lodge No. 216: 150 Years of History.”

The document includes information, such as how much it cost to become a Master Mason in the beginning of the lodge, the six different places the lodge has been located throughout Newton, how the Masons were involved in the laying of the cornerstone at the Jasper County Courthouse and other milestones of the Newton lodge.

According to Koehler, it wasn’t cheap to be a Mason in 1856. There was a $7 fee to petition to join the lodge, which today it costs $25. There was a $7 fee to receive the Entered Apprentice Degree (1st Degree), today it costs $25. There was a $6 fee to receive the Fellowcraft Degree (2nd Degree); today it costs $25. There was a $7 fee to receive the Master Mason Degree (3rd Degree); today it costs $25. Thus, the total cost to become a Master Mason in 1856 was $27 versus $100 today.

Although it seems as if it was much cheaper to become a Mason 150 years ago, when adjusted for inflation, $27 was a lot of money for someone to pay then, Koehler said.

At $10 an hour and after taxes a man would have to work two days to become a Master Mason today, but in 1856, with a six-day work week, he would have to work about nine weeks to have enough money to become a Master Mason, Koehler said.

The annual dues in 1856 were $1, and members had to pay 25 cents every quarter of a year. In the meeting minutes, it was recorded members would often pay a nickel, dime or 15 cents at a time. Today the annual dues are $40, “about the cost to take your wife to dinner and a movie, or less than a tank of gasoline,” Koehler said.

The lodge received electricity in 1904 and the electric bill was $12 for the year. In July 1909, a telephone was installed in the lodge at a cost of $1.25 a month.

“We don’t have a telephone at the lodge anymore, but then over half of the members have one with them when they come to the lodge,” Koehler said.

Newton Masons had much to do with the establishment of the Jasper County Courthouse building. On June 21, 1877, the cornerstone for the Jasper County Courthouse was laid. The Newton Masons purchased the stone and hired Brother James Nible from Olney to engrave the following inscription on it: “Laid by the Masonic Fraternity June 21st AD 1877 AL 5877 MW Joseph Robbins GM” (the MW stands for Most Worshipful and the GM stand for Grand Master; Robbins was the grand master of ancient free and accepted Masons of the state of Illinois)

A procession for the laying of the cornerstone was formed in front of the Newton Lodge headed by the Grand Master, his grand lodge officers, officers and members of the Newton Lodge, the Knight Templars from Gorin Commandery No. 14 of Olney, the Knights of Pythias and the Odd Fellows.

The procession marched from the lodge proceeding west on Jourdan Street, then south on Lafayette Street, then east on Washington Street and north on Van Buren Street to the northeast corner of the courthouse where the cornerstone was laid with the usual Masonic ceremonies. The Olney Brass Band was hired to play for the event.

On Feb. 21, 1966, a plaque was placed on the northeast corner of the Jasper County Courthouse because the original engraved cornerstone was covered up during the construction of the new additions to the four corners of the courthouse.

The lodge has had more than 1,000 members since it began 150 years ago. About 1,200 Master Masons have been members of Newton lodge since its beginning and 95 have served as Worshipful Master of the Lodge.

With the current 217 members, 28 have been members for more than 50 years and nine have been members for more than 60 years, Koehler said.

The Newton lodge still has the ledgers from 1856 and all the secretary’s minutes of the lodge’s regular and special meetings from 1860 to the present day, which Koehler used to gather information.

“It has been very interesting to peruse through the records of Newton Lodge, reading the minutes of all Lodge business and the names of all those who have petitioned for membership in the past 150 years.

“There were various forms of calligraphy, some absolutely beautiful and others almost impossible to read. Some lodge secretaries kept very detailed minutes while others only recorded the bare minimum of the proceedings...

“I thought often as I read page by page of the ongoing history that was happening at the very moment those records were being penned, the Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam wars, the assassinations of presidents Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley and John F. Kennedy, the stock market crash and the Great Depression,” Koehler said.

Koehler was intrigued by the fact the minutes of each meeting didn’t reflect the current events of the time; but he’s certain lodge members held lengthy discussion prior to and after each meeting.

A letter from the Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of Illinois is between the pages of one of the Newton Lodge’s record books, dated May 1, 1872, explaining to the lodge the reason it hadn’t received its copy of the Grand Lodge proceedings from Oct. 6 and 7, 1871. The Grand Master had taken the written proceedings home with him to Chicago, and they were destroyed when his home burned in the Great Chicago Fire of Oct. 8, 1871.

Another letter from the Grand Master dated April 23, 1889, urges all lodges to have some sort of celebration to commemorate the centennial anniversary of Brother George Washington’s inauguration as the first president of the United States.

Koehler found other interesting pieces of information he didn’t include in his compilation, including the way Masons were honored upon their death.

When a Mason died, the rest of the members would open up a lodge meeting, then would walk to the person’s house, carry the body to the cemetery, perform the Masonic rites, then close the meeting. The bodies were prepared for burial in the home, Koehler said. This was as of the early 1900s, he said.

The lodge, which is in its sixth location since it was established, was rededicated July 16, 2005, after major construction and remodeling of the lodge was completed.

For the project, the size of the building was doubled with the addition of a dining room and kitchen facility, the building was made handicapped-accessible and the former dining room in the basement was turned into a recreation room complete with a miniature kitchen, restroom, a large conference table and game tables consisting of pool, snooker, ping pong, air hockey and foosball.

The open house events held last month were successful, with members who brought friends to tour the lodge, and members from other lodges visited as well, said Koehler.

Ralph Portlock, secretary, has served as a Master and has been with the Masons since 1965. Portlock and Koehler are proud of how the Masons contribute to the community.

“We’re just very proud of what we’ve done in the community,” Portlock said.

A state award the lodge recently received reflects its commitment to the community. For the second year in a row, Newton Masonic Lodge earned the Golden Trowel Award this year.

The award is based on a point system where points are accumulated from Aug. 1 to July 31. Points are awarded in more than 38 categories, including community service, charitable endeavors, family functions, Masonic instruction and fraternal fellowship.

“Out of 554 lodges, that means you’re doing something right,” Portlock said.

Newton Masonic Lodge No. 216 was established just 25 years after Jasper County was established.

“(The Newton Masonic Lodge) is probably the oldest organization in this town. There is a lot of history here,” Koehler said.

Alta Mayhugh can be reached at 217-347-7151 ext. 131 or alta.mayhugh@effinghamdailynews.com.

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