Odd Fellows keep tradition alive 175 years

Posted: September 23, 2013

The Winchester Star

Jack Roberts (from left) of Winchester, noble grand master of Madison Lodge No. 6, Independent Order of Odd Fellows; his wife, Bernita Roberts, vice grand of Madison Lodge No. 6, IOOF, and president of Rebekah Assembly of Va.; and Michael Bowers of Ivanhoe, grand master, Grand Lodge of Virginia, at the Winchester lodge’s 175th anniversary celebration Saturday at the Courtyard by Marriott. (Photo by Ginger Perry/The Winchester Star)

WINCHESTER — Though its membership has dwindled over the years, that didn’t stop the ancient and unusually titled International Order of Odd Fellows from celebrating its 175th anniversary in Winchester on Saturday evening.

The remaining members of Madison Lodge No. 6, originally chartered in 1838, met at the Courtyard by Marriott off Northwestern Pike to mark the occasion.

“We’re down now to six members and one associate,” Nobel Grand Master Jack Roberts said.

In 1900, the Winchester lodge had 180 members.

The fraternal organization harkens back to 17th century England, Roberts said, where there were three classes of people: the nobility, the serfs and a “middle class” called fellows.

“They were not wealthy, but they were affluent,” he said.

Five of these “fellows” began helping widows and orphans and taking it upon themselves to bury the dead. It was so strange for people to spend time helping others for no personal gain that they were considered “odd,” Roberts said.

Odd Fellows strove to visit the sick, relieve the distressed and educate the orphaned, he said, and that is still the focus of the organization today.

“Our main goal is to help people in need,” Roberts said.

The IOOF came across the Atlantic to the young United States in 1819.

The Winchester lodge was sponsored by one in Harpers Ferry that was already five years old when the local lodge was chartered. A number of presidents have been Odd Fellows, including Grant, Garfield, McKinley, Hayes, and Harding.

Roberts said the Madison Lodge, now on Sulphur Springs Road, still has furnishings that came from the Harpers Ferry Lodge in the 18th century.

“There’s quite a bit of history in the lodge,” he said.

At Saturday’s celebration, the Madison Lodge members had their original charter on display and an 1866 Bible, given as a gift to the Winchester lodge by the Merchants Lodge No. 15 in Baltimore.

During the Civil War, the building that was then the Odd Fellows Hall, on the southwest corner of Boscawen and Cameron streets in downtown Winchester, was used as a hospital by the armies on each side, Robert said.

The members of the Merchants’ Lodge sent the hefty Bible to their Winchester counterparts “as a gesture of reconciliation,” Roberts said.

The female side of the IOOF, called the Rebekahs, was created in 1851 by Schuyler Colfax, who served as vice president of the United States under President Grant.

Roberts noted that it was the first organization founded for women to be governed by women, although, he added with a smile, the first three presidents were men.

That’s because the IOOF insists that anyone who wants to serve as an officer must first be a member for three years.

“But there’s never been one since,” he added.

His wife, Bernita Roberts, who heads the Rebekah Assembly of Virginia, said that group now admits both men and women. Its aims are the same as the Odd Fellows. She said she most enjoys working with youth.

A signature program involves sponsoring a high school student on a United Nations Pilgrimage.

Jack Roberts said 250 young people are chosen from the United States and another 250 from around the world to attend.

They visit the United Nations during a tour of New York, travel to Ottawa, the capital of Canada to observe the parliament, and finish the tour in Washington, D.C.

“Our kids get to meet others from around the world and understand how other people picture the United States,” he said. The two- week tour can lead to lifelong friendships, he added.

Although membership has declined, Jack Roberts said the local lodge is reaching out to attract new members to continue its community service, including local scholarships

His wife added that she’s certain “our forefathers would be proud that 175 years later, we are still in existence.”

For more information on the Madison Lodge, IOOF, contact Roberts at 540-667-3743.

— Contact Val Van Meter at vvanmeter@winchesterstar.com