The Grand Lodge of Minnesota

Grand Lodge of MN Logo

In the spring of 1849, while the prospectors were looking for gold in California, the hearty settlers of Minnesota were finding their own treasure in lumber and were giving birth to what would become the world’s greatest grain milling center. The communities of Stillwater, St. Paul, and St. Anthony were the first dots on the map of Minnesota.

James M. Goodhue, one of the first arrivals after the establishment of the territorial government brought with him a printing press and published the first newspaper in the territory on April 28, 1849. The following notice appeared in his Minnesota Pioneer on May 26 of the  same year:

“Members of the Masonic Fraternity, in and near St. Paul, intend to meet together in a room over the Pioneer office on Thursday evening next, May 31st, at six o’clock.”

No minutes were taken at the meeting in a room over the office of the Minnesota Pioneer. No record exists to tell us how many brethren attended, where they had come from, or what was accomplished at these first meetings.

The First Lodges

In order to form a lodge in the Territory of Minnesota, where no Grand Lodge existed, dispensations had to be obtained from other Grand Lodge jurisdictions. The Masons of the St. Paul area were the first to apply for a dispensation to form a lodge. Charles K. Smith, the territorial secretary, was a member of Hamilton Lodge #17 in the jurisdiction of Ohio. The dispensation was granted on August 8, 1849.

St. Paul Lodge first met in the attic of the St. Paul House hotel, a primitive structure constructed of logs and weathered lumber. Kegs and barrels stood on end were seats for the officers and pedestals for their stations. An empty packing case from the local dry goods store was the altar. The only Masonic property was a set of jewels made by the local tinsmith. Candles lit the smoky room.

St. John’s Lodge

In November of 1849, a lawyer named Harley Curtis informed the master of St. Paul Lodge that a group of Masons in Stillwater desired to form a lodge under the jurisdiction of the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin. The dispensation was issued to St. John’s Lodge in Stillwater on October 12, 1850. No record exists of any activity by the members of St. John’s Lodge for the next 2 years. We must assume that activity was taking place, meetings were being held, and the members were active socially, because a charter was issued by the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin on June 9, 1852. Thus St. John’s Lodge, the second lodge to receive dispensation in Minnesota, became the first lodge to be chartered in the new territory.

Cataract Lodge and St. Paul Lodge

The third lodge to be formed was Cataract Lodge in St. Anthony, which received a dispensation from the Grand Lodge of Illinois on February 5, 1852. Cataract Lodge No. 121 of Illinois was the most active of the three new lodges operating in Minnesota. At their first meeting the dispensation was read and officers appointed. Then the lodge received an incredible 16 petitions for membership, thus increasing in size from 8 to 24 members in a very short period of time. Within eight months of receiving its dispensation, Cataract Lodge had received 42 petitions, raised 30 new Master Masons, moved into quarters similar to those of St. Paul Lodge, and received its charter from the Grand Lodge of Illinois. Thus, Cataract Lodge became the second officially chartered lodge in Minnesota.

St. Paul Lodge had been the first to receive a dispensation to meet in Minnesota. However, records indicate that the lodge met rather inconsistently from 1849 until 1853. For some reason the lodge did not file proper returns with the Grand Lodge of Ohio. Thus its charter was not issued until 1853, making it the first lodge to receive dispensation, but the third to be chartered. With the chartering of St. Paul
Lodge No. 223 of the Grand Lodge of Ohio, the territory now had the required three chartered lodges necessary to form a new grand lodge.

The formation of three chartered Lodges of Masons was not the only progress in Minnesota at this  important period in history. The fledgling communities were experiencing rapid growth along the Mississippi River and the St. Croix River. Statehood for Minnesota was still six years away, but there was already talk of state government. By 1853, Minnesota was poised to take its position among the states in the Union, and the Masons of the state were ready to form their own Grand Lodge.

On the very same evening that the officers were installed in St. Paul Lodge, A.T.C. Pierson introduced a resolution to authorize a meeting for the purpose of exploring creation of a Grand Lodge in Minnesota. The meeting took place as planned on February 23, 1853. However, there was no representation from St. John’s Lodge. The notification of the meeting had arrived late.

While the special meeting was being held in Stillwater, the convention was proceeding without the St. John’s representation. A.E. Ames of Cataract Lodge and A.T.C. Pierson of St. Paul Lodge were elected president and secretary of the convention respectively. Ames then appointed Aaron Goodrich of St. Paul to draft a proposed constitution for them Grand Lodge. Goodrich was at that time a judge in St. Paul. He labored through the night of February 23/24 and produced a brief but very comprehensive constitution. It consisted of four articles, nine rules of order, and three resolutions.

Upon the arrival of two members from St. John’s late that day, Ames reconvened the convention and the constitution was presented. By the end of the evening the proposed constitution had been approved unanimously for adoption.

The convention elected A.E. Ames to be the first Grand Master. Following the installation of officers the Grand Master closed the Constitutional Convention and immediately opened the First Annual Communication of the Grand Lodge of Minnesota. The only order of business at this first communication was to grant new charters to the three lodges constituting the Grand Lodge. St. John’s Lodge became #1, Cataract Lodge became #2, and St. Paul Lodge became #3 in the order of their charter dates.

The Grand Lodge was incorporated in accordance with the laws of the Territory of Minnesota and by an act of the Territorial Assembly under the title “The Grand Lodge of Minnesota.” In fact, it was the first corporation to be recorded in the state of Minnesota. From this meager start, Masonry has grown and prospered into its present day. There were eight lodges in Minnesota when A.T.C. Pierson assumed the Grand East in 1856. During his nearly 9-year tenure as Grand Master an additional 41 lodges were chartered.

The growth of the fraternity followed the expansion of the population along the major rivers. Until 1870, when Palestine Lodge No. 79 was chartered in Duluth, the only Lodge north of St. Cloud was Northern Lights No. 68 U.D. at Pembina on the Red River. This was a military Lodge that later moved to Ft. Garry, Manitoba. In 1873 and 1874 Lodges were chartered in Fergus Falls, Brainerd, and Detroit Lakes. Three Lodges were chartered in the Dakota Territory: Yellowstone No. 88, which surrendered its charter after two years; Shiloh No. 105 (in Fargo); and Bismarck No. 120, which transferred their allegiance to the Grand Lodge of Dakota at its formation in 1880.

By 1903, our Golden Jubilee year, 255 charters had been granted and there were Lodges in all but the most northern counties. Membership had grown to 18,542 Masons in 239 Lodges (16 lodges had surrendered their charters.) The first step toward building a Masonic Home had been taken in 1902 with the appointment of a committee to collect opinions from the Lodges. In their 1903 report they said: “The committee failed to hear from any of the subordinate Lodges . . .” They recommended that the Grand Master write to each Lodge, directing each to hold a Special Communication to poll the membership and report back to the Grand Master.

The Grand Master’s letter must have been effective because the Minnesota Masonic Home was incorporated in 1906, and the Home was opened in 1920.

The Masonic Home was the first incorporated Masonic Charity in Minnesota, but it was not the first act of Masonic charity. Financial aid to distressed brothers and their dependents has always been the practice of Lodges and Grand Lodges and this was true in Minnesota. In 1867 Grand Master Nash called upon the Masons of Minnesota to establish a Relief Fund. The immediate purpose was to help those
suffering the aftermath of the Civil War. $2292.65 was raised by the appeal, which was distributed to Lodges in the former Confederate states.

In 1880 the Grand Lodge created the Widows’ and Orphans’ Fund (later called the Permanent Relief Fund) with an initial appropriation of $500. In 1913 the Emergency Relief Fund was established and the Special Charity Fund and the Reserve Fund were set up in 1922 and 1945 respectively. At the time of our 100th anniversary, the balance of these four charity funds totaled $360,000.

But these Funds are only a small part of the charitable labors and donations by individual Masons and Lodges, most of which has been unrecorded or recorded only in the minutes of Lodges. One outstanding example is the national Masonic Service Association, founded in 1918 so that “the fraternity could unite its strength and resources in one common purpose.” The annual Green Envelope drive asks each Mason to contribute what he can to the MSA and through this national charity many millions of dollars have been sent to relieve distress among Masons, their families, and friends. Minnesota has historically been the top per capita contributor to the MSA.