Historically speaking

Fraternalism was popular in west end in late 19th century

ISHPEMING — The golden age of fraternalism refers to a period in the United States, from the later third of the 19th century and into the first part of the 20th. It was a time when membership in fraternal societies grew at a rapid pace. At the peak of this ‘age,’ as much as 40% of the adult male population were members of at least one fraternal order.

Ishpeming was part of that ‘Golden Age.’ The 1895 Marquette County Polk directory lists 27 organizations under Secret and Benevolent Societies. There were an additional 11 organizations listed under Miscellaneous Clubs and Societies. Many of the major fraternities had branches in Ishpeming, including the Masons, the Odd Fellows, and the Elks.

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows was one of the first fraternal orders to appear in Ishpeming as evidenced by this article.

“John Johnson relates a good joke on some of the Marquette Odd Fellows who went up to Ishpeming last Monday evening to attend the encampment and undergo certain initiation ceremonies. They stopped over night at a certain house and john says — well soap advanced three cents a pound next morning!” (Mining Journal, September 7, 1872)

Since the Odd Fellows are still present in Ishpeming, they are one of the longest running groups, older than the city by at least a year. The McKey building was purchased for them in 1909, member Nathan Skud bought it and then turned it over to the group.

There were many kinds of fraternal societies. Some of them were purely social in nature, but others provided benefits. The Modern Woodmen of America, which in 1895 met in the Anderson Block, provided funeral benefits. Money was paid upon the death of a member and often the funeral was held at the fraternity’s clubrooms. Some groups purchased cemetery plots to be used to bury members who had no family to purchase burial places. The Modern Woodmen of America is still around, and now sells life insurance and offers financial planning.

Other fraternal societies were ethnic in nature. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, meeting also in the Anderson Block in 1895 was an Irish Catholic fraternal organization and members were male, Catholic and either born in Ireland or of Irish descent and there were many Irish in Ishpeming. Like the Modern Woodmen, the Ancient Order of Hibernians is still around although it does not offer benefits, instead offering advocacy and the Irish culture. Neither group is still active in Ishpeming, however.

What most of these societies had in common was that their membership was male and for the most part Caucasian. Some groups had female counterparts. The Improved Order of Red Men had the Degree of Pocahontas, the Knights of the Golden Eagle had the Ladies of the Golden Eagle, and several other groups had a female version. These groups provided a mixing of the social classes, especially in smaller communities such as Ishpeming. If the dues were paid and the requirements for admission met, miners could mix with mining captains and merchants on a social level.

The ethnic based groups, in 1895 included the German Aid Society, the L’Union Canadienne Francaise, the Scandinavian Aid and Fellowship Hall, the Shin Fane Snowshoe Club, the Swedish Home Society and the Waino Temperance Society. These groups offered the chance to socialize with fellow countrymen and provided newcomers with a group to help them become established in the community. Some of the meetings were probably still conducted in the member’s native languages. The ethnic groups tended to have shorter lives than some of the fraternal benefit societies, since most newcomers wanted to assimilate into the culture of their new country.

One thing all societies and groups had in common was the need for meeting space. In 1895 none of the groups had their own building and rented space in some of the commercial buildings downtown. The third floor of the Anderson Block was designed specifically for meeting spaces and the Ancient Order of United Workmen rented the space initially. It became known as the AOUW Hall. The AOUW then rented the use of their meeting place to other groups including the CMB Association, the Modern Woodmen of America, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and others.

There was often a bit of ‘musical chairs’ in meeting space, like the retail spaces on the first floor. The meeting spaces on Main Street were in a prime location. Groups that had the cash moved to better places while groups suffering from a shortage of cash moved out and to one of the side streets or disappeared entirely.

The Grand Army of the Republic, Charles H. Towne Post #8 had a very real expiration date as the group was for veterans of the Civil War. Once they were all gone, the group ceased to exist. The GAR was different from many of the fraternal groups because it admitted African American men to its group. It was also the most powerful single-issue political lobby. Massive pensions were secured for Civil War veterans and the group helped to elect five postwar presidents. The GAR as a whole was dissolved in 1956 at the death of its last member. However, the Sons of the Union stills exists.

The Odd Fellows were not the only ones who owned a building. The Monitor Block on Cleveland Avenue is so named because it was owned by the Order of Vasa, Monitor lodge. The Elks building still stands and is often used as an event space.

By the time of the Great Depression, membership in fraternal organizations was declining, due to changing demographics and shifts in society. All groups and societies were hurt by the depression, many members simply could not afford to pay the dues and focused instead of simply surviving.

There are still fraternal groups and other societies in Ishpeming to this day. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows is one, the Elks is another. The Society of Sts. Anthony and Rocco is an Italian ethnic group as well the Paisano Club. Membership in all of these organizations is declining as society shifts away from such groups.


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