WACO – Just ring the doorbell. Ask for a visit. Walk in.
Nowadays, there is not much secrecy about the Grand Lodge of Texas or, for that matter, any of the Masonic or quasi-Masonic museums and libraries in this city, home to a historically high convergence of these once fraternal groups. powerful.
Freemasons trace their history to the European stonemasons guilds of the 13th century. But in the United States, their private lodges – replete with esoteric signs and symbols – were, for the most part, fraternal societies that outsiders had a hard time breaking up. Thus, the air of secrecy.
Years ago, on another road trip to Waco, I was struck by the uniqueness of the Grand Lodge of Texas, located on Columbus Avenue not far from the McLennan County Courthouse. The 1948 state headquarters, which takes up almost a city block, rises like a stone palace from a fantasy film among the mostly unremarkable brick structures of downtown.
Few windows overlook the avenue, which contributes to its atmosphere of hermetic mystery.
Little did I know that Masons are proud to show their history and explain their movement in Texas and around the world. You can visit and research four major museums and fraternal libraries in Waco. I explored two – besides the Grand Lodge of Texas, I also visited the York Rite Library and Museum, currently under renovation – on a recent weekend.
How did the Masons end up in Texas?
The imagery, adornments, uniforms, rituals and rules of Freemasonry remain strange to someone like me. I grew up in a time when these societies were considered cryptic, if not a little alarming.
You don’t learn much about Masons in school, but fraternal groups arrived in North America from Europe in the mid-18th century. Their American leaders have included such luminaries as George Washington, Ben Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, J. Edgar Hoover, Harry Truman, Henry Ford, Medgar Evers, and Alex Haley.
Closer to home, Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, Davy Crockett, and Anson Jones were Masons, as were many later Texas governors, legislators, judges, and civic leaders.
Colonizer Austin attempted to establish the first lodge in Texas as early as 1828, appealing to the Grand York Lodge of Mexico for permission. It was however blocked by a quarrel between the “Yorkinos” (York Rite) and the “Escoceses” (Scottish Rite). The Scottish Rite remains the largest subset of Masons in the world.
Texans under Dr. Anson Jones, future president of the republic, successfully petitioned John Henry Holland, head of the Grand Lodge of Louisiana, to organize in Brazoria in 1835. After its membership was dispersed during the Revolution of Texas, the Holland Lodge has reorganized in Houston. in October 1837.
“Despite making up only 1.5% of the population, Masons held about 80% of the top positions in the Republic of Texas,” reports the reliable Handbook of Texas Online. “All the presidents, vice presidents and secretaries of state were Masons.
“After the annexation the Masons continued to be equally important in the government of the state, and between 1846 and 1861 five of the six governors were members of the fraternity. Masonry continued to prosper; in 1860 the Texas had 226 active lodges and 9,000 members.”
Did these prominent leaders make decisions behind closed doors that affected the fate of our state or our country? Some people outside their membership certainly thought so. Others probably still think so.
Today, according to the Grand Lodge of Texas website, there are over 90,000 Masons in the state and over 900 lodges. In the public mind, Masonry today is more closely associated with schools, hospitals, the arts, and other charitable causes than with ancient symbols and secret signs a la Hollywood thrillers.
“We still have a few secret handshakes,” jokes Melissa Spann, whose mother, Maggie Matyastik, preceded her as head of the Social Order of the Beauceant, the women’s Masonic group that meets at the York Rite Library and Waco Museum. “But that’s about all.”
Two Masonic hotspots in Waco
An early stop on a recent road trip to Waco was this beautiful York Rite Library and Museum. Built in 1913 and 1914, it resembles other Masonic lodges found in medium to large cities in Texas – solid, dignified, but also a little enigmatic. It is clearly not a church, although its Greek Revival features suggest so. Despite some shops on the ground floor, it is not strictly a commercial or office building.
Before the trip, I had come across its alluring name on Google Maps. The group that runs the museum posts on Facebook, so I contacted Jon Spann, who runs Baylor Lodge #1235. He offered me and my fellow traveler a private tour, as the library and museum are currently not ready for the general public.
We met Jon and his wife, Melissa, on the Washington Street side. Formerly, an avant-museum occupied a space on the ground floor. From now on, the main room on this level serves as a meeting place for the Social Order of Beauceant. The second floor, surrounded by photos of former leaders and ceremonial equipment, houses the Baylor Lodge, the group of men.
The top floor, future home of the museum, is now a kind of Victorian attic full of fascinating artifacts waiting to be properly displayed and interpreted. The Spanns estimate that the renovated museum could be open within a year or two.
In the end, despite some apprehension on my part, the four of us took the building’s original elevator, over 100 years old, back down to the first floor. You have to live a little once in a while.
After wishing the Spanns well, we headed one block to the Grand Lodge of Texas. Before reaching this destination, we passed the intriguing building of the Texas Baptist Historical Collection. (Bookmark this archive for future research. What a city of libraries!)
On the south side of the grand Masonic structure in Columbus, we rang the bell at the glass entrance and told the person on the other end of the line that we wanted a tour. She ushered us in and directed us to the library.
But first we entered the meeting hall lobby, which we later learned holds 3,700 people. That would make it much bigger than the Bass Concert Hall or the Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin.
If the exterior of the Grand Lodge resembles the “Wizard of Oz” imagined by the architect Albert Speer, this theater is a lookalike of the United Nations Assembly in New York.
The library, which contains correspondence and records from hundreds of Masonic lodges in Texas, is large and well-lit. There we met our guide, Jim Harold, a Masonic leader who not only knew everything there was to know about Freemasonry, but was also an expert on Texas history. In fact, he had previously served as site manager at two state historic sites, including Washington-on-the-Brazos.
He led us into the lobby, which displays portraits of former Masonic leaders from Texas, dating back to Holland Lodge. Harold explained that Houston hosted the Grand Lodge of Texas, essentially the state headquarters, from 1837 until this structure was built in 1948, closer to the geographic center of the state.
Harold then took us through several alcoves and galleries, which I imagined to be the extent of the museum.
An entire floor below the main entry level is dedicated to stylish exhibits, historic photos, interpretive materials and – my personal favorite – an L-shaped hallway lined with what looked like thousands of photos of lodges from the Texas, from the most modest in the smallest cities of Texas to imposing structures in the largest cities of the state. This invaluable visual evidence should be familiar to all state history buffs.
By the time we left the Grand Lodge, we were full. We walked across Columbus Avenue for refreshments at the Southern Roots Brewing Company, one of dozens of new downtown Waco attractions spotlighted by Magnolia Market, TV’s Chip and Joanna Gaines’ transformative project.
Plan a pilgrimage to the Fraternal Shrines of Waco
But wait: two fraternal temples were not enough for this city. A little more digital excavation revealed two others – the Lee Lockwood Library and Museum for Scottish Rite Masons, and the Museum and Library of the Enhanced Order of Red Men (not technically Masons, but similar). We didn’t have time to visit them, but they are now on my radar.
Here is some information about the four shrines:
- Grand Lodge of Texas: The headquarters of nearly all Masonic lodges in Texas. Built in 1948, its modernist building is a site every Texan should see. For best results, call ahead for a visit. (715 Columbus Ave.; 254-753-7395; grandlodgeoftexas.org)
- York Rite Library and Museum: The Waco home for two active lodges, Baylor Lodge #1235 and the Social Order of Beauceant. His museum project on the top floor is in progress. (724 Washington Ave; 254-644-6336)
- Lee Lockwood Library and Museum: The Waco Home for Scottish Rite Masons. Like other Masonic venues, it includes large halls that can be hired for special events. Built in 1969, it features a striking sculptural sphinx outside a modern colonnade. Inside, discover three floors of exhibits. Most days it’s open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., but check ahead. (2801 Waco Ave; 254-752-1618)
- Upgraded Museum and Library of the Order of Red Men: According to several sources, this fraternal group, which is not officially part of Freemasonry, was modeled after the American colonists who dressed up as Native Americans during the Boston Tea Party. Unlike the York and Scottish Rites of Freemasonry, this is primarily a North American group and was not active at first. The museum and library are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays. (4521 Speight Ave; 254-756-1221)
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture, and history of Austin and Texas. He can be contacted at [email protected] Sign up for his free weekly digital newsletter, Think, Texas, at statesman.com/newsletters.