It all started at the Bunch of Grapes tavern — on what is now State Street in Boston, when a fellow named Henry Price gathered 17 men and established the first Grand Masonic Lodge in the New World.
"Price was originally from London, had immigrated to Boston and in 1733 returned to England and obtained a charter from the Premiere Grand Lodge that allowed him to organize what was then known as the Grand Lodge of England, subsequently the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts, and that’s the precedence by which we are the third oldest grand lodge in the world and the oldest in the Western Hemisphere," said Robert Huke, a long time mason who serves as the communications director for the Massachusetts Grand Lodge.
The Freemasons trace their roots to the stonemason guilds of the 14th century, but they got their formal start in England in 1717. Huke says that Masons have been making good men better men at the corner of Boylston and Tremont for more than a century.
"The building that stands at the corner of Tremont and Boylston street is actually the third building that we’ve built at this location," he said.
The Masons’ all-time roster is pretty impressive – including a handful of founding fathers, like Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and John Hancock. Heck, Paul Revere was a grandmaster here in Massachusetts.
"The thing that we look at today and can take pride in terms of the fraternity, are some of the lessons that we have espoused since before the founding of the country that we see in documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution," Huke said.
Like many fraternal organizations, such as the Elks or Knights of Columbus, the Masons put a premium on self-improvement and service to the community. But unlike most other fraternities, the Masons have inspired a truly impressive bevy of conspiracy theories.
"There are camps that think the Masons are behind and pulling all the levers of the world economy and politics and that," Huke said.
Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," and the Nicholas Cage-led "National Treasure" movies have stoked those fires in recent years. And while the Masons don’t have Jesus’ bones or know who killed JFK, walking around the vast gilded rooms and oil-painting laden hallways of the Grand Lodge, it does kind of seem like they would. The Masons have secret handshakes, secret words … and secret places …
"This space is known as a chamber of reflection, and I don’t exactly know what takes place here, because it is a room that is used by one of the groups in the York Rite, which is an organization in the Masonic family and I have not taken my degrees in that group yet," Huke said.
They march around an altar during ceremonies that have gone unchanged for hundreds of years …
"There’s nothing that takes place that you’d be embarrassed to reveal to your mother or your wife," Huke said.
In special gear …
"Members wear aprons which is symbolic to the stonemasons," Huke said. "Our officers will have regalia which are jewels that are symbolic of their office, so not costumes, but we do have some elements that we use to dress up in."
Now, you don’t have to know a mason — or get nominated — to join, but there are qualifications. You have to be an adult male, and while the group is apolitical and non-denominational, you do have to believe in a supreme being.
"We do do background checks, we look into the character, we talk to the references of our applicants to determine or at least get a sense of whether this is a good person or not," Huke said.
All told, the Grand Lodge here in Boston oversees 230 lodges spread throughout 175 cities and towns in the Bay State. The Masons experienced their golden era in the 50s and 60s, so it’s no surprise that the average age of their membership here is a little under 65.
But thanks to an outreach effort in recent years …
"Do you have greatness in you?" a recent ad for the Masons asks. "Ask. At askafreemason.org"
… and perhaps that higher pop-culture profile, Huke says that interest among younger men is once again growing.
"About 60 percent of the new members joining today are evenly split between men 21 to 30 and men 31 to 40 with a small percentage who are 18 to 20," Huke said.
Perhaps laying the cornerstone for another 300 years — and who knows — by then they may once again be chartering first Grand Masonic Lodge in the new world, this time on Mars.
The Freemasons established the first Grand Lodge in the Western Hemisphere right here in downtown Boston, 281 years ago this week.
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