Downtown Harrisonburg’s Best Kept Secret…
Photos by Leanne Shenk
They might as well be downtown Harrisonburg’s best-kept secret. As shoppers, restaurant goers and other passersby stroll through downtown Harrisonburg’s South Main corridor, they see Whitesel Music and the adjacent, now-empty storefront. But what they might not notice is that the same building that houses Whitesel actually continues two stories up, and the two large double doors lead to … Well, not many others than the members of the Rockingham Union Lodge No. 27 know.
According to the Grand Lodge of Virginia, Freemasonry is based on the belief that “any man can make a difference in the world.” There are Grand Lodges in all 50 states and Washington D.C., which oversee lodges, or smaller, local groups of Freemasons. Inside the building and up one long flight of stairs is the lodge’s library. In this dimly-lit room, lodge curator Peyton Yancey pulls back a thick blanket laid across a table to reveal hundreds of annual record books. The oldest book dates back to 1808. Yancey has been a Mason since 1968 and he and other people work to preserve the lodge’s abundant historical material, which includes countless books, papers and pamphlets.
The other tables hold scores of documents and books, all carefully stored and organized by Yancey in special acid-free archival boxes. In addition to paper records, Yancey said that the information is also backed up digitally on disks and flash drives. “It’s really amazing, because we take minutes of everything that we do, and we’re missing so few of the minutes from our inception,” David Silcox, the leader, or Worshipful Master, of the lodge says. “It’s unbelievable to me. Some of them might be a bit hard to read, but we do a good job of preserving everything we do.”
Silcox is a manager at the Virginia Employment Commission and has been a Freemason since 2008. As master of the lodge, he conducts and oversees the society’s meetings and events while working with other officers and members.
The members have their monthly meetings in the third floor Lodge Room. An altar with a deep blue cover sits in the center of the room. Silcox pulls it away to reveal a thick Masonic Bible with ornate patterns on the front cover.Yancey mentioned that the architecture and symbols in the room are modeled after the temple of King Solomon of Israel, who, in the Bible, is known for his wisdom. Yancey points to the front of the room where there is a platform with three chairs on it. During meetings, Silcox sits in the tallest, center chair. A royal blue pennant with the word “WISDOM” drapes over the short podium in front of his chair. “I get to sit in the big fancy chair,” Silcox says with a hearty laugh.
During meetings, certain lodge officers such as the Senior Warden, sit in specific chairs on platforms similar to the one Silcox uses. All other members sit on long benches, which line the walls of the room. On the same floor and through a few hallways is what Yancey calls the Museum Room, which displays numerous important artifacts of the lodge’s history. Ceremonial swords, hats and photos are just a few of the kinds of memorabilia stored in two glass display cases. Black-and-white photographs depicting glimpses of lodge life and history hang on the walls. Yancey motions to a particular frame which holds pictures of the lodge’s past Grand Masters. He points to one particular picture. “This is my maternal grandfather right here: M.O. Miller … 1932 — he was the master of this lodge,” he says proudly.
Silcox points to another picture of man unique from the rest. The man, Edward Michael, is wearing a white cowboy hat and is holding a fiddle in the picture. At the last meeting, Silcox says the same man just received his 50-year membership pin. “He’s won more fiddling contests than any guy I know,” Yancey says. “Says he’s got no more room for ribbons or trophies,” Silcox chimes in. In the next 25 years or so, Silcox says that the lodge hopes to restore the building to its “original grandeur.” Much of the original features such as the the ceiling murals above the building’s chandeliers, don’t exist anymore. In addition, the lodge hopes to expand the Museum Room. “We have a vision, that, as soon as we can, we’d actually like to take some of this stuff — the history of what presence we’ve had in Rockingham County and Harrisonburg and open up a museum of the artifacts,” Silcox says.
Its history is deeply rooted into Harrisonburg’s own history — 226 years deep, to be exact. The lodge itself first met in 1789 in a house on the north side of Harrisonburg belonging to a man named William Cravens, but he and the other original lodge members probably met unofficially beforehand, Yancey said. The lodge moved its location several times within the downtown area before settling in the current space in 1906. Meghan Mulrooney, a 19th century historian and JMU history professor, says this group of men were working men within the community, mostly shop owners and small businessmen.
By the 1850s, Harrisonburg started to boom economically and new businesses began to develop, particularly to support the changing agricultural economy. With this, she adds, there was often a certain stereotype associated with white Southern men most of whom were planters or farmers. Mulrooney references author, historian and University of Ohio at Toldedo professor Ami Pflugrad- Jackisch, who wrote a book — “Brothers of a Vow: Secret Fraternal Orders and the Transformation of White Male Culture in Antebellum Virginia” — which references the Rockingham Union Lodge. Pflugrad-Jackisch said that joining the lodge offered some men — merchants, shopkeepers and craftsmen, for example — a different way to embrace masculinity at the time.
“They embrace temperance. They completely reject the sort of drinking mint julep, rural culture of planter masculinity,” Mulrooney says. “It’s a different sort of values that the Masonic members are embracing, so it’s a different kind of masculinity.” Mulrooney added that the meeting of these men of different occupations allowed for a metaphorical “bridge” to form between white men different socioeconomic classes, as well as men from different Protestant denominations. Mulrooney said she believes that by the 1960s, there was a generational shift in society, and many men didn’t want to join community fraternal organizations anymore and across America, civic organizations such as fraternal organizations and unions begin to decline. “[Being a Freemason] became something that your grandfather did,” she says. “So it was a big deal at one point in American History even for a lot of businessmen … in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, these kind of civic organizations were much, much more common then in American life and they just disappeared.”
Silcox agrees, but, he remains confident that, despite the generational shift, that Freemasonry and the Rockingham Union Lodge are here to stay.
“Masonry’s been around longer and it’s never faltered from its ideals, philosophies or its beliefs,” he says. “Masonry, in terms of a fraternal organization, is kind of at the top. A lot of people don’t think they can achieve that. It’s a long journey to get there… so it survived because of those strong beliefs.”
The lodge itself has recently seen an increase in interest. Last year, they inducted 12 new members. Currently, the Lodge has about 200 members of varying age and occupation. Silcox says there are three degrees in the process of becoming a fully inducted Master Mason. A prospective member must be at least 21 years old and comes into the organization as an Entered Apprentice. Entered Apprentices must learn and extensively study the rituals, teachings and philosophies of Freemasonry as they work their way up to becoming a Fellowcraft, and then finally a Master Mason.
Yancey and Silcox emphasized that neither atheists nor agnostics are allowed to become Freemasons. All member must believe in a higher being. Freemasons don’t discriminate against what a certain member might believe to be the supreme being, however. “If you take an oath to follow the philosophies of Freemasonry, then no oath that you would ever take would be binding on a person unless they first have a belief in a higher being or deity,” Silcox says. “Although we’re not a religious organization, our founding philosophies are obviously coming from England and based on religious freedom … it’s part of our philosophy and what we do.” Yancey and Silcox said that the periods that a member spends between the three stages can last at least six months, as none of the philosophies or rituals in Freemasonry are written. Thus, one only learns these passed-down traditions through word-of-mouth.
“I did plays in high school and all this stuff in college, so I thought, ‘Well I could get by with paraphrasing,’” Yancey laughed. “[My coaches] made sure I did not miss a single word. I mean, it had to be verbatim. We spent many hours working.” And Silcox and Yancey aren’t spilling the beans as far as what those philosophies and rituals are. “Our secret is that we have rituals and we have things within our organization that have been passed down … and the secret is that we are not going to tell anyone outside of Masonry what that is,” Silcox says. Silcox adds that while there’s a wealth of written information on the topic for curious minds, much of it is inaccurate. However, some ideas he’s come across are accurate — sort of, that is.
“None of it is fully correct,” he says. “I only care that I don’t tell you what [the correct information] is. And that’s my secret.”