Who were the Odd Fellows?

Odd Fellows Hall, Arkville

Odd Fellows Hall, High St., Arkville is now an apartment house

An interesting stash of books and records found by Brian Sweeney in 2004 when he acquired a large building on High Street in Arkville sheds some light on a once-prevalent fraternal organization with a pretty strange name: The Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF).

The IOOF – the North American chapter of an organization with roots that may date back to the Middle Ages in Europe – was first established in this country in 1819 in Baltimore. Among the theories as to how it got is name is one that speculates that at a time when European tradesmen gathered in Guilds to promote and protect their members, some smaller trades which were not large enough to form trade-specific guilds, collected in Guilds of “odd fellows.”

Whatever the origins, the IOOF in this country was formed as a benevolent organization whose mission was (and still is) to “visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan.” From 1860 to 1910/1920, the “Golden Age of Fraternalism” in America, the Odd Fellows became the largest among all fraternal organizations, even larger than Freemasonry. By 1889, the IOOF had lodges in every American state.

Local chapters began to form in the 1880s. There were 675 lodges in New York State in 1893, seven of them in Delaware County – Arkville, Arena, Roxbury, Delhi, Bloomville and Sidney. Ten years later, there were Lodges at Hancock, Grand Gorge, Walton and Davenport Center. By 1925, when there were 994 Lodges in the State, Stamford, Sidney Center, Trout Creek and Treadwell joined the Delaware District. That year, Arkville had 126 active members, Roxbury 87 and Arena 31.

The earliest membership book found at Brian Sweeney’s Arkville building, which was the meeting hall of Lodge #558, dates back to 1887. A book listing officers from 1889 through 1898 shows that on July 1, 1889, the following men held leadership positions in Lodge #558: A. B. Bookhout, B. L. Searles, C. E. Hood, S. Korn, H. R. Wait, W. H. Griffin, J. W. Redmond, V. Fuller, G. H. Dimmock, E. Redmond, W. W. Biehler, J. Kelly, James More, George Lasher and William Griffin.

In 1893, according to the proceedings of the Annual Session of the NYS State IOOF, W. W. Bassett was Grand Master in Arkville, and F. H. McLean held the same post in Arena, which had 64 members that year. Members advanced by “degrees,” which were conferred with ritual and pageantry. Ornate, silver- and brass-embroidered collars signifying rank and position were found in the Arkville hall, along with catalogues showing costumes, props and ceremonial items that Lodges could order.

Arkville books indicate that membership was $1 a year in the early years, $2 later. Funds were mostly utilized to maintain the building, and to provide “sick benefits” to ill members (in 1903, six members received a total of $51), and to help pay ”burial” expenses for deceased members ($50 was paid that year to the widow of one Arkville Odd Fellow). This may have been one reason why membership skyrocketed in those pre-Social Security and Medicare days.

The IOOF became the first national fraternity to accept both men and women when it formed the Daughters of Rebekah in 1851. It wasn’t until 1904 that Rebekah chapters were established in Delaware County – in Roxbury, Delhi and Walton. The next year, Arena followed suit. By 1925, there were active Rebekahs in 12 Delaware County communities, including Arkville.

The Rebekahs met through at least 1938, according to a member book found at the hall, and they used the IOOF building for their meetings. So did other local groups, including another long-gone fraternal organization, the Knights of the Maccabees. Several song books from this group were also found in the Arkville building, and will be among fraternal memorabilia to be displayed in the Town Hall later this winter.

3 responses to “Who were the Odd Fellows?”

  1. Sally Scrimshaw

    My husband’s father was in the Odd Fellows and I always wondered what it was all about. I also met a woman at church who was a member of the Daughters of Rebekah. Thanks for the article!

  2. Roger Davis

    I have a lodge by-laws book dated 1915 which indicates the rules of order committee as being B.S. Ackerly, H. Van Valkenburgh and Charles H. Rhymer. This book wa still being used in 1921 as indicated on the first page for a new member certificate. This member was admitted Jan. 1, 1921. Certificate is signed by C. VanValkenburgh N.C. and Ralph Griffin, secretary.
    I also have an Arkville Rebekah Lodge No. 461 membership ribbon and badge. How long did this organization remain in Arkville?

    Also does anyone have any information on The Knights of the Maccabees, Arkville Tent No. 732? I have some material for this organization but have had no luck finding any information. They may have also used the Odd Fellow building. I have heard that some of their robes were given to the Free Mason’s some years ago, but again cannot confirm anything.

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