HAILEY — Nyal Pedersen kept waiting for his father-in-law to invite him to join the Masons.
The invite never came. Masons, it turned out, don’t recruit members. They wait for them to approach.
Despite their low-key approach, membership in the Masonic Lodge of Hailey is on the upswing at a time when many such organizations are closing their doors. After tapering off during the 1970s, the Hailey Lodge boasts more than 40 members, even as membership in Masons statewide has declined from 11,000 in 1982 to 4,388 members and the number of lodges has declined to 56.
Members of Hailey’s Masonic Lodge, in fact, just celebrated their 125th anniversary with Masons from Twin Falls, Bliss, Hagerman, Glenn’s Ferry and Challis. And they’re starting to make their presence felt in the community, providing scholarships for youth, assisting needy families, helping to host a solar energy fair and participating in Hailey’s Fourth of July Parade for the first time in decades.
One of the lures, Pedersen said, is the fraternity’s allegiance to “making good men better” at a time when the ethics and morality of society seem to be in tatters.
“The character of the people I’ve met in the Masonic brotherhood has not let me down,” said Pedersen, a roofer.
Freemasonry, the granddaddy of fraternal organizations, had its beginnings in 1717 England. But some trace it back to the stonemasons who built medieval Europe’s cathedrals and castles and, perhaps even, to those who built Solomon’s temple in biblical times
Its membership rolls include 13 signers of the American Constitution, 14 presidents including George Washington, and 17 of Idaho’s 30 governors, including Cecil Andrus and the state’s current governor C.L. “Butch” Otter.
Other notables include Ludwig van Beethoven, Davy Crockett, Harry Houdini, Wolfgang A. Mozart, Will Rogers, John Wayne and Red Skelton.
Because their meetings are closed to the public, Freemasons have attained an aura of mystery and been accused of everything from conceiving the United States as an experiment in Masonic principles to practicing the occult.
Pope John Paul II, fearful that the lodge with its temples, altars and oaths was anti-Catholic, once proclaimed that Catholics involved in Masonic associations could not take Holy Communion. And just recently “The Da Vinci Code” author Dan Brown added to Freemasonry’s enigma in his book “The Lost Symbol,” painting a picture of bejeweled power brokers drinking from a wine-filled skull in a dark temple just steps away from the White House.
It’s true that Masonry’s symbols can be found everywhere — from the all-seeing eye on a dollar bill to the rituals used by the Mormon church.
But everything Masons do, from the “secret handshake” to passwords, can be found on the Internet, said Hailey resident Ted Angle, who has been a Mason since 1986.
“There were good reasons for secrecy during periods of political or religious strife,” he said. “The ‘Indians’ who dumped the tea during the Boston Tea Party, for instance, were said to be Masons.”
Called “the Brotherhood of Man under the Fatherhood of God,” Masonry’s singular purpose is to make good men better, Angle said. To achieve that, the fraternity requires a belief in a Supreme Being, and for each man to practice his faith as he sees fit to do good in the world.
Indeed, North American Masons contribute more than $2 million a day to charitable causes, including the Scottish Rite’s childhood language disorder clinics and the Shriner’s hospitals, which offer free care for children who have been burned or have orthopedic problems.
The Hailey Lodge was established in 1884 while Idaho was yet a territory — more than 20 years after Masonic Lodges had been established in Silver City, Idaho City and Florence mining camps.
The original hall was destroyed by fire in 1889 that destroyed most of Hailey’s downtown. The second lodge, built at what is now the Bullion Square shopping center, burned in 1927.
John Rutter, a Mason born in Cornwall, England in 1888, built the current lodge in 1937 across the street from the historic Emmanuel Episcopal Church.
It was one of many notable projects for Rutter, who also built The Liberty Theatre, Rialto Hotel, Guyer Hot Springs hotel and pool, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, St. Charles Parish Hall, the Christiana Club, Blaine Manor and Hailey Medical Center, the Harris Block furniture store and apartments and even Hailey’s city water system.
The lodge, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is a one-story rectangular building covered with red brick brought from Salt Lake City. An arched medallion with the Masonic square and compass is centered over the double-door entryway.
The building is lit by natural light streaming through multi-paned sash windows, and four glass tear drop shaped ceiling lights hanging from 12-foot ceilings and dimmed by hand crank.
A slightly raised platform with a row of auditorium-style seats runs along each side of the room. At each end, aligned east to west in keeping with the east-west orientation of King Solomon’s temple, is a dais with ornate wood chairs and podiums.
In the center is a wooden podium and padded kneeler.
“One of the cool things is that you see all walks of life — doctors, lawyers, masons, motorcycle riders, laborers. But during closing, the Master asks the Senior Warden how we should leave. And he answers, ‘On the level.’ That’s when we all step down to the same level, no matter who we are. That speaks volumes,” said Angle.
The monthly meetings include discussion about public service projects in between prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance. But they also include rituals and instruction using stone cutter’s tools such as the square and compass as symbols designed to chisel “good men into better men.”
“At one point, we ask how we’re to act. ‘By the plumb’ —that is, to conduct ourselves in an upright matter,” Angle said.
Angle didn’t become a Mason until 1986 because his career as a military pilot kept him on the move. He wishes he would have joined earlier.
“My father was a Mason. And I never met a person who was a Mason that I didn’t respect. And that speaks volumes. I wanted to be part of it, perpetuate it,” he said.
The Hailey membership grew from 11 at its beginning to a high of 225 during War Years. At one time, Lodge members used to hold ceremonies on top of Baldy, restricting those riding the chairlifts to Masons, when Union Pacific owned Sun Valley Resort and many of Sun Valley’s employees were Masons.
Today’s Masons are talking about restoring that tradition, Angle said.
Only men can be Masons. That doesn’t bother Nyal Pedersen’s wife, Meeka, because she believes men need time with men and women time with women.
She belonged to Job’s Daughter’s, the girl’s offshoot of the Masons, as a girl. And now she belongs to Daughters of the Nile, joining other Masons’ wives in Twin Falls and Gooding.
“I’ve known many of the people in this group for 41 years, so the meetings give us a chance to catch up on family while we’re making pillow cases or stuffed animals or blankets for children in hospitals,” she said.
Meeka said she was impressed with how Masonry brought out the best in her father. She’s seen the same thing happen with her husband.
“It makes you want to be a better person, to live up to what they stand for,” Nyal said.
Karen Bossick may be reached at 578-2111 or email@example.com.