Rural Pictou County and adjacent areas of Colchester County make up the Independent Order of Odd Fellows’ stronghold in Atlantic Canada, according to Springville’s Jim Wilson, who would dearly like to see an upswing in membership.
In another couple of weeks Wilson will be finishing his duties as Grand Master for IOOF in Atlantic Canada.
“I’ve seen quite a few charters surrendered in the past few years. A few lodges have brought in new members but there is not a lodge anywhere that would not be better off with more new members.”
In the past 25 years the number of IOOF lodges in Atlantic Canada has declined from 50 to 18. In the past 10 years lodges in New Glasgow, Stellarton and Scotsburn were among those to close.
At his home lodge in Springville there are 19 members, about 11 of whom attend meetings twice a month and a handful of others who are happy to show up for projects and special needs. The remainder, many of them aged, faithfully pay their dues. Women are now welcome but all members are male and the average age is over 60.
“We’re holding our own considering the population of the East River Valley is not anywhere near what it used to be. In recent years the strongest lodge is in Tatamagouche. They have younger members, as well as seniors, and together they have been able to do a lot of for their community.”
The grand lodge offices he has held over the past three years, have put him in contact with the operation of various lodges and in addition to the pleasure of meeting fellow lodge members, he has come up with a few ideas about recruitment. Most importantly, it is best to start recruiting before a lodge is down to a handful of aged members.
“People are not likely to come to you these days so you’d better be looking for them. Recruitment has to be an all-the-time thing. When you wait too long, it becomes too late to fix the problem.”
He noted he helped IOOF lodge in Antigonish try to recruit some university students to become members.
“We had four come but only one stayed. Through the process we picked up a couple of security workers who are a great addition to that lodge.”
He understands not everyone wants to attend two meetings a month. As a father of four, there were years when he kept his involvement with the lodge to a minimum.
“I was working shift work at Michelin and had a son playing elite hockey so there were a lot of nights I had to be at work, at the rink or somewhere else instead of a lodge meeting but I was still able to take part in lodge events and hopefully do a little bit of good in the community.”
Community service is what the lodges of today are all about, said Wilson who has been involved for 27 years.
“Right at the moment my own lodge is working with the fire department and our churches to put on a benefit supper for an area resident who can use some help.”
Lodge members also got together to cut firewood for another community member, he added.
“I don’t think people are aware of how much lodges contribute to their communities and I don’t think we’ve done much of a job of making people aware.”
Part of the problem, he admitted, goes back to the secretive nature of the IOOF lodge.
“We’ve got a history, both as an organization and an organization in this area. The Springville lodge, for example, has been around since 1876 and we still have descendents of one of the charter members involved.”
He explained that IOOF began in Baltimore as an independent, non-political, non-sectarian, fraternal order and it spread, much of its appeal being that it served as an informal social security agency.
“Back around the time the lodge began in Springville we had people going to California for work. If they were lodge members they’d get a visiting card to connect with a lodge in California. If they got hurt and could not work, they were looked after by the lodge. They’d be paid up front and the bill sent back to Springville so it was a very practical arrangement.”
IOOF members also had secret signals that allowed them to connect up with strangers from other lodges.
“If a guy was in a train station, for example, there was a signal he could use, that would be recognized by another lodge member. I understand it was often very useful, maybe in getting a meal, a place to stay or information about work in the area.”
Some of that historic secrecy may be hampering the lodge as it tries to increase its membership, Wilson admitted.
“Today, you can find out anything you want about the IOOF online, it is all there. We’re non-denominational but the rituals we have to progress through degrees and offices are generally Bible-based. They are founded on three principles, love, friendship and truth. Our goal is to improve people, to help them become more caring citizens who have an eye out for those who may need a little help.”
The IOOF owns its own modest building in Springville, albeit without running water or facilities, and you still need a password to get in but Wilson said that is just maintaining tradition.
“We maintain some traditions out of respect for the founders and the members who went before us.”