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BLUE HILL — Historically, they wove the social tapestry of communities throughout Maine. Today, fraternal organizations — Odd Fellows, Masons, Granges and others — are fading into the background as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter provide social networking in the computer age.
A panel discussion sponsored by the Blue Hill Historical Society on June 30 zeroed in on the impact — past and present — of service organizations on the life of Blue Hill.
Panelists representing four groups that have influenced the town’s history included Duane Gray, Odd Fellows; Barbara Grindle, Rebekahs; Bill Grindle, Masons and Lucy Ledien, the Grange.
Tracing the origins of the Odd Fellows, Gray described the organization as an “international, nondenominational, men’s fraternal and charitable organization.”
Declining membership has altered one aspect of that time-honored description: women are now allowed into the Odd Fellows.
The first Odd Fellows in Blue Hill were established in 1881, and membership grew rapidly for several years, Gray said.
The Blue Hill Odd Fellows Lodge decided to build its own hall in 1895 and accepted an offer from Lodge member Alonzo Long to build on property he owned adjacent to his saw mill at the mouth of Mill Stream in downtown Blue Hill. Long would sell the parcel to the Lodge for $800 and build a foundation in return for a 10-year lease of the first floor and basement for $80 a year.
The 32-foot-by-60-foot hall was completed in 1896 and Long opened his general store on the first floor. The second floor consisted of banquet and recreation rooms, and the third floor was dedicated as a Lodge meeting room.
“The availability of a new meeting place in Blue Hill must have been very desirable at that time because records show that many requests were made for the use of the second floor facilities,” Gray said. “Among those who actually used the hall were the Acadian Club, the Order of Golden Cross and the Masons, who continue to use the second floor today.”
The Rebekahs also meet in the building, but the days of renting space only to fraternal groups are gone.
“Without rent, we wouldn’t have the building today,” Gray said. “There wouldn’t be any place for the Masons or Rebekahs or the Odd Fellows.”
The first floor has been leased to various businesses over the years and is currently occupied by Compass Point real estate. The rooms on the second floor are used by exercise groups, a tango club, coffee club, Alcoholics Anonymous and others who lease space.
“We used to keep it for fraternal groups only, but we found it didn’t pay the bills — electric, taxes, insurance,” Gray said.
Like all groups represented at the forum, the Odd Fellows have experienced a sharp decline in membership.
“The Odd Fellows continued to grow until the 1940s and ’50s when their membership reached 180,” Gray said. “Since that time, a more hectic lifestyle and television have drawn people away from the Lodge.”
Modern times have depleted interest and involvement in other organizations, too.
“Along came the automobile, movies, radio, and Granges no longer held the attraction,” said Lucy Ledien. “Now it is a community service organization. We still hold our meetings but no longer every week. We socialize, but nothing to the extent of yesteryear. Where years ago 40 to 50 people would turn out to a meeting, now, hopefully, 10 to 12 will come.”
Formally known as Patrons of Husbandry, the Grange was organized in 1867 following the Civil War to “provide for the welfare of farmers and to unite private citizens in improving the economic and social position of the nation’s farm population,” Ledien said.
“The Grange was the social center for the area,” she added. “They were found in various neighborhoods of a town.”
In its heyday, the Grange flourished in East Blue Hill, North Blue Hill, South Blue Hill and nearby North Sedgwick and Brooksville.
“Now Brooksville and Cape Rosier have combined and North Blue Hill is the only one left in Blue Hill,” Ledien said. “North Sedgwick has folded.”
Rebekahs, the Odd Fellows’ sister organization, got its start in 1851 at a time when the “Odd Fellows realized that they needed the woman’s touch to help them in carrying out their good works,” Barbara Grindle said.
In Blue Hill, Mountain Rebekah Lodge No. 87 was organized in May 1898. According to historical records, between 1923 and 1948 the Lodge was prosperous and participation grew to 185 members. Today, the Lodge has 46 members, with 12 to 16 usually attending regular meetings.
“Like many organizations, membership is low,” said Grindle. “I think I can speak for all groups here that there are many, many excuses for not joining these groups. And I say ‘excuses’ deliberately. If the desire to join was there, we would have members like the 50-year report gave us.”
The Masons of Blue Hill established the Ira Berry Lodge in November 1883. It was founded by 47 charter members. In 1991, participation had increased to 189 members. Today there are 120.
“Facebook, Twitter and MySpace are today’s lodges,” said Bill Grindle, Master of Ira Berry Lodge No. 128. “Our population is definitely in decline.”
Local fraternal organizations are trying to attract new members. Ledien said a renewed and growing interest in farming among younger people increases the potential pool for Grange members, but though some have joined, few have become active members.
Younger generations have resisted membership in the Rebekahs and similar organizations because they dislike the discipline of inherent rituals.
Barbara Grindle said the Rebekahs have lightened some of the rituals of membership in order to attract younger members. For instance, passages that were once memorized and recited to gain membership are now read from a book.
Though membership is in decline, the organizations continue to support charitable causes on the local, state and national levels, including annual scholarships given by each group to graduating seniors at George Stevens Academy and Deer Isle-Stonington High School.