Our banner proclaims April 22nd, 1766, as the date it all began. Records for that time frame ARE scattered AND incomplete, but our date IS accredited as the formal beginnings of this lodge. In early May, 1766, Stratford Brother Joseph Clarke held a meeting of Free and Accepted Masons at his home to tell of his receipt of a warrant creating this lodge, to be known as Saint Johns’ 1, Stratford. That warrant came from the Provincial Grand Master of Masons for the Colony of NY, and a representative of the Grand Lodge of London, RW George Harrison. It was signed in London and dated April 22, 1766…thus our lodge’s historic link to our brethren of the Empire State. By the way, it was customary at that time to number lodges by township, so there was St Johns’ 1, Fairfield, St Johns’ 1, Norwalk, etc…thus we began our Masonic journey as Saint Johns’ 1 of Stratford.
The 1st gathering of the organizers of this lodge was May 12th 250 years ago. 3 days later the first Regular Communication took place with the initial officers being elected. Joseph Clarke became our first Worshipful Master. Unlike present days with a line of officers who regularly move up a position every year, early Freemasonry in the Colonies operated differently. Elections were held annually and WB Joseph Clarke sat in the east a total of 9 times (only Heaven knows why he would wish that upon himself)…1766, 67, 69 and 1773 through the start of the Revolution into 1779. A total of 152 men have sat in the East since that time.
When researching our history, one of the areas I most enjoyed was discovering the names of our past brothers… Abijah Beach…Ephriam Peet…Hezakiah Taylor…. not too many Tony’s Barry’s and Mike’s.
As we take you back 250 years to Colonial times, the picture your mind is painting of Stratford should be dark…somewhat desolate…almost as you might picture Sleepy Hollow on that night of Ichabod Crane’s famous ride…minus, of course, the headless horseman! Bridgeport didn’t exist yet…the STATE of Connecticut didn’t exist yet…and we were still a decade removed from the War for Independence. Travel in town was anything but easy. The few Stratford roads were described as, “horrid, devil-designed, and virtually impassable most days.” Brothers walked, a very few came on horseback if they could, to attend night-time Stated Communications, and such night travel was treacherous. Those who walked would try to travel in groups for, “added lantern light and safety”. For this reason, lodge meetings started promptly at, “6 of the o’clock in the afternoon on the 2nd & 4th Thursdays,” as per our first bylaws from September of 1766. Historic minutes of our earliest gatherings show how Masters of this lodge pushed to complete the business of the evening in, “a manner not lacking in urgency.” Why? Because returning home after evening meetings was always challenging and sometime dangerous. Stratford was small farms…lots of woodlands…a small center of commerce…a rough and tumble waterfront. Cultural institutions…even inns and taverns were few and far between…It was typical of a small, coastal town in Colonial America…”at times not fit for man’s safe passage.”
We had no actual lodge building in 1766. The earliest meetings took place in the homes of brothers. The oldest surviving record of a gathering lists an April 16th, 1767 meeting at the home of Brother Samuel Fulsom. For that he received 40 shillings, for, “hospitality, hearth and safe haven.” At a meeting there in October 1766 we find our first records of Masonic business. “ The lodge being open in due form did, after heated discussion over cost, unanimously agree and consent that Brother Abijah Beach should see and take care that proper candlesticks be provided for the lodge.” Even 250 years ago it was all about the bucks, bout the bucks!!!
As a side note…the annual dues of a Freemason in 1766 was, “3 pounds, and 3 shillings to the Tyler. And, should any Brother swear in lodge he shall pay 2 shillings lawful money, and should he use obscene language, another 1 shilling. All fines shall be applied to charity.”
Rotating home meetings continued through February, 1768. Then a formal Lodge Room was constructed in the garret of the home of Brother Joseph Prince. That home still stands today and the address is now 2048 Elm Street, Academy Hill…it was called Watch House Hill back then. It was voted in 1769 to begin work on a fully independent lodge building, but a lack of land, limited funds, and that minor inconvenience known as the War for Independence pushed lodge dreams to the back burner.
Speaking of that war, we aren’t sure which side the majority of the fraternity supported. We do know our lodge was closed in form March 29, 1774 and remained dark until March 29, 1778. “We find it impossible to practice Harmony and Brotherly Love”, those are the words written as the reason for the closure. Loyalists and Rebels were both active at Saint Johns’ 1, Stratford.
After the war’s conclusion, America no longer had ties with Britain, thus we had no connection to the Grand Lodge of London for Masonic guidance. With Fairfield County lodges leading the way, all the lodges of Connecticut convened in 1789 at the Doolittle Tavern in New Haven…by the way, it remains true…Masons to this day do some of our best work in taverns. There we created the Grand Lodge of Connecticut, naming Pierpont Edwards our first Grand Master. By the way, our own Brother Ashbell Baldwin, pastor of Christ Episcopal Church in Stratford, was elected as the first Grand Chaplain.
In the late summer of 1792 WB Matthias Nicoll, who, for reasons known only unto him, served 18 different years as Master of this lodge, laid the cornerstone for our first Masonic Temple at the corner of what is now Main Street and Stratford Avenue. That 1792 cornerstone still exists…embedded into our current lodge in May of 1981. By the way…this old, faded wooden sign you see before me is the original Hand-made sign that hung proudly outside that first lodge building. We occupied the upper floor and the main floor was a grocery store, operated by John Hard, which is why to this day it is called Hard’s Corner.
Upstairs, we basked in the lap of 18th Century post-war luxury. The great all– seeing eye was painted on the east wall with hieroglyphics adorning all other walls illuminated, “by sperm oil, magnificent tallow candles all reinforced by tin reflectors.”
May of 1796, the CT Grand Lodge decided to number the various lodges based on the original charter dates and when they were received here. That is when our Colonial Charter designation as St Johns’1, Stratford became Saint Johns’ 8…the 8th oldest lodge in the new State of Connecticut…and one of the oldest in all of America. Freemasonry across America grew and prospered for decades.
Some 30 years later came the dark days for the American fraternity. There was anti-Masonic sentiment rampant across America following the still unsolved disappearance of William Morgan in NY State. He claimed to be a freemason and even became a Royal Arch Mason in upstate NY. In Morgan’s life, 1 dispute led to another and he supposedly wrote a book in which he planned to tell the world all the secrets of Freemasonry. A majority in America believed it was the Masons who abducted and then drowned him…no one knows for sure. Bottom line…Masons everywhere were persona non grata. Regular meetings and Stated Communications vanished for fear of retribution, including here. However, a handful of local Stratford Masons continued to meet in secrecy from 1827-1856. Eventually, as with all things, this too did pass.
A now ever-growing Saint Johns’ 8 now needed more room. A much larger lodge was dedicated in 1873 in Stratford Center on Main Street, but this grandiose temple proved to be too expensive to maintain. It was sold to the town but we still met on the top floor till 1887. That building no longer stands haven fallen to progress in the name of the Connecticut Turnpike in the 1950s. From there we moved to the 2nd floor hall above Whiting’s Market until 1914. Then throughout WW 1, the lodge haggled over the cost of a new, larger temple. In the end, they voted yes and the cornerstone was laid for that building in 1927, opening 1 year later. We remained there for about a half a century.
That building still stands in the center of town…but now as the Temple Medical Court. The need to downsize once again led to our moving to our current location in 1980. Our present temple previously served as a Lutheran Church and was the Stratford North End Library before it became our home. Our lodge room was dedicated with a lavish ceremony on September 12th, 1981. Serving as Master of Ceremonies for that auspicious meeting was our own Past Master Wally Boice, who went on to serve decades as Grand Treasurer of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Connecticut. Our lodge has also produced a Grand Master, Most Worshipful Brother William Neu…and a litany of District Deputies.
Other famous Brothers of America-Saint Johns’ #8 include William Samuel Johnson, a signer of the US Constitution and our state’s 1st US Senator then President of Columbia University…Raymond Baldwin, a former Senator, Governor and Chief Justice of the Ct State Supreme Court…George “Doc” Gunther was a lifetime member here and was the longest serving State Senator in Connecticut History…Brother Fred Biebel rose to fame as a political operative, serving as state Republican Chairman before being named the Chairman of the National Republican Party, in the days of Ronald Regan and George Bush. Many of the streets in Stratford now bear the names of past brothers here from the 18th & 19th Centuries.
Masonic history shows that over the years, this lodge played an important role in expanding the fraternity. Our brothers before us helped in the formation of King Hiram 12 in Shelton…Hiram 18 in Sandy Hook…Washington 19 in Monroe…Ansantawae 89 in Milford…America 132 and Daytime 144 here in Stratford.
Over the years, #8 has merged with other lodges. We did so with America 132 and thus our present name of America-Saint Johns’ #8. Temple Lodge of Bridgeport more recently merged into our big happy family.
Our building serves as home for other Masonic bodies including…Daytime Lodge 144…Baldwin Chapter…Jerusalem Council..Hamilton Commandry.