Nearly everywhere he goes, Jim Curry feels like he’s among family.
On vacation in Hawaii several years ago, he ran into and chatted up a brother. Working as a member of a pit crew at a drag race in Topeka, Kansas? Another brother struck up a conversation with him.
Such are the benefits of being a member of the oldest and largest fraternal organization in the world.
“You know, it’s just really neat,” Curry said. “Almost anywhere you go, you’re gonna run into somebody, into a brother.”
“Brothers” are fellow members of the Freemasons, or simply Masons, an international organization whose roots stretch back to the 13th century. While an international organization with an estimated 1.5 million members worldwide, the Masons are governed more locally, with a Grand Lodge of Minnesota being the parent of the local Golden Fleece Lodge based in Litchfield.
Golden Fleece Lodge No. 89 and its current roster of 92 members is marking its 150th anniversary this year. Recognized with a mayor’s proclamation during a Litchfield City Council meeting in January, local lodge members are planning other events throughout the year to celebrate the Golden Fleece Lodge’s contributions to Litchfield and surrounding area during the past century and a half.
Movies and novels about the secretive nature of the Masons notwithstanding, the Golden Fleece Lodge has operated outside the public spotlight throughout its history.
“The way it was always explained to me is that … the Masons are not a secret organization,” Curry said with a smile. “We’re an organization that has some secrets.”
Not the deep, foreboding secrets that make great plot twists, but the kind that involve initiation and advancement in a club.
What isn’t a secret is the organization’s history and its members’ contributions to local – and larger – society.
The Golden Fleece Lodge was chartered Jan. 11, 1872. Among its past members are some well-known names, including Dr. Noah Ripley, W.H. Greenleaf, B.B. Meeker, John Brandt, Frank Daggett, N.Y. Taylor and H.A. Jewett. In addition, local lodge member J.C. Braden rose to Grand Master of the Minnesota Masons.
The local lodge, through its association with the Grand Lodge of Minnesota, has made enormous impacts in the state’s medical programs.
Masons in Minnesota raised $2.1 million between 1955 and 1966 to fund construction of Masonic Memorial Hospital, now known as the University of Minnesota Masonic Cancer Center.
Since then, Minnesota Masonic Charities has become the largest donor to the University of Minnesota, with more than $125 million given to cancer and children’s health research and outcome at the university, including a $35 million donation in 2020 that helped establish the Masonic Institute for the Developing Brain.
Closer to home, the Golden Fleece Lodge members hold a number of fundraising events throughout the year, including the Masonic pancake breakfast, Shrine french toast breakfast, Masonic onion sale, and bean bag board rental to support charitable organizations and efforts. Among donations are an annual scholarship program, a children’s identification program, local Boy Scouts troop, Meeker County Dairy Association, Watercade, and angel dress program, in addition to contributions to Minnesota Masonic Charities, and to Masonic “brothers, widows and orphans in need.”
It is those efforts that Curry and fellow member Dave Lindberg are most proud of when it comes to their Masonic participation.
“There’s a lot of things in society that have Masonic connections or Masonic history,” Curry said. “The organization and individual Masons, we do so much good stuff.”
Both Litchfield natives, Curry and Lindberg have served as masters — similar to presidents in other clubs — more than once since their initiations decades ago. Both attribute their involvement to a kind of family tradition.
Curry’s grandfather was a 50-year Mason, his father was a Mason. His daughters both joined Job’s Daughters, an organization for relatives of Masons. In order to assist with the Job’s Daughters program, Curry needed to become a Master Mason, which he did. He’s been an active member of the local lodge the past 33 years.
Lindberg had a similar family connection to the Masonic order, his uncle being a member in Jamestown, North Dakota. While working in Jamestown in 1970, he entered the order, and when he returned to Litchfield in the 1980s began to work through the “chairs,” or leadership positions, eventually reaching Master of the Lodge.
They’ve seen the Golden Fleece Lodge go through cycles of growth and decline during their time, but say they’ve always remained committed to its survival – even if it means serving as the Master of the Lodge four times, as Curry has.
“When the need arises, you step up to the plate,” Curry said. “Back in the days when we were having a real hard time with membership and stuff, Chuck Anderson, who just passed away, he and I would (agree), ‘OK, you take Master this year. I’ll take it next year.’ It went back and forth for a couple years, just to keep the lodge open.”
Golden Fleece Lodge was the 89th chartered by the Grand Lodge of Minnesota, which lists 351 lodges throughout its 169-year existence, according to Jim Ellingson, secretary of the Litchfield lodge. The local lodge exemplifies changes in the state organization through the years, he said, as lodges that previously existed in Paynesville, Dassel and Cokato all have merged with the Golden Fleece Lodge.
Records kept by Golden Fleece Lodge show a roster of 217 deceased members going back to the early 1890s, Ellingson said. Also in the records is another illustration of the family lineages the organization promotes, with Jaren Winings of Litchfield being a fifth-generation Mason of the Golden Fleece Lodge, including his father, Brad, and grandfather, Ron, who are also current members.
Many who are counted among the lodge’s current members — including its oldest living member, Robert V. Anderson — no longer live in the area. But they maintain their membership in the local lodge, contributing to its fundraising activities. Anderson, who turned 100 in March and currently lives in Colorado, was elevated to a Master Mason on April 27, 1949, during a ceremony at Honolulu Lodge 409 in Honolulu, Hawaii. He was following his father, John V. Anderson, who was elevated to a Master Mason on Feb. 28, 1919, in Litchfield.
As Curry has experienced, whether actual blood relatives or Masonic “brothers,” the reach of the organization is wide. They recognize their Masonic relatives by the square-and-compass insignias – as in the encounters Curry described in Hawaii and Kansas.
“You look at people’s hands, you look at lapels, you see if they have the square and compass (on rings or pins),” Curry said. “If you see somebody with that, you can be assured that you could walk up to him and start talking to him. You are brothers right away.”
The impact of those Masonic brothers and the various branch groups such as Shriners, Scottish Rite, York Rite, and associated groups like Job’s Daughters and Order of the Eastern Star is great.
“We could go on for a while about our charitable side,” Curry said.
“It’s a measurable sum” donated by the Golden Fleece Lodge to various local organizations, Ellingson said. “We would like to, and probably will, as a local lodge do more. But I don’t think we’ve missed giving to the (Litchfield) Rescue Squad, food shelf or Toys for Tots. There are lot of things we’ve supported through the years.”