Less than 20 years after the American Revolution, Fairfax Lodge No. 43 of the Ancient, Free & Accepted Masons received its charter to organize in Culpeper.
Then Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Virginia, John Marshall, signed the paperwork 225 years ago that started the local lodge on Nov. 27, 1794. Marshall had earlier served with the Culpeper Minutemen during the Revolutionary War and went on to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
Brother Phillip Rootes Thompson was installed as the first Worshipful Master, or president, of the new lodge in an annual ceremony that continues to this day.
Culpeper Masons celebrated its 225th anniversary by opening its doors to the public this past July 4. Another open house is being planned for next month in the meeting place upstairs at 209 E. Davis St. where local Masons have gathered for the past 120 years.
Earlier this year, members of the Fairfax Masons met in the lodge to share highlights of the fraternal organization’s two centuries of storied history, brotherhood and community service. Often viewed by outsiders as a “secret society,” that’s not entirely true, said Fairfax Lodge Worshipful Master Doug Lingenfelter, who works in law enforcement with the Fairfax Police Department.
“We’re not a secret society because you know we’re here, but it’s a society that does have a few secrets,” he said.
The honorable thing
A Mason since 2012, Lingenfelter explained that advancing in the organization of “brothers” requires study of Masonic history, its rituals and obligations. Masonic history is not written down—it’s shared through the spoken word, he added.
“So that’s part of the secrets,” Lingenfelter said. “The history is just spoken among the members, passed down from generation to generation and is very similar, if not exactly the same, from state to state. If it was written, it would be known by other people who are not masons, so that’s part of the mystique.”
The Masonic Lodge in Culpeper was the 43rd in the state of Virginia to receive its charter, a document which still survives and is stored in a safe. This charter, in fact, almost didn’t survive the Civil War and the Union occupation.
Northern soldiers occupied the club’s original lodge on North Main Street, and when they left, they took the minute book containing the charter with them, recounted modern day Mason Fred Soutter, retired law enforcement officer with Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office.
“It was loaded in a wagon with a bunch of other books, probably stuff taken from the courthouse as well, and it was taken to Philadelphia where it was to be set afire,” he said.
It just so happens, Soutter added, the soldier tasked with that responsibility was a Mason: “He ran across this book, did the honorable thing and put it aside … and turned it over to the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania, which just by looking at it, could tell where it belonged.”
Surviving correspondence with the Grand Lodge of Virginia indicated, “We want to return it to its rightful place,” Soutter said. “It took several days by horseback and the book was returned to Richmond and eventually found its way back to our lodge.”
The aged, handwritten charter document “that holds such near and dear meaning for us,” he said, was carefully displayed during the meeting earlier this year along with other artifacts, including Civil War swords cut down for use in ceremonial rites, bejeweled collars worn by officers and early meeting minutes. Lingenfelter mentioned the notes from 1799 and a reference to the most famous American Mason.
“There is a notation in our minutes about the passing of George Washington,” he said. “It talked about a service in his honor and the lodge was draped in black bunting as a memorial to his passing.”
Contrary to popular belief, men cannot be invited to be Masons. Instead, they have to petition a lodge to do so. “If someone is interested, it has to be on their own freewill and accord,” Lingenfelter said.
Once the petition is filed, two Masons in good standing must endorse it before an investigating committee meets with the potential member and his family. After that, a criminal background check is conducted and lodge members vote in secret to accept the new applicant, who is only allowed in by a unanimous vote. Lingenfelter sought membership in the Masons in the footsteps of an uncle and other family members.
“They were people of good character, who had clout in the community, were well-respected by others,” he said. “Putting that aside, they were men who were good helpers. I always enjoyed that because there’s always someone that could use assistance.”
Through payment of annual dues, members of Fairfax Lodge No. 43 support various, Masonic-associated youth organizations including DeMolay International, Job’s Daughter and Rainbow Girls. The local lodge also awards scholarships to graduating high school seniors in Culpeper and provides financial support for the Masonic Home of Virginia for retirees.
Its members, in addition, give charity locally behind the scenes—helping with home repairs, for example, or repairing disabled vehicles or paying anonymously for someone’s lunch.
Soutter joined the Fairfax Masons in 2007 and had long held an interest in the organization.
“One of our slogans is, ‘Making good men better.’ We do that through philanthropy and donations,” he said. “We have no secret,” Soutter added, “We have a big seal at the top of our building and there are lighted globes outside the wall here and our door is plainly marked. We don’t hold any secrets, save those secrets that are held in our rituals or when we close or open the lodge or confer a degree on a new candidate.”
The Masons are not trying to take over the world, he said, and they don’t sacrifice animals during their meetings. The group does hold dear its principles, however, such as: “Faith must be the center of our lives,” “Each person has a responsibility to be a good citizen, obeying the law” and “No one has the right to tell another person what he or she must think or believe.”
Besides almost losing its charter following the War Between the States, Fairfax Lodge No. 43 lost many of its members, requiring the calling of a special meeting in a member’s home on August 30, 1865, Soutter said.
He read from a minute book – “Brother Gray was the Worshipful Master, deceased. Crittenden was the Senior Warden, deceased, and it lists all of the officers of the lodge that were members at the time of the war and every single one of them served in the Civil War and every single one of them died.”
Though Fairfax Lodge No. 43 “went dark” during the war, he said, accounts remain that Masonic members met elsewhere.
“There were tales of fighting amongst themselves during the day and at nighttime. They would lay down their weapons, sneak off into the woods and hold Masonic meetings, both Union and Confederate soldiers,” Soutter said.
In 1906, records state, trustees of the Fairfax Lodge filed a lawsuit against the United States of America in the decades following the war that ravaged many Southern towns.
“The Union soldiers had camped in our temple and done damage to it so they sued the U.S. for rent and repairs,” Soutter said. “The United States agreed we had enough facts to prove our claim and they paid us $1,900 for four years of occupying our building.”
The new Lodge still in use today on East Davis Street opened in 1900 on a corner lot downtown purchased for $1,200 from a Confederate soldier who served with the famed Mosby’s Rangers, according to Lingenfelter. French patriot The Marquis de Lafayette visited the original Main Street Lodge in the early 1800s, history recounts. That building was situated where a small park now exists in the spot of the original structure destroyed in the 2011 earthquake.
All are equal
Mason Levi Brown, a Culpeper native retired from VDOT, has been part of the fraternal organization for 60 years, making him the most senior member of Lodge No. 43. He joined in the footsteps of an uncle who was a World War I veteran.
“I get a whole lot out of Masonry. A lot of people, they don’t know what it’s about,” said Brown, adding, “I’m a great lover of the old Western movies, history and cowboys. Well, Roy Rogers was a Mason, 33rd Degree, and Gene Autry, too. I said if those old cowboys are Masons I would love to be in there, too.”
Brown is a 32nd degree Mason, one degree away from the highest degree a Mason can earn.
“It’s a lot to learn,” he said, not disclosing further details other than, “They say, masonry makes better men out of good men.”
Soutter said the Masons are not an elite group as some might think, noting local membership is comprised of doctors, lawyers and bank presidents as well as truck drivers and laborers.
“We are a diverse group. We don’t cater to the upper echelon. We cater to every man in the county as long as he’s of good moral fiber,” said Soutter. “That’s why Masonry has been active and involved in Culpeper County for so long—because of the fact that any man from any walk of life can be a Mason and contribute back to the community.”
“Regardless of what someone’s title or position is in the community or in their job, when everybody meets here, everybody is of equal stature—that is part of the great acceptance. No matter what you are on the outside, everybody meets here as a brother. We’re all equal,” he said.
The wives and families of Masonic members are invited for dinner in the Lodge prior to its monthly meetings, but once the meeting starts, the doors to the temple are closed to outsiders, preserving long-held ritual secrets. Even the Masons themselves don’t know all the history.
“I want to talk about the flag,” Lingenfelter said near the end of the meeting in the Lodge.
Soutter took over, “You’re going to give away one of our secrets,” he said.
During a clean-up day earlier this year, under a false bottom desk drawer in the Masonic Temple, was discovered a Blue Star flag embroidered with the names of every Lodge member who served in World War I.
The trio of Masons carefully unrolled it, reciting familiar surnames, while proudly displaying another layer of history that continues to unfold.