Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 39 Issue 16 • Aug 20-26, 2009
now in our 39th season

Nantucket Places and People
The Patriots of Union Lodge

by Frances Karttunen

Fronting the south side of Main Street, on the corner of Main and Union Streets, is a large building without windows above the ground floor.  Whatever goes on up there is protected from prying eyes and long lenses.  It is the home of Nantucket’s venerable Union Lodge, a Masonic organization chartered back in 1771 after six Nantucket men petitioned Boston’s lodge for permission to organize.  As a Nantucket men’s organization, Union Lodge has a longer history than the nearby Pacific Club.  It is, moreover, one of the oldest Masonic lodges in North America.

The Masons are an international fraternal society dedicated to brotherhood, self-improvement, and community service.  Within the walls of their lodges they carry out private rituals, but they go public with outdoor marches and especially when they conduct funeral rites for deceased members.  At such a moment one sees files of men wearing aprons tied over their dark business suits and carrying sprigs of evergreen in their pockets.

Freemasonry got its start when men who were not professional stone layers began to gather in organizations based on medieval stonemasons’ guilds.  These men’s groups, which they called lodges, became popular in England in the 1600s, just at the time when England’s American colonies were founded and Nantucket’s English settlers were first setting foot on the island.

Around 1717, four lodges in London united to form an overarching Grand Lodge to supervise, coordinate, and charter the new lodges that were springing up wherever there were Englishmen.  Fifteen years later the first Masonic lodge on this side of the Atlantic was chartered in Boston. 

Masonry was enormously popular in North America during the 1700s, appealing to men of all ranks and occupations.  In 1784, just a half century after the founding of the Boston lodge, African-American men in Boston founded their own Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Masons.  At the end of a protracted process, the Grand Lodges of the United States extended full recognition to the Prince Hall Lodges, which now exist in the USA, Canada, the Caribbean, and Liberia.

Quaker Nantucket hardly seemed a green pasture for Freemasonry.  The Friends objected to many things—slavery, the carrying of arms, music and dance, marriage to non-Quakers, inoculation against smallpox, and consorting with Freemasons.  But Masonry came to Nantucket anyway, as documented in the Quakers’ own “Book of Objections.”  Men who were members of Nantucket’s Friends Meeting were dealt with by the elders and eventually disowned from meeting for taking up with the Freemasons.

One of the Quakers so dealt with was Friend Jethro Hussey, who was suspected of renting meeting space to Nantucket’s lodge in the 1780s.  According to the Book of Objections, elders who sought to dissuade Hussey from an interest in Freemasonry “received from him such unbecoming carriage and behavior as prevented them from doing so.”  It turned out that Friend Jethro was also Brother Jethro, and he served as Worshipful Grand Master of Union Lodge five times in the late 1700s.

Another Friend found himself in trouble with the elders for the double offense of disposing of some oysters without permission and a suspected connection with the island’s Masons.  Eventually he made things right about the oysters, but his absolute refusal to discuss the Masons got him disowned.

Quaker rejection of Freemasonry had to do with the secret rituals of the Masons and also with the Masons’ deep engagement in the American Revolution, a war that pacifist Quakers absolutely rejected.

Despite the connection to the London Grand Lodge, Freemasonry in the American colonies attracted and bound in brotherhood men who would become major figures of the Revolution:  Paul Revere, George Washington, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams, to name a few.  It is thought that the Boston Tea Party was planned by Masons meeting in Boston’s Green Dragon Tavern.

Two of the ships from which tea was thrown into Boston Harbor belonged to Friend William Rotch, whose Nantucket headquarters were just a stone’s throw from the current home of Union Lodge.  It has been suggested that the disguised men who dumped the tea refrained from scuttling the ships because they didn’t want to inflict severe financial loss on a Nantucketer.

The bond between the American Masons and the London Grand Lodge was severely strained by the American Masons’ revolutionary activities.  The war years were bitter for Nantucketers, who suffered embargo by both sides in the conflict and the destruction of the island’s whaling fleet.

During these hard times, the records of Union Lodge show its members seeking to offer relief to stricken families and worring about what would happen to their own belongings.  In both 1778 and 1779, minutes of their meetings show them making plans for hiding their records and furnishings “in case the Enemy is in sight of us here” and “in case the Enemy comes.”  They also sought to bring pressure to bear on fellow Masons on the other side “to liberate our Brothers being now in Captivity on board ye Prison Ship in New York.”

When it was all over, it was difficult to mend relations between the American lodges and the Grand Lodge in London.  Nantucket’s Union Lodge withheld their dues until 1801.  This prompted Paul Revere to write a dunning letter to Union Lodge, describing them as a “clandestine lodge” for going their independent way.  His letter is now one of the treasures of Union Lodge.

Despite the hostility of Nantucket’s Quakers and the privations suffered by all the islanders during the Revolution, the records of Union Lodge through the end of the 1700s and into the 1800s mostly reflect the activities of a men’s club much given to dining and toasting: “Entertained with a fine Turtle for supper,” lubricated with “good Tenerife” (wine from the Canary Islands), or Jamaican rum, or “wine suitable for Lodge use.” In 1795 one of the brothers had to be “treated with” about “his misconduct in abusing himself with making use too freely of strong drink.”

All this time the Masons had been meeting in rented spaces here and there around town.  In 1802 they purchased land on Main Street (right next to where the Pacific Bank would be built a little while later) from none other than Friend William Rotch.  There they built for themselves a lovely lodge hall, which exists to this day in truncated form, now incorporated into the Pacific National Bank.

For awhile all was well, but during the 1830s anti-Masonic feelings ran high, not just in Quaker Nantucket, but among the general population on the mainland.  Membership in Union Lodge dwindled, and in a move to protect their property, the remaining Brothers placed their building under the trusteeship of Nantucket’s Coffin School (founded in 1827).  The plan was for the Lodge and the Coffin School to share revenue from rental of the space, but in 1838 the property was sold, and Union Lodge was again homeless.

In the mid 1820s, a Lodge member, Brother Wilson Rawson, had been helpful to Nantucket’s Black community in founding the African School, which met in the African Meeting House on York Street.  In 1837, foreseeing the loss of their building on Main Street, the Masons donated a chandelier from there to the African Meeting House.

Thereafter the Masons met in the Nantucket Atheneum until that building was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1846.  Some of the Lodge’s records are thought to have gone up in flames, but Paul Revere’s letter and three silver symbols of masonry (known as “jewels”) made by Revere were saved.

After the fire, the Lodge rented space in the Rotch building, where the Pacific Club was coming into being.  There they painted a large Masonic mural on a third-floor wall.  When they moved on, the mural was covered over and forgotten, but upon its rediscovery, it was retrieved and transferred to the Lodge’s current location.

Finally, in 1890, Nantucket’s Masons constructed the present Masonic Hall as a second story over an existing commercial building on Main and Union Streets.  The ground floor was rented to the U. S. Postal Service until the construction of the brick post office on Federal Street in 1935.  Since then, the space has been occupied by stores, first Buttners, and currently the Sports Locker.

Today the Freemasons are more open to the public than in the past, actively advertising membership on television.  Here on Nantucket, Union Lodge holds open houses during which visitors get to peruse the Lodge’s many significant historical documents and see the lovely upstairs meeting hall with its sky-blue ceiling studded with stars.

Frances Karttunen’s books Nantucket Places and People 1: Main Street to the North Shore, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, and Law and Disorder in Old Nantucket, and Nantucket Places and People 2: South of Main Street are available at local bookstores.


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