Fredonia Masons salute 300 years of fraternalism

Submitted Photo Members of Forest Lodge No. 166 toast the 300th anniversary of the founding of organized Freemasonry in London, on June 24, 1717.

Some organizations and traditions are still going strong — including a local one with far-reaching ties.

Dozens of members and friends of Forest Lodge No. 166 saluted the worldwide fraternity’s tricentennial and honored their brother Masons with a special toast at the Fredonia Masonic Temple, 321 E. Main St., on Tuesday, June 20.

Organized Freemasonry officially began its current era when members of four lodges met on St. John the Baptist Day, June 24, 1717, at the Goose & Gridiron Tavern in London to form the Grand Lodge of England, followed by others in the U.K., Europe, North and South America, and many other parts of the world.

Formed in 1782, the Grand Lodge of New York was at one time the largest in the world in terms of membership, and today has more than 40,000 members in some 500 lodges. Forest Lodge is among the oldest continuously operating lodges in the state.

The Fredonia Masons offered a ceremonial toast and prayer to the memory of brethren from the past three centuries, many of whom fought and gave their lives for the advancement of freedom and enlightenment.

Worshipful Master Richard Newton with Scott Bensink, District Deputy Grand Master for the Chautauqua District and Past Master of Forest Lodge, marked the occasion by presenting membership awards to Stuart Cain (55 years), Gus Potkovic (30 years), and lodge secretary Jim Stoll (25 years).

Famous Freemasons in Fredonia

One noted lodge member was U.S. naval officer William Barker Cushing, renowned for sinking the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Albemarle during a daring nighttime raid on Oct. 27, 1864. For this feat, he received the Thanks of Congress, a forerunner to the Congressional Medal of Honor. Fredonia’s Cushing Street, where the family once lived, is named for them.

William’s older brother, Alonzo, died July 3, 1863, at the Battle of Gettysburg. President Obama posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor to him on Nov. 6, 2014, in a White House ceremony attended by Cushing’s distant cousins, Frederic Stevens Sater and Frederic Cushing Stevens III, and their families, although his closest relation was Helen Bird Loring Ensign, a first cousin twice removed.

Last year, the lodge found a 1963 letter from an attorney in Dunkirk handling the estate of William Cushing’s daughters, Katherine and Marie. The envelope contained their father’s 1865 masonic membership certificate which had been willed to the lodge. It is now on display in the lodge’s library and history room along with photos and publications from the life of the man who members still proudly refer to as “Brother Cushing.”

It was customary for Freemasons passing through town to pay a visit to the local lodge, time permitting, and sign the attendance register. However, prominent guests were often on tight schedules and might not have been able to do more than just meet socially before heading to their next destination.

An early masonic visitor to Fredonia was Marquis de Lafayette, who served in the American Revolution alongside his close friend, George Washington, arguably the country’s best-known Freemason. Lafayette even named his son George Washington Lafayette.

On June 4, 1825, Lafayette came to Fredonia to witness the ceremonial re-lighting of the country’s first natural gas well, during his goodwill tour of the United States. First lit in 1821, a stone monument across from the Fredonia Fire Department memorializes that occasion.

It is unclear if Lafayette visited with the Fredonia Masons during his brief stay, but he is known to have presented a cavalry sword to a masonic lodge in Illinois when he visited there on April 30 of that same year.

Mark Twain is perhaps the most famous Mason to frequent Fredonia. Twain’s wife had relatives in Chautauqua County that he is known to have visited when he worked as a newspaper editor in Buffalo from 1869 to 1871. If he attended a local lodge meeting, however, he would have signed in using his real name: Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

Said Newton, “You can bet we’re looking for the autograph of Brother Clemens!”