It was recently announced that a building of historical significance, also widely recognized as an icon of Neepawa's heritage, has been put up for sale. The I.O.O.F. (Independent Order of Odd Fellows) lodge, a two storey brick structure located at the corner of Mountain Avenue and Mill Street, will likely see some modifications when new owners take over the premises, bringing to an end an era which saw the lodge play a prominent role in the community for more than a century.
The Neepawa Odd Fellows Lodge no. 16 was first instituted on January 9, 1989 by 11 founding charter members, and for the first few years meetings were held in an upstairs room of the Press building, then located just west of the current town hall, the room rented by a branch of Masons and sublet to the I.O.O.F. Since the space quickly became too cramped for the rapidly expanding membership, in 1990 the lodge moved its headquarters to a larger hall in the C. D. Bemrose block at the corner of Hamilton St. and Mountain Ave., with the Odd Fellows in turn subletting space to the Masons at the new location.
Within a year, however, the membership had grown to the point where its new facilities were inadequate, and in 1903 the decision was made to construct a new hall at the corner of Mountain Avenue and Mill Street, where the I.O.O.F. already owned land. Initial tender cost estimates for the new two storey structure were in the range of $9,000, but when all was said and done, the price tag had blossomed to $12,000, this amount being deemed a large sum of money at the time.
With the building's architecture to consist primarily of stone and brick, 130,000 bricks were purchased from the Portage La Prairie Brick Yard for $1,203, these being transported by CPR train car, and hauled to the building site by draymen at a cost of one dollar per 1,000 bricks. Meanwhile, stone for the foundation was purchased at $6 per cord, with W.J. McLaughlin contracting the stonework for the sum of $425. Also of note, is that a tin box containing 'certain documents' was imbedded in the southeast cornerstone.
It is documented that during construction there was some disagreement in the ranks as to whether the floor should be built of maple or fir, with the matter finally settled by a vote which favoured maple, this type of wood apparently the choice of members who liked dancing. Other exorbitant nuances, which added to the architectural beauty of the building, were ceilings comprised of embossed tin, these materials shipped in from Ontario.
The first meeting at the new hall took place in January of 1904, thereafter becoming a weekly event, with its all male officers changed up every six months. The lodge enjoyed a steady growth in membership for some years, and on November 11, 1910, a sister branch of the I.O.O.F. named the Anemone Rebekah Lodge no. 23 was instituted, this all female order holding its own meetings in the same building.
Early in the 20th century membership in the I.O.O.F and Rebekah lodges was very popular, with individuals of community distinction attending the hall meetings, including John Wemyss and John Simpson, grandparents of the famous Neepawa writer, Margaret Lawrence. In fact, when in 1912 members of the I.O.O.F. no. 16 traveled by train to attend a function at Sovereign Grand Lodge in Winnipeg, prompted by reason of the sheer volume of people from Neepawa who made the trip, it was suggested that municipal council declare a town holiday.
It is estimated that the origins of the Odd Fellows fraternity, an offshoot of 'guilds' – defined as simply groups of people uniting for their own common benefit - date back to 14th century England, in a time when social welfare was nonexistent. The term 'Odd Fellows' came into being because in that day and age of social segregation between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, it was deemed 'odd' for a group of men to gather for the purpose of helping others in need and to pursue projects whose purpose was, void of discrimination, the betterment of all mankind.
From its beginnings, and consistent to present day, the I.O.O.F. fraternities had strict rules and guidelines governing its membership, the rituals of its meetings and topics of discussion therein cloaked in secrecy. And, if it were not for a steady decline in membership over the past half century or so, which has resulted in the disbanding of many of the lodges in Manitoba and elsewhere, certain facts in this article would not have come to light, and certainly would not have been made privy for publication in a newspaper.
Shirley Brydon, who joined Neepawa's Anemone Rebekah Lodge (their mandate being to 'visit the sick, relive the distressed, bury the dead, and educate the orphan), in November of 1959, explained the reasoning behind the lodge secrecy.
"One of the reasons I was given, was because in the 1800s, when the Odd Fellows were first formed (and becoming a worldwide organization), there were lots of people passing through who were strangers, and a handshake, sign, or password was used to identify yourself."
Sitting down for an interview after she had taken me on a guided tour of the Neepawa Odd Fellows lodge, during which I was permitted to take photographs inside the I.O.O.F. upstairs council chambers, it was a remark by Shirley Brydon which really put things into perspective, and which I also found keenly interesting.
"If you had come upstairs 45 years ago, and I had showed you the chairs and symbols, you would likely have been run out of town."
Due to space constraints, only so much can be covered in this article, but some of the work that the I.O.O.F. and Rebekah lodges have done over the years includes: the building of a home for seniors and orphans in Winnipeg in 1922; in 1949, the complete refurbishment of a ward at the Neepawa Memorial Hospital; canvassing to assist polio victims in the March of Dimes beginning in 1958; funding the gate at the International Peace Gardens; delivering Meals on Wheels; sponsorship of the United Nations Pilgrimage for Youth project. Besides these, many other projects are being undertaken by the organization today, including helping out in various community facets.
Having been declared a provincial historical site in 1995, according to Brydon, the sale of Neepawa's I.O.O.F. hall, also the last of its kind in the province, is the direct result of "declining membership, and increasing costs." Representative of the decline, local membership which once topped 687 early in the last century, now stands at less than a dozen.