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Sunday, March 04, 2018

A Fraternal Gem: J. H. Rathbone Museum and Resource Center

Every state in the union has its share of odd museums dedicated to a wild variety of preservation causes (or obsessions, depending on how it's organized). That's what makes small, specialized museums so interesting in the first place, because what may be eminently missable to much of the population can alternately be endlessly fascinating to others.

Lafayette, Indiana (hometown of Purdue University, for you out of staters) is home to one of those unique museums that few have ever heard of, but if you have an interest in frateralism in America, you need to know about it. 

The J. H. Rathbone Museum and Resource Center was originally founded to store, preserve, and display Knights of Pythias memorabilia. In fact, their building is also the meeting location of Lafayette Lodge No. 51, Knights of Pythias. This was the home lodge for James Carnahan who was the founder of the Uniform Rank Knights of Pythias, a military branch best known for their drill teams, similar to the Masonic fraternity's Knights Templar. But since the Museum's creation, it has grown into fulfilling a much larger purpose. It now comprises a collection of thousands of items concerning all things fraternal.

The role of fraternal societies in America, especially during the period of their explosive growth between the end of the Civil War and the 1929 Great Depression, cannot and must not be ignored or forgotten. In 1927, author Charles Mertz estimated that 30 million of the 106 million people in the United States at that time held membership in at least one fraternal group. Just ten years later, author Charles W. Ferguson upped his estimate to 50 million fraternal members out of 122 million Americans. These societies helped people young and old to learn and appreciate the American way of democratic life and values during a period of massive upheaval and immigration from countries with little or no experience of it. In a different nation, such a huge clash of disparate foreigners arriving into a country might have become enormously fractious and divided along ethnic, religious, economic, or political lines. But America was different then, and fraternal groups had a lot to do with that. (And no, I'm not forgetting the elephant in the room of racial segregation that was enforced through the early 1960s.)

They taught their members basic civility, organizational skills, administrative roles, public speaking, religious and social tolerance and equality, and lessons of civic responsibility. And they provided economic stability and a social safety net when millions might very well have become what was referred to then as "wards of the state," or at least suffered tremendous poverty long before the days of government welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, and social security. 

The segregated African-American fraternal societies also exploded in popularity at the exact same time, many directly paralleling their white counterparts, and teaching the exact same lessons and skill sets to their members. Black fraternal groups arguably had as great an influence on their part of American society as the black churches in strengthening their community, family life, faith, business and civic skills at a time when white America was largely ignoring them.

Without fraternal societies at that critical period in time, America would have been a very, very different place. In fact, it's arguable that society is in severe need of a rebirth of the fraternal society right this very minute, for many of the exact same reasons, and more. America seems to have lost its most essential civic and civil skills these days, what with all of our internal tribalistic divisions and total lack of social manners and abilities, and a lodge room is perhaps the most ideal place of all to relearn them. 

But that's another post for anther day.

The Rathbone Museum is packed floor to ceiling with artifacts, clothing, regalia, hats, swords, books, newsletters, and all of the other ephemera that the fraternal societies of the 19th and 20th century poured out to their members. Freemasonry and the Odd Fellows were merely the largest of the groups, but the Knights of Pythias, Woodmen of the World, the Red Men, the Grange, the Foresters, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Knights of Columbus, the "animal lodges" of Elks, Moose, Eagles, and hundreds of others (an estimated 800 in 1927) were every bit as active and proud of their orders. Like Freemasonry, they had rituals and ceremonies, officers with bilious titles, costumes and regalia, jewelry, lapel pins and medals (Oy! the medals!), and more. Countless examples of all of this are on display in the Rathbone Museum's limited space.

Surprisingly, there are very few other museums like the Rathbone. (In fact, I hope that one day a friend and Brother of mine will open his unique Washington D.C. house as a museum, as it is packed with thousands of these types of items, as well, and deserves to be seen and protected.) While the Rathbone is a labor of love curated by Dr. Ken Moder, it is noteworthy that his board of directors is made up of others who may be known to some of you: Pennsylvania's fez-obsessed resident Seth C. Anthony; the House of the Temple's Heather Calloway; Kelby Dolan (who has done much work with us at the Masonic Museum and Library of Indiana); Odd Fellows member Michael Greenzieger; John Hardesty; and Teresa Snarr. 

So if you find yourself in west-central Indiana, maybe passing through on your way to Chicago or elsewhere on I-65, and Lafayette is not out of your way, be sure to stop in at the J. H. Rathbone Museum and Resource Center at 134 South Earl Avenue, Lafayette, Indiana. And if you encounter a treasure trove of items related in any way to any of the countless fraternal societies in America, please contact Dr. Moder and his team before you just shrug and consign grandpa's top drawer of rings, old ribbons or silly hats to the dumpster. They might have little or no monetary value, but they are not just junk. They might help to tell the story of an important period in time when organizations like Freemasonry and numberless others helped to weave the very fabric of American society into something unique and strong.


  1. There is a Woodmen of the World museum somewhere in the Midwest. Brother Brent Morris brought its curator to see me because in my offices I have an early initiation kit -- a camera containing gun powder and steps which were pulled from under the candidate while the powder went off -- the candidate of course thought his picture was being taken to commemorate his big moment. This was dropped because of injuries and lawsuits, just as the beating up of the candidate at the Knights of Columbus initiation caused litigations when he attempted to prevent the beating given a fake priest being initiated with him. Of course there are at least six different woodsmen/foresters groups. The museum was in a small factory where initiation equipment was manufactured. I cant find it on the internet.

  2. Bro. Paul's office is a wonder to behold -- an eclectic collection of things strange, wonderful, and fraternal. The museum to which he alludes is the DeMoulin Museum of Greenville, IL, http://www.demoulinmuseum.org. For those interested in this unusual company and the brothers who started it, check out J. W. Goldsmimth, "DeMoulin Bros. & Co -- The Goat Factory," Heredom 14:179-208.

  3. Eclectic yes, wonderful open to discussion. See

    1. Funny - I also have a framed copy of the sheet music of 'Goodbye Broadway, Hello France,' picked up in a Milwaukee antique mall 35 years ago. Didn't buy it for any intrinsic value - we just liked it because it was hilariously bizarre (along with 'Chong, He Come From Hong Kong').


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