Ken Edgett, Great Bend, remembers walking down Forest Avenue and looking up at the old buildings when he noticed something, well, strange.
“On the corner building there was a pattern embedded in the stone, of a three-link chain,” he said. “I had no idea what it was, and I wanted to know.”
Edgett, a career data collector and history buff, was intrigued. Discovering was more than a project; it has become a mission.
Later, he was talking with another leader of a local Boy Scout troop and learned that the three-link chain was the signature symbol of the Odd Fellows.
“I knew that, because the Odd Fellows were a local sponsor of the scout troop,” he said. “I asked about it, and was told it was an old organization, still active, and worth joining. So I did.
It was 36 years ago. Now local union secretary and former grandmaster of the Kansas organization, Edgett can look back on his long and storied history with Great Bend while preserving his ongoing contributions for future generations.
“Previously, in almost every city, there was a building built with a three-link chain,” he said. “People probably walk past one every day, if they bother to look they’ll see one,” he said. “They probably have no idea the organization is still going on.”
A new town – a new lodge
The Great Bend Town Company, anticipating the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in 1871, located the town at a site about 3 miles west of Fort Zarah on the Santa Fe Trail. was taken from the “Great Bend” of the Arkansas River as it turns east.
The Town Company erected its first building, named the Southern Hotel, in the fall of 1871. The railway arrived in July 1872 and Great Bend was granted county seat rights over Ellinwood and Zarah.
“The Odd Fellows were there too,” Edgett noted. The Odd Fellows, with many of Great Bend’s historic figures among their members, held their first meeting on July 31 and Valley Lodge No. 95 was chartered on October 18, 1872, earning it the distinction of being the first fraternal organization of the community.
The officers, along with Noble Grand Emery Harris, included GN Moses as Vice Grand, who was also the first Sheriff of Barton County, as well as County Commissioner, City Council Member and Mayor of Great Bend.
The first secretary of Lodge 95 was W. H. Odell, an early settler in the area who had an eclectic service as county clerk, hardware store owner, historian, author of a political history of the county, and publisher of the Barton County Progress newspaper. The Treasurer was JH Hubbard, other founding members included Morris Collar and James Holland. “The members have made a lot of contributions to the community, individually and as a group,” Edgett noted.
The meetings first took place in the Morris Collar store. With land purchased on the corner of Forest and Williams, a building was constructed in 1910 as the permanent residence of the Odd Fellows. They still meet regularly twice a month on the second floor of the building at 2025 Forest Ave.
“The building was built in 1910 and has had only one owner throughout that time,” Edgett noted.
Who are the Odd Fellows?
The Odd Fellows are a long-standing organization with roots in England. As trade guilds declined in the 1700s, fraternal orders were established to support workers traveling from region to region to find work, or support them when they were going through difficult times. Early Odd Fellows issued cards to itinerant traders, so that they could be presented to a shop owner as a guarantee of employment, with wages often paid for by the local organization. This act of charity was considered a “strange” practice for the time, hence its name.
Meanwhile, the English government, seeking to suppress the fraternal societies, would pay informants to infiltrate local branches and report their activities. Signs, symbols and passwords have been developed to ensure the safety and security of members; the rituals still exist as a tribute to the heritage of the society. The three-link chain, representing the organization’s principles of friendship, love, and truth, was often molded threefold and worn as a gimbal ring by initiated members.
In this country, the Odd Fellows established an order in New York, but it was dissolved because of the controversy surrounding the War of 1812.
In 1819, Thomas Wildey, a manufacturer of coach springs in Baltimore, saw the need for camaraderie among traders and helped reestablish a lodge. Lodges in other states were formed which were eventually incorporated independently of the English organization. The official split was made in 1842 and the name was changed to Independent Order of Odd Fellows. By the time Wildey died in 1861, there were over 200,000 members in the IOOF.
Membership was strained during the Civil War, but in 1896 the World Almanac ranked the Odd Fellows as the largest of all fraternal organizations. The Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal with its social reforms also tested the Order Lists.
Locally, the Grand Lodge of Kansas was formed on March 16, 1858, when the state was still a territory. As the settlers moved west, the Odd Fellows followed.
“The Odd Fellows Lodge was often a town’s first permanent building,” Edgett noted. “At one time, there were 693 in the state. Often the Lodge itself would have another important function; such as a church, school or government building. It was like a rallying point for the community.
There was a resurgence in the 1950s, “because it seemed like everyone needed to belong. There were lodges of all kinds,” Edgett said. “Maybe it was because we didn’t have much to do with our time outside of work. We sat and watched television, just as we listened around the radio.
The Odd Fellows, like other organizations, were known for their get-togethers, parties and dances that brought the community together. “We had a lot of fundraisers; we had groups that we regularly sponsored,” Edgett said.
The Odd Fellows also once owned the 2019 Forest building, where they held an annual feeding in their basement for Groundhog Day in February.
“Members were painting giant footprints, all over town, all leading to the back door of the basement,” he said. “All everyone had to do was follow the footprints and feed at the end.”
Edgett noted that past Odd Fellow philanthropies included the local Boy Scouts, Kansas Eye Bank, Wilmer Eye Institute, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, and the Rebekahs-founded IOOF Visual Research Foundation (the Women’s Auxiliary of the Odd Fellows) in 1957.
“We’re still a big contributor to the Arthritis Foundation,” Edgett said. Since 1986, Odd Fellows and Rebekahs lodges have actively supported AF with over $5 million donated over the past 15 years.
In modern times, fraternal organizations like the Odd Fellows and the Masons have been criticized for their adherence to ritual and secrecy, but at the time of their establishment, secrecy was integral to the service of their members, Edgett, who is also a Freemason, said.
“They’re not secret who they are or what they do,” he said. “Masons don’t advertise what they do, they just do it. With Odd Fellows, there is a bit of secrecy, but mostly no. Our purpose is to uplift humanity.
Freemasonry as an organization emphasizes self-improvement first, just as ancient stonemasons shaped rock into building stones, knocking out corners and smoothing edges so that they adapt. On the other hand, Odd Fellows focus on service first, doing good works in their community. As they improve the world around them, their own character also elevates.
“It’s kind of like two paths to the same destination,” Edgett explained. “They both exist to make the world a better place; they just take different routes to get there.
Odd Fellows today
Today, it’s not just Odd Fellows, but fraternal organizations in general are struggling to recruit new members. Masons have lost 3.8 million members since their peak in the 1950s; the Elks have grown from 1.64 million in 1980 to 802,592 in 2012. The pandemic has hit them all hard too, with stories of chapter closures through 2022.
Where the Odd Fellows once had virtually a chapter in every corner of Kansas, they have fallen from a peak of nearly 700 to just 13 active chapters in the state. In the Golden Belt, closest to Great Bend, are lodges at Pratt and St. John.
This year, Edgett notes, Lodge No. 95 has 15 members, including associate members from Pratt, Macksville and Larned. “Our Noble Grand is from Waldo,” he said.
“There’s been kind of a paradigm shift away from service organizations in general,” Edgett said. “I think it’s because we’re more recreational. We have all kinds of programs, teams and locations. There are many other choices. Then there are cell phones, tablets, video games and all that.
“The pandemic is just another blow to the social environment,” he said. “We lost a lodge in Wichita recently. They didn’t have to meet because of the pandemic and the lodge members said, ‘If we’re not going to meet, then what do we do? Let’s just bend,” he said.
“I get it; sitting in a meeting reading a book doesn’t inspire people. But there are still things to do, things we can do. Our lodge doesn’t make a lot of money, so we Let’s do little things. Once we get through this mess, maybe we can do things like dinner meetings again.
There is a glimmer, in the next generation, he noted.
“We have younger kids coming out of college who are interested,” he said. “A lodge in Augusta recently had a new member who joined after college. Another kid – he’s 19 – wants to open a lodge in Independence. They grew up with stories about their grandfather or someone. one of this generation and read it and said, “I like it, where can I join?”
“We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, and we’re not done being Odd Fellows,” he said. “Not yet.”