Practically from the beginning of time, men have formed fraternal organizations in an effort to promote fellowship, camaraderie and friendship. Affiliations with different
organizations have helped to fill a void but also to serve society. Many of these so-called secret societies are philanthropic in nature, with a key tenet being to serve their
communities and society as a whole. “Secret” organizations have historically been not too well-kept, as membership within some organizations have been, and continue to be, sought
after. Holt County has not been immune to the pull of membership in “secret” societies, as is evidenced by the number of these organizations which flourished within its communities.
Many men held offices in multiple fraternities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as evidenced by articles in the 1882 and 1917 histories of the county. The 1917 volume
specifically references these organizations.
The Ancient Free & Accepted Masons held lodges in several towns in Holt County, including Maitland, Craig, Mound City, Forest City, and Oregon. No one knows when the Masons organizations
began, but it is commonly believed that they are an offshoot of the stonemasons’ guilds of the Middle Ages. The oldest document that makes reference to Masons is the Regius Poem, printed
about 1390, which was a copy of an earlier work. In 1717, four lodges in London formed the first Grand Lodge of England. Soon membership in Freemasonry had spread to the Colonies; George
Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Paul Revere were members. The lodge in Oregon was the first to be organized in Holt County, with its origins in 1853.
Craig, Oregon, Mound City, New Point and Maitland also hosted lodges for the I.O.O.F. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows traces its roots to 18th Century England, when it was
considered “odd” for people to organize for the purpose of providing aid to those in need without seeking personal recognition. By 1819 the Odd Fellows had spread to the US and Canada,
and lodges sprang up in towns throughout the country, with the first Holt County lodge established in Oregon in 1852. The Oregon Odd Fellows and Masons collaborated in 1856 on a three-story
brick building for the purpose of holding lodge meetings. In 1915 the Craig lodge established a cemetery for the burial of deceased members and their families; this cemetery is well-maintained
and still in use today.
The Modern Woodmen of the World organization was founded in 1882 by Joseph Cullen Root. By 1990, Root had become dissatisfied with the organization and left it to form another
organization, known simply as the Woodmen of the World, in Omaha, Nebraska. He founded Woodmen with the vision of an organization dedicated to helping its fellow man. Its purpose was "to
minister to the afflicted to relieve distress; to cast a sheltering arm about the defenseless living; . . . to encourage broad charitable views..." Mound City, Forest City and Oregon boasted
memberships in both the Modern Woodmen and the Woodmen of the World organizations.
At one time just about every man living in Bigelow belonged to the Woodmen of the World and attended regular meetings. The building that was constructed for this fraternal society in
Bigelow still stands, and can be seen in this 1915 photo of Bigelow’s Main Street. In addition to regular meetings, the Woodmen hosted social events such as picnics and log rollings.
A September 17, 1908, newspaper article stated, “The hustling little town of Bigelow is making great preparation for a monster gathering on Saturday week, Sept. 19, at which time the W.O.W.
order will celebrate in great style. All doubtless know that the Bigelow W.O.W. lodge or camp, has the finest lodge hall in northwestern Missouri. The boys are very proud of their hall and
have decided to celebrate in true Missouri style. They have arranged for a great time and will present a splendid program. The picnic will be held on the beautiful school grounds and neither
pains nor expense is being spared to make this a grand success. The members of the camp will serve a fine dinner, conduct the stands and concessions, and all the proceeds will go to-wards paying
off the indebtedness of the hall. The Mound City band will furnish the music and it looks now as if the Mound City stores might just as well close up for the day for everybody is gong to Bigelow,
the jolliest, busiest, most enterprising little City on the map.”
Bigelow was not the only town in Holt County to host the W.O.W. The History of Holt County 1917 states that the Maitland Camp was in flourishing condition, with a large membership of
pushing, energetic men. Corning also hosted a Camp of Modern Woodmen, with a good membership which held regular meetings in the opera house. The Camp in Mound City begain in 1890 with an
initial group of 20 members, and increased steadily until it boasted a membership of 295. Camps were also located in Craig, Forest City and Oregon.
Corning also had a secret society called “The Improved Order of Red Men”, which appears to be the most obscure of Holt County’s fraternal organizations. The History of Holt County 1917
tells us that the organization met for several years and the “war whoop was often heard when candidates were being initiated.” The Improved Order of Red Men is espoused to be the oldest fraternal
organization in the United States, tracing its origins all the way back to 1765 and descended from the Sons of Liberty. Patterning themselves after the Iroquois Confederacy and its governing body,
these patriots obscured their identities and worked underground to help bring about freedom and liberty during the days of the early Colonies. After the War of 1812, the national organization
changed its names to the Society of Red Men, and in 1834, to the Improved Order of Red Men, keeping the customs and terminology of Native Americans as a basic element of the fraternity.
A prosperous Knights of Pythias lodge in Maitland met in the Broad Gauge Building and had a membership of 28 men in 1917. The Knights were first incorporated in Washington, D.C., in
1864 by Justus H. Rathbone, and was the first fraternal order to be chartered by an Act of Congress. Members of the Knights of Pythias pledge themselves to to promote understanding among men
of good will as the surest means to attain universal peace. Mound City and Oregon also hosted lodges of the Knights of Pythias.
The Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) was comprised of Union veterans of the Civil War. Founded in Decatur, Illinois, in 1866, it was dissolved in 1956 when its last member died.
Linking men through their experience of the war, the GAR was one of the first organized advocacy groups in American politics, supporting voting rights for bsupporting Republican political
candidates. That hotbed of secret societies, Maitland, also supported a G.A.R. unit, mustering in at Messinger’s Hall in 1883.
Several other “secret” societies flourished throughout the latter 19th and early 20th centuries within the county. One must wonder just how “secret” these were, as the membership in
quite of few of these is discussed at length in the Holt County histories and listed in early newspapers. However, the good that was done by these organizations for the citizenry of the county
cannot be disputed. Their legacy lives on in modern-day organizations such as the Lions, Kiwanis and Optimist Clubs.
Information for this article were compiled from information found in internet searches, History of Holt County 1882, History of Holt County 1917, newspaper articles, pictures
and personal research housed in the Holt County Historical Society’s Genealogy/Research Center in Mound City, and submitted by Helen Morris Smith.