It immediately becomes apparent to anyone preparing a review of Masonry in Kenosha that such a review must necessary mention the settlement and development of the city itself because Masons have played such a prominent part throughout.
The first date brought to our attention is 1834. In this year the first public land sale in Wisconsin was held at Mineral Point. There was not a white settler in Kenosha County. An occasional white traveler would pass through the county on the Green Bay Road which ran from Green Bay to Chicago In Hannibal, New York in this year, the Western Immigration Company was formed, the members of which were all Masons. They held their meetings in the Masonic Temple and decided to send representatives “to explore and locate” somewhere along the western shore of Lake Michigan.
The representatives first tried to negotiate for land at Racine but this transaction fell through, and they finally arrived at Pike Creek, June 14, 1835 and concluded that this point offered the most advantage for the establishment of a settlement. By the end of 1835 this community had a population of thirty-two, one of the families settling here in that year having moved from Hannibal New York via Chicago in nineteen days.
The territory was when first settled was part of Milwaukee County, which was divided up on December 3, 1836. Much effort was made by the population of Pike Creek to have it made the county seat, but Racine having been longer established, and being somewhat larger, was finally decided on as the county seat, consolation being given to Pike Creek, “that henceforth and forever the county judge, and sheriff were always to be from Pike Creek”. Accordingly the first judge appointed was Brother William Bullen, the first sheriff appointed was Brother E.R. Huginin. At about that time Brother Warters Towlee was appointed the first postmaster of the town of Pike.
In 1837 the village name was changed from Pike Creek to Southport (southernmost port in Wisconsin), and we find that Charles Durkee, whom the records do not disclose as having been a brother of the local lodge, but whom information leads us to believe that he was a brother of some other lodge, was sent to Washington by the community to see if money could not be appropriated for the improvement of the harbor. The population was then 144, fifty percent of the men being Masons.
Mrs. Durkee died the following year, being buried on a knoll on the Durkee property south of the city where she had enjoyed many happy hours viewing the beautiful scenery. This property was later donated to the city by Mr. Durkee for a cemetery which is sill in existence known now a Greenridge Cemetery.
Masonry itself dates back to January 9, 1845; a petition was presented to the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin for a dispensation of a Masonic Lodge to the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin by Zalmond G. Stebbins, praying for a dispensation for a Lodger “beholden” at Southport, Wisconsin, to be known as Southport Lodge, F. & A. M. The prayer of the Brethren was granted, dispensation was issued and Southport Lodge U.D. proceeded to hold Masonic Communications with John Bullen appointed as Worshipful Master. On January 17, 1846 a charter was issued to Southport Lodge No7 F. & A. M., George S. Willis was named as Worshipful Master. For the next six or seven years the Lodge flourished and Masonry had taken an important place in the Village of Southport.
With the discovery of gold in California in 1849, the urge to go West grew, some of the brethren went in search of fortunes, the Lodge was left to drift with inexperienced officers attempting to hold the Lodge together, misunderstandings, accusations of drunkenness and distrust threw the Lodge into disarray. On June 15, 1853 the Grand Master of Wisconsin arrested the charter and jewels of the Lodge, sending an officer of the Grand Lodge to take possession of them and the effects of the Lodge turned over to Brother Orlando Foster.
Prior to this date, several of the Brethren had petitioned the Grand Lodge of Wisconsin for the formation of a new lodge and as the village of Southport had been changed to Kenosha in the year 1850; when a new charter was granted on June 14, 1854, it was granted to Kenosha Lodge No. 47 F. 7 A.M., with Orlando Foster becoming our First Worshipful Master.
On November 12, 1855 Mrs. Nelson Conklin presented a bible to “Kenosha Lodge No. 47 Masons” which was used regularly for many years and is still used on special occasions, although great care must be taken of its condition. In 1990, Brother James Twomey a well known book restorationist rebound the Bible which is used for Installation of Officers or other important occasions.
There are several sidelights on the settling of the community which have to do with early settlers. and which are much more readable than a mere chronological recitation of dates. As with any new community, the question in every business man’s mind was where the community was finally to be located. Everyone was well satisfied that somewhere in the southeast part of the state a large successful city would be established, and all wanted it to be located there if possible.
Brother John Bullen, the First Master of Southport Lodge thought that the community would be located somewhere near where Silver Lake now is. He constructed the famous tavern known for many years as “Bullen’s Tavern” at a spot also known for many years as Bullen’s Bridge. After being in business there for a time he decided he had guessed wrong as to location and came to Kenosha and opened the “National Hotel” in a building located at a place on 52nd Street where the City Municipal Building is now located.
Brother George Willis on the other hand anticipated the new community to center on the Green Bay Road. He felt this because the stage coach route was already established on that road between Green Bay and Chicago. Accordingly he constructed a tavern on the northwest corner of 60th Street and Green Bay Road In the 1950’s the Somers town treasurer lived in that house. Green Acres now occupies the space. He as well as Brother John Bullen on discovering that the community would center immediately
on the lake, sold out and moved into town.
In the town of Southport proper there was much jockeying for business positions. In 1837 Brother John Bullen, Jr. operated a store business located at a spot where the south pier of the harbor and the former Simmons factory was located, which is now the promenade along the harbor’s south side. At this time there was no bridge across the river and no business houses on the north side.
In 1838 a bridge was built across the river at about this point and the greater majority of business swung to the north side. Brother Bullen moved over also and built a store building over there. In 1844 for no reason accountable now, most business moved to the south side of the river. and Brother Bullen moved his business back.
It must be noted that historians of Kenosha history tell of the severe hardships endured by these founding brothers challenging and strengthened their resolve to persevere in their endeavors to build a village, then a town and finally a city. In the year 2008 it is difficult to comprehend that log huts, near starvation, wolves and bears were elements that had to be dealt with to survive, besides the sickness and distress of keeping life and limb together. We can be grateful that the tenets of Masonry bound these men together into one common entity.
On August 12, 1851 the only public hanging to take place in Kenosha occurred. This made for a big day and a gala occasion in the town. Immediately after sun-up wagons were seen converging on the city from all directions, and the town took on a festive air. Such hue and cry was rised after this hanging that the law on capital punishment was repealed in Wisconsin, never again to be effective. Historical records of Kenosha will show that local Masons were very active and were greatlyresponsible in having the law repealed.
Little is recorded of the Civil War period however the following account was disclosed in research. Zerubbahel Lodge No 15 of Savannah, Georgia records disclose “on this night Brother Williams escaped from prison.” This entry concerns L.J. Williams of Downsville, New York. When he enlisted in the Union Army he had received the first two degrees of Masonry in Downsville. Early in the war he was captured and imprisoned in Savannah, Georgia. He was permitted to write to relatives at home, and through his writings, his home lodge learned of his confinement. The home lodge immediately requested the Zerubbahel Lodge to confer the Master Mason Degree on Brother Williams. Without hesitation the request was granted. Brother Williams, the candidate, was the only man present in the lodge wearing the blue uniform. All the officers and those other in attendance in military service were clad in the gray of the Confederate Army. The official accounting is that he escaped from prison on that night.
His version is that a group of men intercepted him while he was being returned from the lodge to the military prison and put on a boat which enabled him to reach Union territory. This of course has no particular historical pertinence tgo the history of Kenosha Lodge, but it demonstrates the effect that Masonry remained active even through the years of civil struggle.
In 1872 the brick lighthouse still standing on Simmons Island was under the supervision of a Brother who served as Tiler of Kenosha Lodge 47.The minutes recorded at the time of this Broterh’s death note that the Master of the Lodge ordered the Secretary to notify all brethren that a Masonic Funeral Service was to be held and all brothers were expected to attend. It was the custom at that time that any Mason who failed to attend a Masonic Funeral were required to attend the next stated communication and explain his reason to the Master for not attending.
The membership at that time included the Paddock brothers, a Truesdall, and as the membership grew, so did the need for larger meeting space. In 1903 the Masonic Temple Association was organized under the leadership of Charles F. Cooper, Johson A. Jackson, and Fred C. Hannahs. The N.R. Allen homestead was purchased for $6,000.00, remodeled and furnished at a cost of $9,000.00 and the Masons moved into their new home in January of 1905.
After years of exceptional growth of Masonry in Kenosha, talk of a bigger building was heard. In the latter part of 1919, the building was sold to the Odd Fellows Lodge and plans were laid for the present building. The site was recommended by Z.G.. Simmons as he said, “the building you propose to erect deserves no less that a site facing the beautiful Library Square Park. 258 members attended this meeting.
World War I delayed the building of the present building, but on October 22, 1924 the cornerstone was laid with the most auspicious Masonic ceremonies ever held in Kenosha. The dedication took place on November 7, 1925, certainly a red letter day for Kenosha Masons.
In 2007 this building was chosen by the Masonic Service Association to represent Masonic buildings in the State of Wisconsin as it began to compile a book of outstanding Masonic Lodges in all 50 states.