by Bryan Thompson
A single horseman rides quietly along a narrow muddy path through the wilderness. The moonlit gives a ghostly glow to the trees just beginning to turn. A dog barks in a clearing beside a simple house. The time is sometime after 9 PM on a Wednesday evening.
Our rider is not returning from some ghostly meeting in the woods, he is returning from the charter meeting of "The Northern Lights Lodge # 163" of the Free and Accepted Masons. The date is September 29, 1807. The Northern Lights Lodge was the first civilian Masonic lodge chartered in St. Lawrence County. The By-Laws prescribed that "this Lodge be held on the Wednesday preceding the full moon in each month through the year except the moon fulls on Wednesday, then to be held the day the moon fulls at the Lodge room in the Village of Williamstown (Old De Kalb Village). This lodge to be opened at three o'clock in the afternoon and closed at nine." " Masters were to be elected annually, "on the Lodge night preceding the Festival of St. John the Evangelist "(December 27).
The Northern Lights Lodge meetings took place at The Hotel, also known as the horne of William Cleghorn (Cleghorn was an early keeper of the Cooper HoteL). At the first meeting Joshua Dewey (famous for his role as the teacher who taught James Fenimore Cooper to read) was duly authorized by the Grand lodge of the State of New York to install the following officers:
Solomon Rich- Worshipful Master
Isaac Burnham- Senior Warden
Joseph Woodhouse- Junior Warden
Medad Moody- Secretary
Andrew McCollum- Senior Deacon
Joseph York- Junior Deacon
James Farr- Steward
Levi Holt- Tyler
The charter for The Northern Lights Lodge was granted September 2, 1807 and was signed by Governor Dewitt Clinton. The lodge was formed with the support of the Otsego Lodge. They presented the lodge with a gift of two books at their first meeting. This is not surprising, as William Cooper had brought many of the earliest settlers of Williamstown with him from the Cooperstown area. (Cooperstown village is located in the town of Otsego.)
The membership fee for new members of the lodge was $2. This may not seem like much today but must have been a huge amount then when you could buy land for 2 to 3 dollars an acre. They were relatively successful at first in signing up members. One year later on September 23, 1808 it was voted, "to procure a pair of drawers, a . cushion for the Master's column, a cushion for Initiation, Passing and Raising, and Rods for the Stewards and Deacons."
On November 8,1808 three brethren visited the group from Madrid. The Lodge voted to assist them in acquiring a charter. In the next few years the Lodge supported the founding of Lodges at Ogdensburgh (1809), Parishville (1814), and Gouverneur (1824). All these Lodges and the Northern Lights Lodge folded during the Morgan Trouble.
The Lodge was very active in the teens. Its' members in 1814 (according to records on file at the national Masonic archives) included: Nehemiah O. Barker, Dr. John Seeley, Potter Goff, William Brown, John Ross, Samuel W. Phelps, Isaac Stacy jr., Thomas Tanner, Ralph Thrall, Thomas B. Benedict, Peletiah Stacy, John W. Cleghorn, John C. Rich, John Parker, and James Phelps from De Kalb. Other members included: Israel Porter, Nathan Pain? and John Spencer of Gouverneur, John Taylor, Benjamin Nichols, and Junius Welton of Oswegatchie, John L. Barhyott of Ogdensburgh, Ephriam Taylor of Antwerp and Ebenezer Frost of Hopkinton. Registration fee at this time was $3. The 1818 membership list adds Isaac Burnham, James Farr, and Isaac Stacy senior to the list of members.
The Masonic Apron of Israel Porter originally worn at the Northern Lights Lodge
The minutes of the Lodge indicate that the Lodge was in financial difficulties most of the time. Cash was very scarce on the frontier, notes were given for dues and refreshments and frequent references were made regarding efforts to settle these accounts.
The lodge was very active in the affairs of its members. Many extra meetings were held to settle disputes among its members and look after their moral health.
In particular Brother Benedict was the subject of several meetings. General T. B. Benedict was a veteran of the War of 1812. He was overall commander ofthe NYS Militia at Fort Oswegatchie. Following the war he experienced a number of financial setbacks. In September 1815 a committee. was sent to "labor" with him and "reclaim" him from his frequent drunkenness. In November 1815 Brother Benedict confessed his faults and asked for forgiveness. Despite his good intentions Brother Benedict's "will was weak" and he was called before the lodge in January 1816. He was suspended for conduct unbecoming to a Mason. The Mason's were a forgiving lot and later Benedict rejoined the organization and served as secretary and several other offices.
January 18, 1818 the Lodge was honored by a visit from Brother Joseph Enos, a representative of the Grand Lodge of New York State. The usual purpose of such visits was to encourage local chapter to pay their Grand Lodge Dues (Something the Northern Lights Lodge never did.) as well as conformity with general Masonic standards. It appears that he was not successful. The minutes of the lodge show that "after making settlement with the grand visitor (i. e. Paying for his lodging and other expenses.), the Lodge voted to continue the committee which was appointed to settle with the Treasurer."
The Lodge continued to meet regularly into the early 1820's and was very active in the Masonic community. However Grand lodge records show that they never met their Lodge dues. This lack of payment delayed the chartering of the first Canton Masonic Lodge in1814. By September 1822 this was becoming a problem. Dr. John Seely and Thomas B. Benedict were appointed a committee to draft a letter to the Grand Lodge explaining their Situation.
October 2, 1822
"Several years since a resolution was passed to loan out funds to needy brethren. This was done and it has so happened that most of those to whom they' were loaned have been unfortunate, have become the objects of particular hardship and totally unable to pay the monies borrowed. In addition to this we have to state that some of our brethren, through unforeseen misfortune have become the object of charity; and the Lodge has extended the hand of charity to them, until the oil of his lamp is out. Brother Joshua Dewey, late Master of the Otsego lodge, Brother Salmon Rich of the same lodge (now a member of the N. L.lodge) Brother Solomon Rich, first master of N. L Lodge, Brother John W. Cleghorn, Brother John Ross, Brother Isaac Burnham and one or two others have been unfortunate, have lost property, one by fire, two by extreme risking (?) one or two by being bail, and although as worthy Masons as are anywhere to be found, have been so involved, that this Lodge conceived themselves bound by all that is Solemn to afford them Relief."
The committee members went on to plead for forgiveness of their debts to the Grand Lodge.
In early 1823, at the time the Hotel in De Kalb Village was going through the Cooper foreclosure sale, the Lodge considered moving their meetings to the southern part of the town (East De Kalb). The motion was later withdrawn.
The Lodge continued in active service, in October 1828 (?) they supplied 2 gallons of brandy for Brother Lucas Stacey who was sick. Their functioning seems to have ended with the rise of the anti-Masonic movement in the late 1820's.
The anti-Masonic movement was a wave of mass hysteria that swept the US following the disappearance of Captain William Morgan from Batavia, NY in 1826. The general public feared the secret society of Freemasons were responsible for his disappearance and supposed murder though no body was ever found.
Masons became extremely unpopular and most if not all of the Lodges in St Lawrence County at this time folded. The charter of the Northern Lights Lodge # 163 was declared forfeit by the NYS Grand lodge June 8, 1832. With the closing of the Lodge its' relies were scattered. The charter of the lodge was found in the 1890's behind the chimney of a De Kalb house that was being dismantled and now is in the possession of the Canton Lodge. The minute book was sent to Gouverneur and is now in the possession of the Lodge there. And the jewels of the Lodge (see below) are now in the possession of the Edwards Lodge. The Hotel where the meetings took place has disappeared into the encroaching brush.
One of the jewels of the Northern Lights lodge now in the possession of the Edwards Lodge.
Armstrong, Clarence E. Free Masonry in St. Lawrence County Canton, New York. National Masonic Archives Northern Lights Lodge # 163 file Grand Secretary Files New York, New York.