This story is published in partnership with Ozarks Alive, a cultural preservation project led by Kaitlyn McConnell.
RURAL WEBSTER COUNTY — It was once a church and a lodge, and now it’s a lodge and a landmark.
It’s been more than 150 years since Mt. Olive Lodge No. 439 AF & AM came to be in a two-story, beacon-like building atop an Ozarks hill. From the same perch along Route KK in rural Webster County, it’s gone from norm to extraordinary: Today, Mt. Olive is said to be one of the oldest Masonic lodges operating in its original building west of the Mississippi River.
“It was actually built as a Masonic Lodge and a Methodist Episcopal Church in 1871,” said Randy Jones, the lodge’s secretary, who notes that Mt. Olive’s charter became official the following year. “All the lumber came up on an oxcart from Arkansas.
“They wanted a lodge here, and they wanted a church here.”
Shrouded in secrecy and ritual, Freemasonry is a bit of a mystery to those who aren’t part of the brethren, as members are collectively called.
Encyclopedia Britannica notes that Ancient Free and Accepted Masons (AF & AM) represent the world’s largest secret society. Its origins date to the Middle Ages, when the guilds of stonemasons and cathedral builders led the way for “an oath-bound society, often devoted to fellowship, moral discipline, and mutual assistance that conceals at least some of its rituals, customs, or activities from the public.”
That international picture comes much closer to home when you figuratively zoom in on a map to individual Ozarks communities, many of which have signs of lodge life. A quick count from a map on Grand Lodge Of Missouri, AF & AM shows at least 60 lodges still exist in the Missouri Ozarks alone.
Even though today many exist within town boundaries, not all originally began in such central locations. Two examples include Hazelwood Lodge No. 459, which began in eastern Webster County in 1872. Two years later, Henderson Lodge No. 477 was founded to the west.
In the years since, Hazelwood moved into Seymour, and Henderson relocated to Rogersville. In contrast, Mt. Olive has remained in its original location.
“It is not a real common occurrence. They’re mostly in cities,” Senior Deacon Craig Dunn said of the lodge’s location. “Look around — there’s no other ones like this. The rest of them are modern buildings; have all the modern conveniences.
“We’ve just had indoor plumbing for what — five years that it’s actually worked? We had an outhouse until then, and ladies would come for installation of officers and they’d go to the outhouse.”
Looking back to today
The past lives through ghosts at Mt. Olive, where reminders of history surround the lodge. Former members and Ozarkers remain close, residing in a cemetery dating to 1862. A walk through the door across well-worn floorboards creates an invisible link between those of the past and present.
Mt. Olive’s start tied to a donation of land by Christopher W. Brooks and Jomanda Dameron Brooks in March 1871. According to a journal published by the Webster County Historical Society, the original half-acre was donated to W.R. Brooks, a trustee for the Methodist Episcopal Church South.
“Lumber to erect the building was hauled by wagon from northern Arkansas direct from the mill and was planed by hand on the building site as it was used,” noted the journal.
The following March was a big month: The building was complete, an additional half-acre of land was given to enlarge the adjacent cemetery and the first Masonic lodge meeting was held.
Back then, the lodge was closest to Old Dallas, a settlement about two miles away. According to “History and Families of Webster County,” the community predated the founding of Webster County in 1855 by more than a decade and was located on the Springfield-Hartville road.
“The North Carolina Branch runs nearby, so named because of the number of homesteaders settling here from that state,” noted the history book.
While the skeleton of the former one-room school still remains visible from the road, the store, post office and the rest of Old Dallas have faded into the past. Instead, Mt. Olive is now the closest lodge to Fordland, a town of about 800 that was founded a decade after the Masons built on the hill. One of the most famous members of the local lodge was the late Dr. J.E. Blinn, who ultimately held the top post in the state as grand master of Missouri.
In the second story, historical photos and framed memories hang on the wall, and history is literally felt and held in hands.
Jones walks to a case and pulls out holdable history: “We have working tools, and these are two of the originals,” he said, holding a small trowel and gavel.
“A trowel is what they use to lay the cement, and that was a gavel to knock off the corners of rough stone.”
Some other stones remind of history out front, where a sign sits on the hillside that shares the lodge’s name. It was made with rocks from the lodge’s original foundation.
Jones well remembers when those rocks were upon what he stood. He’s one of the longest-serving members and joined when he was 20. He’s been a member for 47 years.
“They changed the ability from 21 to 18 the year my dad went to Grand Lodge,” he said of a statewide oversight group for Masons. “He came back and there was a petition laying on the table, and I was told to fill it out.”
Mt. Olive meets monthly on the third Monday, bringing members together around 6 p.m. for dinner. The church that once used the building dissolved in 1965, leaving the entire structure for the Masons.
Surrounded by walls constructed with square nails, now it’s a place where hellos and hugs proceed the buffet line of Domino’s pizza boxes, which officially begins with a blessing.
“So Mote It Be,” brothers respond, making another mark in history through the repetition of the group’s response call.
There are around 115 members at Mt. Olive, but it doesn’t mean all come to every meeting or even live in the area. Masons can belong to numerous lodges. For the group of 20 or so who arrived for the March meeting, just how and when they joined varies, but the why comes through in friendship and service to others.
“I started in California,” said Matthew Guy, who currently serves as the lodge’s leader, a role known as Worshipful Master. “Even though I grew up here in Missouri, I didn’t really know really anybody in this area. As soon as I came, it’s been like I was with family from day one.”
That respect for current members and history comes through in a special printout on a bulletin board, sharing that “hog washer” striped overalls are the lodge’s official ritualistic uniform. “True to our heritage and proud of our rural values, we wear traditional farmers’ clothing — ‘hog washers’ in lodge,” the paper says.
“I can say for myself that I have met a lot of people now that I call friends just because of Freemasons,” added brother David House, who drives from Springfield. “We do a lot of good things. We have our local charities; we’ve helped a lot of schoolchildren. We do a thing in December where we help the retired and elderly — we put on a special dinner where they come and eat for free for Christmas dinner.”
The dinner House references was started by Mt. Olive member Joe Cron in the mid-’90s. Today, it’s led by his son, Ron Cron, who is the lodge’s treasurer and a fourth-generation mason.
“My mom and dad put a week of effort into making it happen. They cooked turkeys, about 12 turkeys, the dressing for all that,” said Cron of the dinner. Today, the model has grown to include others in supporting roles. “It worked out well — everybody gets to feel involved as well.”
Seated at one of the school-lunch-style tables are Dan Farnsworth and his son, Jake, who is 21 and represents the third generation of family membership at Mt. Olive.
“My dad was a member here,” said the elder Farnsworth, who serves as Senior Warden. “Just the history and everything — I’m fascinated with it. It’s something that is nice to carry on.”
“I enjoy the fellowship as well,” added his son, who also holds a post as Junior Deacon. “I was always curious about it growing up, watching him leave on Monday nights. Figured I’d give it a shot. It’s something we can do together.”
“Now he knows I was really going somewhere,” joked the elder Farnsworth.
While there is history in why people may have arrived at Mt. Olive, there is also intention in their efforts to see it continue. Perhaps part of that ties to the fact that there was a time when it might not have been possible.
In the late 1990s, members realized that significant work was needed to keep the structure standing. The building was leaning, its old rock foundation was crumbling and, in the process of understanding that reality, other significant issues were realized.
“We thought all we’d have to do to it was just jack it up and pour a foundation and set it back down,” said member Glen Cron through a decades-old Marshfield Mail news article that now hangs on the wall at Mt. Olive. “But once we finally found somebody that would look at it and tell us what we needed to do, we realized this would be much bigger than we thought.”
Thanks to a number of fundraisers and volunteer labor, the building was lifted from its former rock foundation and placed on a cement base.
“Close to 11 months later, the project was complete. It included re-siding the building, a new roof, new carpet upstairs, a new paint job, new central heat and air, as well as a new stone monument out front,” said another article from the Mail in honor of the landmark’s rededication in August 2000.
That’s where they all go, to continue tradition, on top of the hill, and as day turns to dusk. The lights illuminate the building, making it even more of a beacon in the night, and reminding of its present as well as its past.