Timeline: The Lodge's Story
The history of Chico-Leland Stanford Masonic Lodge № 111 is deeply connected to California’s early pioneer history and the Gold Rush. During the 1840s the Westward movement of Americans came upon Mexican California and its rancho life. Many were dispensed ranchos via the Mexican governor of Alta California in Monterrey, the likes of Peter Lassen and John Sutter make up some of these important characters. John Bidwell was one of these early pioneers and is most famous for leading one of the first emigrant parties in 1841, known as the Bartleson–Bidwell Party, along the California Trail, and for founding Chico, California. After arriving in California, Bidwell first worked for John Sutter as his ranch manager. Bidwell was later dispensed a rancho in 1844, but latter sold it to buy Rancho Arroyo Chico in 1849, after having discovered gold in the Feather River near Oroville. As the Gold Rush with its exceptional characters of men flooded into California so did the first big bump of Masons and the need for lodges.
Masonry came to the Sacramento Valley first via the efforts of Peter Lassen just before gold was discovered. Lassen was able to receive a charter for a lodge to be established in Benton City (on Lassen's rancho property just north of Chico, near Vina and the confluence of Deer Creek with the Sacramento River) by the Grand lodge of Missouri in 1848. In 1851 this Masonic lodge was shut down (Benton City was abandoned by 1853) and its relics were moved to Western Star Lodge No. 2 in Shasta, CA, but this beginning of Masonry in California started a mass movement of lodge establishments in the Gold Rush regions of the state. In 1856, Gen. John Bidwell, Gen. Allan Wood and others make the preparations to establish a Masonic lodge in Chico. The following brief outline provides the lodge's story.
Allen Wood: First Worshipful Master of Chico Lodge
Recently it has been possible to learn more about the first Master of Chico Lodge № 111, Allen Wood. He was named Master on December 31, 1856, by the Grand Lodge of California for the period of dispensation. He was succeeded by General John Bidwell as the first elected Master a few months later, and then followed General Bidwell as the first elected Master to serve one full year.
He was a dynamic leader. Having been born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1812, General Wood was raised in Connecticut, lived briefly in Indiana, and settled in Arkansas in 1839. He was twice elected to the Arkansas legislature. In the war with Mexico, Wood was given a captain's commission and raised a company of volunteers who were attached to the twelfth infantry. He "fought in the battles of Contreras and Cherubusco on August 18 and 29, 1847. On the latter day, he took command of the regiment, Colonel Bonham having been wounded the night before...For his gallant conduct in these engagements, he was made a brevet major." (From History of Plumas, Lassen and Sierra Counties; Fariss & Smith, 1882)
General Wood came to Butte County, California, in the fall of 1856. He immediately became a part of that group which asked for a dispensation for Chico Lodge № 111. Within two years, General Wood moved to Plumas County, where in 1863 he was affiliated with Sincerity Lodge № 132 at Rich Bar. In 1872, he affiliated with Lassen Lodge № 149 at Susanville and remained a member of that Lodge until his death in 1890. If he was in a place where there was no Masonic Lodge, he was the sort of man to put it together. He was the founder of the Royal Arch Chapter at Susanville, the first High Priest of Lassen Chapter No. 47, Royal Arch Masons at Susanville on July 23, 1875, and the first Eminent Commander of Lassen Commandery No. 13, Knights Templar at Susanville on April 23, 1878, as well as the initial organizer of this Commandery.
In Plumas County, he erected a fine, large hotel, which unfortunately burned, nearly bankrupting him. In 1860, he was elected on the Douglas ticket to the California Assembly continuing in his life of leadership and service.
General John Bidwell: Masonic Activity--Early and Late
The most prominent of Butte County masons, however, was General John Bidwell, famous California pioneer and founder of the City of Chico. His Masonic History is extremely interesting, and his influence in the founding and early years of Chico Lodge was of great importance. John Bidwell was the first elected Worshipful Master of Chico Lodge. His early Masonic record, however, is not altogether clear.
In the Grand Lodge returns of November, 1851, San Jose Lodge № 10 lists the name Bidwell in its listing of Entered Apprentices. No name or initial is given. However, the early records of San Jose Lodge № 10 confirm that this was John Bidwell and that he took the Entered Apprentice degree in that lodge February 13, 1851. There is no record of where or when John Bidwell received the second and third degrees. However, there is this much...in 1897, for the purpose of Masonic History records, Bidwell was asked as to where he was made a Mason. His letter of reply to this request was as follows:
Near Prattville (now Lake Almanor, the Bidwell Summer residence)
Plumas Co., Cal.
Aug. 11, 1897
Hon. Edwin A. Sherman
My dear Sir:
Yours of the 5th inst. has overtaken me on my summer outing in the depths of the Sierra Nevada mts. about 70 miles from Chico. My hand being too unsteady to write with pen and ink, I beg you will excuse use of pencil. You ask me to send the name of the lodge where I took the degrees.
In the winter of 1850-51 a friend persuaded me to take the first degree (Entered A.) at a lodge in San Jose - the name I do not remember. A few years later at Hamilton, which was then the county seat of Butte, the two following degrees. There was no lodge there - no lodge room - but the man who acted as Master had authority, as I understood, to confer such degrees - think his name was Morse or Moss - do not know the name - might have been Butte Lodge - the exact years I do not recall.
Regretting inability to give more fully and accurately the information you require, I have the honor to be
Yours very sincerely,
(s) John Bidwell
It is thought that possibly Morse, or Moss, was a "Deputy Grand Master" or similar official from some other Jurisdiction who was empowered to "make Masons and constitute lodges." This was a common practice in early days, and it is possible that Bidwell was made a Mason at sight or in a loosely constituted lodge under such power.
In this connection it is interesting to note the following excerpt from Mansfield's "History of Butte County"..."In the fall of 1849, a Mr. Norse called together the Masons who were then at Long's Bar, and under a dispensation of the Grand Lodge of Illinois, of which he was a member, what was said to be the first Masonic meeting held in California assembled. The convocation was held in a shake shanty so thin that the secrets of the order might have been endangered had it not been for the vigilance of the tyler. No lodge was chartered there." The similarity in the names of Morse, Moss and Norse seems more than a coincidence. Long's Bar was ten or twelve miles from Hamilton. This seems to tie very closely with Bidwell's letter
The next record of John Bidwell as a Mason is as a member of Butte Lodge № 36 of Bidwell's Bar (now underwater at Lake Oroville), Butte County. This is in the Returns from Butte Lodge in the Grand Lodge Proceedings of 1855. Also in 1856 and 1857 he is shown as a member of Butte Lodge № 36. In 1858, the year after the founding of Chico Lodge № 111, Bidwell is shown as "withdrawn" by Butte Lodge.
In Sherman's "Fifty Years of Masonry in California" it is recorded that John Bidwell was a Past Master of Butte Lodge № 36. All evidence is to the contrary, however. In the Returns to the Grand Lodge by Butte Lodge № 36 Bidwell was never listed as Worshipful Master of Past Master up to the time he is listed as "withdrawn." It is extremely unlikely that Butte Lodge could have consistently overlooked listing as a Past Master the man for whom their community was named had he ever been Master of their Lodge. From 1857 Bidwell's record is completely with Chico Lodge. Butte Lodge surrendered its charter in 1864.
In 1859 John Bidwell was Treasurer of Chico Lodge; in 1860, Senior Deacon; in 1861, Secretary; in 1862, Worshipful Master for the second time; in 1863, Senior Deacon again; and, in 1864, Worshipful Master for the third time. From 1865 Bidwell's activity rapidly lessened as he was voted in to represent California's 3rd district in the House of Representatives in Washington D.C. There he would meet and marry Annie Kennedy in 1868. The Tiler's Register indicates that there were long periods of absence from the Lodge, sometimes of two or three years. His last signing of the Register was June 4, 1876.
On July 4, 1888, John Bidwell served as Grand Orator, Pro-tem, when the Grand Lodge of California officiated at the laying of the cornerstone of the State Normal School in Chico.
On July 21, 1888, John Bidwell's membership in Chico Lodge terminated from non-payment of dues. There is no record of his having affiliated with any other lodge or of renewing his membership in Chico Lodge. He was a regular paying member of a masonic lodge for 38 years. From 1868 onward, it was known that his wife, Annie Kennedy Bidwell, did not care much for Freemasonry. It did not hold well with her Presbyterian views. John would die 12 years later, after leaving lodge, in April of 1900 at 80 years old.
Lodge Homes Over the Years
1856 – 1871
General John Bidwell’s store on the corner of 1st Street and Broadway Ave. was the location of the Masonic Lodge when it was established on December 31, 1856. The lodge used the top floor of the building. That building now houses Tres Hombres Restaurant and the second floor is no longer part of the building. The lodge was officially chartered by the Grand Lodge of California on May 14, 1857, as Chico Masonic Lodge № 111.
1871 - 1908
The Jones Hardware building, across the street from Bidwell General store, was completed in 1871, with the upper story housing the Masonic and Odd Fellows Lodges (as well as the original St. John’s Episcopal church before they established their own building), and the ground floor housing the post office and hardware store, along with agricultural implements, wagons, buggies, and, of course, buggy whips. The building is now home to Colliers Hardware on the bottom floor and the Blue Room Theater on the second floor. Since Craft lodges are known as Blue lodges, perhaps the Blue Room Theater is a nod to the time the Chico Masonic Lodge № 111 made its home there.
The Chico Masonic Lodge № 111 built a Masonic Temple building adjacent (to the east of) the Jones hardware building. The first floor was used for commercial-retail and the upper sections were used by the Masonic lodge. A short parapet tops the building above the cornice, the center of which states that the building is the "Chico Masonic Temple" in brick. The lodge sold the building and built a new building in 1994. The building now houses the Arroyo Room Banquet hall on the 2nd and 3rd floors, while the 1st floor houses the extension of Colliers Hardware.
1958 - 1990
In 1958, Chico Masonic Lodge № 111 had well over 500 members during the post-WWII and Korean War heyday when most lodges experienced serious expansion pains throughout California. Therefore Grand Lodge of California allowed for a new lodge to be established in the city, Leland Stanford Lodge № 784 on September 30, 1958. Both lodges grew using the same building until both lodge's memberships started to decrease in the 1980s, as did many lodges throughout the state. In 1990 the Chico Masonic Lodge № 111 consolidated with Leland Stanford Lodge № 784 to form the Chico-Leland Stanford Lodge № 111.
The new consolidation called for a new building and thus ground was broken to build on an old walnut orchard with plenty of room for the lodge known as the Chico Masonic Family Center to grow on East avenue near its intersection with Nord avenue. The current location has become not only the premier location to host local events and gatherings but has allowed the lodge and its members to present and conduct high level Masonic degree work in a beautiful lodge room with original furniture from the original 1800’s lodge sites.
People and famous events officiated by the Chico Masonic Lodge include:
The first Tiler's Register shows visits on October 17th and October 31st, 1857, of Peter Lassen, famous California pioneer and also very prominent in the earliest Masonic history of this State.
In the one hundred years of Chico Lodge № 111 many names have been signed on the Roll Book. Some were those of men who played important roles in the building of this community and of the state. There was Samuel Neal, one of the first three settlers in this immediate vicinity and who owned extensive tracts of land here as early as 1844, which was even before Bidwell settled on Rancho Chico. The present Neal Road to Paradise is named for him. There was Ira Watherbee, proprietor of the mine at Magalia where the famous "Dogtown" nugget was found; Edward B. Pond, later Mayor of San Francisco; August H. Chapman, founder of Chapmantown; G. W. Durham, founder of Durham; J.W.B. Montgomery, Brigadier General of the California National Guard and father of Josephine Montgomery, for whom Josephine Chapter, O.E.S. of Chico was named; Carnot Courtland Mason, who became Grand Commander of Knights Templar of California; and there were numerous important county officials, several State Assemblymen and at least one State Senator.
New cornerstone was laid over the original cornerstone of the Chico State Normal Building as the new construction of the Chico State University administration building (Kendall Hall) began. Ceremonies were conducted by Chico Masonic Lodge № 111 on March 8, 1929.
Cornerstone ceremonies are important to Masons because of their symbolism. Chico-Leland Stanford Lodge № 111 has participated with the Grand Lodge of California in the laying of four cornerstones. Chico Lodge № 111 acted as host on September 19, 1964, in the laying of the cornerstone at Pleasant Valley High School by Grand Master Elmer Heald, and many past Masters of Chico Lodge assisted in the ceremony. On April 19, 1968, the Grand Lodge was opened in Chico Lodge № 111 by Deputy Grand Master Robert A. Crigler who presided over the laying of a cornerstone for the new administration building of Chico Senior High School. On September 7th of the same year Grand Master Eugene S. Hopp laid the cornerstone of the new Durham High School. Finally, while Grand Lodge was opened in Butte Valley (near Paradise and Highway 70) for the laying of the Butte College cornerstone on September 10, 1974, many past Masters of Chico Lodge № 111 participated.
The dedication of the Chico Masonic Cemetery Marker was an important event to local Masons. It is a symbol of our concern and care and is a place of beautiful, quiet dignity. This Masonic burying ground is contained within the north-west boundary of Chico Cemetery; Chico Lodge № 111 endowed the permanent care of this section through Chico Cemetery Association on December 8, 1964. The brick monument was designed by Bro. Loren Ward and was dedicated on May 12, 1962, with Deputy Grand Master Ira W. Coburn presiding.
Theodore "Ted" Meriam, singularly, stands out in the Masonic history of Chico-Leland Stanford Lodge № 111. Most representative of the vertical view of our Blue Lodge's life, Ted was raised to Master Mason on December 3, 1940, and served as Master of Chico Lodge in 1946. In 1958, he was appointed Grand Orator of the Grand Lodge of California and is credited with the speech "Reappraisal". He was elected Junior Grand Warden in October, 1961, Senior Grand Warden in October, 1962, Deputy Grand Master in October, 1963, and on October 16, 1964 he was elected Grand Master of California Masons serving until October 11, 1965. Ted passed away in 2001.
Not only had Ted filled those august offices through which his election honored this Lodge which raised him, but he was a leader, lecturer, author and historian as well. A sought after adviser on Grand Lodge committees, Ted had served for many years on the important Policy and General Purposes Committee. While serving on the Masonic Information Committee in 1961, he authored the widely circulated pamphlet "If Freemasonry Is Good Let Us Talk About It." Many times this Lodge and other Masonic bodies in Chico had been the benefactors of his speeches and research. In addition, Meriam Library on the California State University, Chico campus honors both his father Morrison E. Meriam, professor of psychology from 1902 to 1934, and Ted, community leader, alumnus, and friend of the University, a member of the California State University Board of Trustees from 1961 to 1971, and its chair from 1968 to 1969.
Charles Alexander was an active member of Chico-Leland Stanford Lodge № 111, joining in 1949. In 1987, he was made Grand Orator of the Grand Lodge of California, in 1993 he was elected to the post of Junior Grand Warden, and four years later became Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of California in October 11, 1995 to October 16, 1996, the highest Masonic office in California. As Grand Orator he is credited with the speech "Masonry Into Men." Charlie is credited with bringing together the mutual recognition between the Grand Lodge of California and the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of California in 1995, opening the door for visitation and combined Masonic activities. Charlie was a constant presence at lodge meetings and functions, and took great pride in raising many brothers to the sublime degree of Master Mason. Charlie was a true gentlemen among men and to the Craft. Charlie passed away in 2015.