JOHNSTOWN - Most residents of this area are familiar with the name Sir William Johnson and the historic landmarks associated with his settlement of the region.
But part of Johnson's legacy lives on in relative obscurity in a stately brick building on North Perry Street. In 1766, Johnson founded St. Patrick's Lodge No. 4, a local branch of the fraternity of Freemasons, whose members included nearly every prominent landowner in upstate New York.
The lodge - named after the patron saint of Johnson's native Ireland and the fourth established in New York - began as a small, exclusive organization made up of Johnson and his closest associates. Its first meetings took place in Johnson's home.
The lodge room is seen from its main entrance upstairs at St. Patrick’s Lodge No. 4 in Johnstown. The stately chamber is the location for formal lodge meetings, at which only Masons are allowed. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)
The lodge survived its founder's death and the American Revolution and went on to thrive for generations. Over the years, several other lodges were established in what are now Fulton and Montgomery counties.
"We take good men and make them better," said Wayne D. Schermerhorn, secretary and past master of St. Patrick's Lodge No. 4. He said the Johnstown lodge has been "very fortunate" in recent years, having gained 50 or 60 new members, including some Masons who have transfered from other lodges or taken on dual memberships.
In the last decade, however, most of the lodges in the Fulton-Montgomery Masonic District have had difficultly keeping their memberships large and active.
Gloversville Lodge No. 429 closed in 2003 after almost 150 years of existence and merged with the Johnstown lodge. Fultonville Lodge No. 531 took a hit when the flood of June 2006 damaged its building, and it now is preparing to merge with Hamilton Lodge No. 79 in Canajoharie.
"Membership is down," said Mason Jeffrey A. Lanfear of Fultonville. "A lot of our membership is getting older."
Lanfear is deputy grand master - head of the Fulton-Montgomery Masonic District - and a member of both the Fultonville and Amsterdam lodges.
"Masonry hasn't changed - it's the same," Lanfear said. "It's just that the world has changed."
Amsterdam Lodge No. 84 at one time had more than 500 members, Lanfear said, but now that number is down to about 150.
"The lodges are working at it," he said, "But there's a lot of things going on now ... Years ago, the Masonic lodge was a cornerstone, but it's different today."
Nowadays, most families with children have both parents working, and men have less time for social activities.
"It's like any volunteer organization," Lanfear said. "Look at the fire companies - they're all hurting for people to come out and get involved."
When the Fultonville and Canajoharie lodges merge, they will have fewer than 100 members, Lanfear estimated. At one time, he said, each probably had more than 150. The Canajoharie Masons made their facility available for the Fultonville Lodge to use as a meeting place after the flood, he said, and it seems like a natural fit for them to merge as membership decreases.
"It's just part of the brotherhood thing," Lanfear said, adding he thinks the merger of the two lodges will be a positive step, boosting morale for Masons in that part of the district and consolidating two smaller lodges into one stronger one.
Schermerhorn, a retired Gloversville firefighter, is a past master of the Gloversville lodge and was one of several men who came over in the merger.
He said the Johnstown lodge has been "very fortunate" in recent years, having gained 50 or 60 new members, including some who have transfered from other lodges or taken on dual memberships. It has about 130 full members, known as Master Masons, and about 16 new members at the entered apprentice and fellowcraft levels - the first and second degrees of membership.
"We've been above the average in adding new membership," he said. "Our lodge is very active."
St. Patrick's Lodge underwent extensive renovations a few years ago, when the members determined it was time to replace the roof and windows, among other improvements. While the lodge is well known in the community as a venue for social functions - the Masons often rent the first floor for banquets, school proms, wedding receptions and fundraisers - it also holds several historic treasures not often open to public view.
Unlike most other lodges from pre-Revolutionary times, St. Patrick's still has its original charter - a document signed May 23, 1766, by Sir William Johnson and other officers of the lodge, including his associate John Butler, who led a famed troop of Loyalist rangers during the war. Butler's masonic apron - a symbolic garment he wore during lodge rituals - is kept on display in the lodge offices.
Among the artifacts secured in a sturdy safe on the premises are the lodge's original officers' jewels. These silver necklaces, worn by the lodge's top officers - the master and senior and junior wardens - were commissioned by Johnson from a silversmith in New York City.
On the second floor of the building is the lodge room, a large chamber with leaded-glass windows and an altar in the center. Antique, thronelike chairs for the officers are arrayed on three sides. A metal knocker on the main door to the lodge room depicts the square and compass - a masonic symbol referring both to the ancient construction of Solomon's Temple in the Holy Land and to the fraternity's tenets about virtue and propriety.
Only Masons are permitted to enter the lodge room when meetings are in progress, and in some cases, only members of certain degrees are admitted.
"It is not a secret society," Schermerhorn said. "But it's a fraternal society that has secrets."
Schermerhorn said his love of history is just one of the things that makes him passionate about Freemasonry.
"Fellowship and friendship are high priorities of ours," he said.
Traditionally, Masonic lodges don't actively recruit new members, but men who hear about Masonry through word of mouth and express an interest are welcome to inquire about joining.
"We hope people will come to us, looking for something," Lanfear said.
Prospective members need not have any particular political or religious affiliation, but belief in a supreme being is one of the requirements.
"Someone who doesn't have that probably isn't going to agree with what we do," Lanfear said. "There's an open Bible on our altar. That's symbolic of our faith."
He said Masonry puts an emphasis on family, God and service, embodying the Biblical commandment to "love thy neighbor" in its numerous philanthropic efforts.
Much of the lodges' charitable work is done quietly, even anonymously, he said.
"There's things we do in the community that people don't even know we're doing," Lanfear said. The Amsterdam lodge opens its doors for a free community meal two days a week.
Schermerhorn said lodges in New York support the Masonic Medical Research Laboratory in Utica, among many other charitable causes.
Though interest in Masonry has waned and the membership is graying, it remains the largest fraternal organization in the world, and the lodges of the Fulton-Montgomery Masonic District will continue to exert an influence on the communities around them.
"Right now, we're at a point where we're losing more members than we're gaining," Lanfear said. "But I don't foresee it ever going away. It's a great institution."
Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached at email@example.com.