Open secrets

Chico Masonic lodge offers a peek at mysteries, membership

Master Mason Dean Fairbanks and Larry Willis, senior warden and acting master of the Chico-Leland Stanford Lodge of Free & Accepted Masons No. 111, inside the main chamber of the Chico Masonic Family Center. Many furnishings in the room were purchased by city founder John Bidwell when he helped start the lodge in 1857.

Master Mason Dean Fairbanks and Larry Willis, senior warden and acting master of the Chico-Leland Stanford Lodge of Free & Accepted Masons No. 111, inside the main chamber of the Chico Masonic Family Center. Many furnishings in the room were purchased by city founder John Bidwell when he helped start the lodge in 1857.

Photo by Ken Smith

As he led the way around the Chico Masonic Family Center last Saturday (Nov. 18), Dean Fairbanks paused in front of a poster covered in images of pop culture references to Freemasonry hanging in the building’s main hallway. It included book covers from Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code series, images from the National Treasure films and a picture of Homer Simpson dressed in his ritual Stonecutters get-up.

Fairbanks, a Chico State professor who joined the local lodge three years ago, laughed as he paraphrased a sentence printed at the top of the poster, the cutline from the 2013 thriller The Freemason: “We don’t control everything, just the things that matter.”

Fairbanks said the poster was an inside joke of sorts, playing on pop culture’s fascination with conspiracy theories centered on the fraternal society: “We like taking the piss out of ourselves,” he said. “We always get a lot of questions about the Illuminati and stuff like that.”

His young son Sabin, who’d tagged along for the tour, interjected when his father mentioned the name of the shadowy group that allegedly oversees Freemasonry, wielding its unbounded power to control the course of human history. Mustering his scariest monster voice, Sabin slowly repeated the word: “I-llu-min-at-i!”

Members of the international organization’s local chapter—the Chico-Leland Stanford Lodge of Free & Accepted Masons No. 111—opened the doors to their semi-secret sanctum last weekend to provide information about the organization. Though there was nary a skull or hooded figure in sight, there were plenty of free cookies, and members gave tours and freely answered questions about the group’s history and often-misconstrued symbolism.

The open house was the second held this year, and Fairbanks organized both in honor of the 300th anniversary of Freemasonry. He explained Masonic practices and traditions go back much further—rooted in medieval masons’ (stone-workers) guilds—but that the modern organization marks its birthday with the formation of the United Grand Lodge of England in June 1717.

“Masons’ guilds went from operative to speculative during the Enlightenment,” Fairbanks said. “Folks started bringing together a lot of philosophical [concepts] and using those guilds and their architectural tools and symbols as an entryway to explain things using allegory.”

As examples, Fairbanks offered the ubiquitous compass-and-square symbol, meant to symbolize the union of spirit (the compass) and mankind (the square). He also noted the organization’s many references to the long-lost Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, explaining the building is used metaphorically as a guideline to “inner work” members do to become better, more complete human beings. Freemasonry, he said, is based on brotherly love—manifested through its social and charitable work—and the search for greater truth.

“Our symbols and a lot of the history and philosophy draws from early Egyptian and Zoroastrianism influences, all the way through Kabbalah, Rosicrucians, the Renaissance … there’s a golden thread through history of all these ideas, and Freemasons are carrying them on.”

Freemasonry as conspiracy-theory fodder is nothing new in America, where many of the Founding Fathers were members. There was even a political movement aimed at eliminating that influence in the 19th century that spawned a short-lived Anti-Masonic Party.

Fairbanks acknowledged Masonic influence but said rumors of the organization’s power to control the world are comically overblown. He noted every state has an independent “Grand Lodge” and they don’t always see eye to eye. Golden State-based Masons, for example, are currently not allowed to visit or work with lodges in Tennessee and Georgia, because California’s Grand Lodge opposes those state lodges’ policies of not allowing homosexual members.

“We believe all humans are equal, and all men are allowed to join,” Fairbanks said. Women cannot be Freemasons, but the organization has female auxiliary groups such as the International Order of Job’s Daughters.

The North State has a rich Masonic history dating back to the Gold Rush, with the first lodge in Chico founded in part by pioneer John Bidwell in 1857. Other prominent local Masons—like Augustus Chapman and former Mayor Ted Meriam—are remembered in local place names (Chico State’s Chapmantown and Meriam Library, respectively).

Chico’s original lodge was located where Tres Hombres now sits, and eventually moved to the Blue Room Theatre’s current location. A membership in excess of 600 necessitated a split into two lodges in 1958, which were reunified around 1990. The Masons moved from downtown to the East Avenue location in 1994.

Chico’s lodge, like all Masonic chapters, is largely devoted to charity. Fairbanks noted it is currently running a toy drive for Catalyst Domestic Violence Services, and local Shriners—a fez-wearing wing of the Masons perhaps best known outside Freemasonry for driving little cars in parades—raises about $10,000 annually for the Shriners Hospitals for Children.

Despite popular fascination with Freemasonry, membership—as in similar fraternal groups—is in decline. The local lodge currently has about 230 members.

“It used to be that anyone you met was part of some social organization, but not so much anymore,” said Darrel Deatherage, a past master (akin to president) of the local lodge who was recently appointed grand marshal of the state’s main lodge in San Francisco. “We’re losing them faster than they’re signing up.”

Fairbanks said part of the function of the open houses is to provide information to those who are interested in joining. But part of Masonic tradition, he explained, is that they don’t actively recruit; new members must make the first step.

“Nobody will ever ask you to be a member; you have to do it for yourself,” he said. “It’s based on the idea that, if you want to do this, and are ready to look at life a little more speculatively and esoterically, then you will go ahead and knock on the door and ask.”