I recently visited the Grand Lodge of Montana with Waco Masonic Lodge’s mascot, Marble, and my fiance, Tatiena. We were hosted by Daniel Gardiner, a dear friend who happens to be the Grand Secretary of Montana and one of the world’s leading experts in the early development of Masonic ritual and customs.
We arrived to the early just in time for a beautiful mountainview sunset in late September which, considering the birth of Montana Masonry, was rather appropriate. We headed up Mullan Pass that night to get a look at the scene where the first Masonic meeting in this part of the country ever took place. We didn’t have to imagine anything because one of the men present in 1862 described it in his own words:
“‘It was a clear September twilight [in 1862] when we camped on the western side of the range of the Rocky Mountains where they are crossed by the Mullan Road…’ Nathan Langford wrote. ‘…[I]mpressed with the grandeur of the mountain scenery and the mild beauty of the evening…we ascended the mountain to its summit, and there, in imitation of our ancient brethren, opened and closed an informal Lodge of Master Masons. I had listened to this solemn ritual of Masonry a hundred times, but never when it impressed me so seriously as upon this occasion; such also was the experience of my companions. Never was the fraternal clasp more cordial than when in the glory of that beautiful autumnal evening, we opened and closed the first lodge ever assembled in Montana.'”
Every year, the Masons of Montana gather up on Mullan Pass and re-enact this early meeting in a permanent outdoor lodge set near the spot where Langford and his traveling companions got things started so long ago. The next morning, we arrived the Grand Lodge where Bro. Gardiner pointed out my resemblance to Langford while I stood under a mural depicting that first meeting. Langford later served as Grand Master and he also is credited with developing the conservation idea that resulted in Yellowstone National Park. This gained N.P. Langford the nickname of “National Park Langford.”
Though the first formal meeting of Masons in Montana took place in 1862, Masonry first entered Montana territory long before that, nestled in the heart of famous explorer Meriwether Lewis in 1805. His Masonic apron is on display at the Grand Lodge. It has recently become the subject of a great deal of speculation, due to the mysterious circumstances of Lewis’ infamous death by murder/suicide. Specifically, the apron’s bloodstains were shown to have the DNA of two men which gives some credence to the theory that he was killed.
Moving on from this relic, we explored the Grand library and examined the well-curated exhibits. A fun quirk of the museum shows that the first cattle brand registered in Montana was a square and compass symbol, which is owned and still registered as such by the Grand Lodge today.
Their library, like many Grand Lodges, is impressive and has no doubt been useful for Bro. Gardiner’s development as an expert in early ritual. Per my usual custom, I managed to find books covering Texas Masonic history and I also found mention of my home lodge in a copy of Wyoming’s Grand Lodge 1903 proceedings when it was reported at their Grand Lodge session that an “ambitious lodge out of Waco” had successfully campaigned to make their city the home of Texas Masonry.
In light of Masonry’s unfortunately high rate of historic fires, it was interesting to see the fireproof vault room, where the original windows still have a unique mechanism designed to slide shut if a fire starts, thereby saving some of the jurisdiction’s most important artifacts.
For lunch, we three Texans went to get sushi and eat at the city park. While sitting there, I noticed what appeared to be a mosque which excited my curiosity. Upon approaching the building, I realized it was the city civic center. I asked Bro. Gardiner why their civic center was of such unsual architectural design and he informed that it was previously the local Shriners’ building. Fortunately, I managed to get a tour of the facility which has been carefully updated while maintaining as much of the original character as possible. Photos follow. The theater room still has arabic aesthetics, the ballroom has chandeliers converted to use LED bulbs, and even the bathroom has remarkable tilework.
Later, Bro. Gardiner met us at the local Masonic Hall which boasts an extraordinary Egyptial Revival lodge room and then he led us on a hike up Mt. Helena. Only moments into the climb, when his calves were eye level with me did I realize we were in for a challenge. It seems that this Brother spends ALL of his spare time traipsing about the magnificent peaks of Montana and his pace proved this. It was worth it though, as the views overlooking Montana’s capital city were breathtaking, or I imagine they would have been If I’d had any breath to take.
Upon leaving Helena, we spent the night in the Bob Marshall room of an Air BnB ranch in Livingston this is operated by a group of young autistic Montanans. It’s located very close to the old cabin spot of famous Masonic author Carl Claudy and only a short drive from Yellowstone where we spent the next two days exploring the fruits of Grand Master Langford’s idea. A particular highlight included a stop at Mammoth Hot Springs to look at the place where a famous photo of the Buffalo Soldiers on bicycles was taken. This story came from Bro. Gardiner while we were in Helena and I haven’t the space to tell it here but suffice it to say that it was an extraordinary feeling to stand in such a beautiful place and know that some of this region’s first Prince Hall Masons once posed for a photo in the same spot while en route to proving the efficacy of the bicycle for warfare. They managed a 2,000 mile journey through some of the nation’s most difficult terrain!
For photos from this trip, you’ll want to head over to the lodge facebook page.