The Odd Fellows: ‘The original social network’ | Local News

Quiet, but not sad, is how Meg Meltz describes the place.

It’s the Independent Order of Odd Fellows’ nondescript 2,800 square foot hall on Cerrillos Road, which has recently been devoid of the usual cavorting, clapping, laughing and swaying – as in swing dancing – due to the growing pandemic. .

The nearly 70-year-old building, owned by the Santa Fe chapter of the Odd Fellows, has long been known as a social dance hall as well as a meeting place for lodge members.

Meltz, the lodge’s president, said the dancers would return, possibly as early as next week. If not, then certainly when the worst of the pandemic is over.

But the big question remains unanswered: How can the longtime fraternal organization, which has only about 25 active members, attract more people?

“We’ve lost a lot of members over the last few years – by dying or by leaving,” Meltz said last week.

In this way, Odd Fellows is not much different from other fraternal organizations across the country. Many face shrinking workforces eroded by age and mortality as younger generations become more accustomed to integrating into an online society. The Odd Fellows of Santa Fe bet their ability to organize grassroots activities while creating a niche for community service will keep them relevant. But they recognize that it will not be an easy path to follow.

A 2018 study from the University of San Diego notes the steady decline of fraternal organizations. From Elks and Lions Clubs to Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, the postwar social staples that helped shape America have mutated and, in some cases, receded. Using the Masons as a textbook case, the report says the group’s membership peaked near the 4 million mark in the mid-1950s and fell to just 1.2 million around 60 years later. .

Citing what has become known as the ‘bowling alone’ syndrome, the study attributes the decline to “a social and cultural shift in America” ​​that has led to fewer “habits of social participation”.

The problem can be observed locally: in recent years, the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts in Santa Fe have reported declining membership and have worked to attract younger members as veterans old people die.

Odd Fellows understand the problem. Richard Gunn, 87, a longtime member of the Santa Fe Odd Fellows, recalls a time when the Santa Fe lodge had about 100 members. Also a member of one of two Odd Fellows organizations in Albuquerque, Gunn said it’s been a challenge to bring new members to clubs that have their roots in an era of volunteerism, camaraderie and doing good. for the community.

And the Odd Fellows, which has some 100,000 members nationwide, are all about that traditional view of service, said Barbara Corfield, secretary of state for New Mexico lodges. She said there are only seven Odd Fellows branches still active in the state, with about 200 members in total. Only three, including Santa Fe, own their building, which is key to survival, she said.

When lodges sell their properties, meetings tend to drop out and members tend to withdraw, she added.

“I remember when there were up to 40 or 50 lodges in New Mexico at a time,” said Corfield, who grew up in the Odd Fellows fraternal society in Albuquerque in the 1950s. These groups had organizations youth workers, who are almost unheard of in most lodges today, and have played a supporting role in funding and supporting community initiatives, non-profit organizations and events. The Odd Fellows, who only allowed men in lodges until about 20 years ago, have proposed a women-only offshoot known as Rebekahs, which still exists in some places.

“Years ago when I was growing up, my family was active in our church, active in the [Odd Fellows] housed and active in our school,” she said. “But we didn’t have as many social activities to get involved in.

The rapid growth of technology, social media and the internet “has a lot to do with it”, she added.

But the aura of secrecy and hidden activities behind the lodge’s doors plays a part, said Ainslie Heilich, webmaster of the national Sovereign Grand Lodge, the headquarters of the Odd Fellows.

“We killed each other in the secret society over the last century,” Heilich said.

One way out of this, he said, is to make sure your local Odd Fellows lodge offers something people want.

What’s strange about them?

What is an Odd Fellow? According to the Sovereign Grand Lodge website, there is evidence to show that Odd Fellow groups originated in England in the 1700s, taking their name from the concept that laborers coming together on a social basis were, well, strange. The first official presence of the United States began in Baltimore in 1819. Membership was restricted to men until about 20 years ago and focused on merchants who could, among other benefits, participate in social activities, find jobs and even get health insurance.

“It was the original social network,” Heilich said. “It was how people made friends, got jobs. If you moved to a new city [with a lodge], you had a built-in social network and community. If you needed a job, accommodation, they would help you.”

Additionally, like many fraternal entities, the Odd Fellows have established their own rituals and traditions for holding meetings, which still exist today. Will McDonald, a member of the Santa Fe Odd Fellows, said those customs include the placement of chairs for members and group readings involving all attendees. Beyond that, members tend to business and activities, approving minutes and the budget — which is “in the thousands” for the Santa Fe lodge, Meltz said.

The lodges’ community missions focus on helping orphans and widows and burying the dead, and many lodges are attached to a cemetery, including the Santa Fe facility. This cemetery, used for the first times in the 1880s and last used in the mid-1980s, has largely fallen fallow as there is less need at present to provide a site for those who could not be buried elsewhere in because of their faith or lack of finances, McDonald said.

Meltz said her lodge maintains the cemetery and she recently discovered that a man she didn’t even know was intentionally mowing the lawn in the spring and summer. Homeless people sometimes lay down for the night at the back of the cemetery, Meltz said.

“I don’t mind,” she said. “They have to stay somewhere.”

Heilich said Odd Fellows had to “do things” to stay relevant. It means focusing on a plan to benefit the community. Heilich, a tattoo artist who moved his business and living space to an abandoned Odd Fellows facility in Tuscola, Illinois and then relaunched the lodge there, said that could include arts pursuits, like does so at his lodge, while managing a food pantry or operating a senior center.

“If your lodge is going to do the kind of activities to help people join, to keep that vibe going, that’s what you need to do,” he said.

The Santa Fe lodge has developed and maintained a musical theme for decades, with members supporting public school music programs through fundraising efforts to purchase instruments and provide teachers. Now that Santa Fe Public Schools has taken over the effort, Meltz wrote in an email that the lodge had “discussed taking on a new cause, and I believe it would attract some energetic new members. I don’t know if we’ll actually do it then.”

So the lodge relies on dancing to boost membership. McDonald said the activity led him to join in the early 1990s. He said his research indicated that the hall was equipped with a dance floor for training the drill team in the 1950s. Over the years, it has developed a reputation for swing dancing, counter dancing, square dancing and folk dancing, with classes often held before actual dancing hours. No alcohol is allowed or served at the Odd Fellows lodge in Santa Fe.

And with several once-popular dance nightclubs having closed or discontinued offering live music for dancers – even before the pandemic – the lodge seems the logical place for people to congregate. It’s a draw that may in turn encourage some of these people to pay the $30 annual fee. The lodge raises funds through membership fees, room rentals and admission to dance events.

The dance is on hold now, but McDonald’s is confident it will resume and bring new life to the venue. As a musician who has performed and called dances at the hall for years, he said he had a sense of the “silence anticipating the evening” of the energy of dance.

“In this calm, the room seems a little old and welcoming,” he wrote in an email. “But there is also a dignity of a place that has hosted many diverse events. Then there are sound checks for the group when the dancers arrive. Teaching nervous beginners before the dance, assuring them that we We’re here to have fun. Then with the music and the dancing, the energy builds with the chatter and the laughter.”

“This familiar shared experience of dance has been a casualty of the pandemic.”

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