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Saying goodbye: A brief history of the Odd Fellows of Sault Ste. Marie

Local chapter of international fraternity was established in 1890s and provided many Saultites with wheelchairs, walkers and even an organ for events at original Memorial Gardens; Sault Museum to hold exhibit of items from now-closed lodge

The Sault Ste. Marie branch of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows now belongs to the history books due to declining membership.

In addition, the Odd Fellows Temple building, located at 124 Dennis St., was recently sold to make way for a new youth services hub. 

However, the local Odd Fellows, rooted in the community for over 130 years, are going out on a high note.

Odd Fellows members David Pitcher and Bob Woolley presented a cheque for $35,000 to the Sault Area Hospital Foundation, SAHF announced recently in a release.

The funding will go towards the acquisition of three state-of-the-art medical and surgical beds at SAH.

In addition, Pitcher and Wooley presented a cheque for $20,000 on behalf of the lodge to ARCH for hospice services on Aug. 10.

Money for the financial gifts to Sault Area Hospital, ARCH and other community groups came from sale of the Odd Fellows lodge building.

The Odd Fellows, an international fraternity established in 18th-century England as a group of workmen from smaller, less-represented skilled trades - the ‘odd men out’ - are classified as a secret society because they meet in a low profile way, use passwords and code books in their lodge activities.

However, the Odd Fellows are best known around the world and locally for buying devices such as wheelchairs, hospital beds, crutches and walkers and loaning them to those who need them in hospitals, long term care homes or private homes.

“It was basically a fraternal organization but for community work I guess the most well-known fact is that we used to loan out wheelchairs and all kinds of medical equipment at no charge. Many people in town have used, or know somebody who has used, a wheelchair or set of crutches or other equipment from Odd Fellows,” said lodge member David Pitcher in a recent interview with SooToday.

Back in the day, local Odd Fellows volunteers spent close to 50 hours a week- almost every week - for over 50 years, loaning or repairing medical equipment used in the community. 

In 2003 they had over 760 pieces of equipment, assisting  approximately 680 people with mobility issues.

‘Bittersweet’ is probably the best way to describe the sale of the Odd Fellows Temple building on Dennis Street, Pitcher said.

“It's sad to say goodbye to the building but the good thing is that it’s going to keep serving the community as a youth hub. It’s going to continue to serve the community as opposed to being sold as a warehouse or something, so that gives us a better feeling.”

The building was purchased by the Sault Ste. Marie Housing Corporation in July 2022 from the Odd Fellows for $180,000, with Algoma Family Services acting as the lead agency for the youth wellness hub.

It is hoped that the hub will open later this fall.

The history of Odd Fellows in the Sault goes back to 1890.

Members originally belonged to two different branches.

The Bessemer Lodge met in the Lyons Block at the corner of John Street and Wellington Street.

The Arthur Lodge met above East Street Hardware at the corner of East Street and Queen Street.

The two lodges amalgamated in 1949 and constructed the Odd Fellows Temple on Dennis Street in 1951.

There was a female component of the Odd Fellows known as the Rebekah Lodge, established at a time when many men’s and women’s clubs and activities were separate. 

The local Odd Fellows lodge helped raise funds for many medical needs over the years, including optical equipment, renal dialysis equipment and a CT scanner.

Beginning in 1954, the lodge also sponsored local students every year on United Nations Pilgrimages for Youth, an international Odd Fellows program in which selected youngsters from Canada and the U.S. spent a week in New York City every summer to observe the UN in action. 

In 1967, a new electric organ was presented to the original Memorial Gardens by the Rebekah Lodge. It was placed on a platform on the northwest side of the Gardens high above the floor. It was the first instrument in the Gardens and replaced recorded music used during Gardens events. 

The Odd Fellows and Rebekah Lodges held many fundraising events such as dances, bingo and arts and crafts shows to raise money for community needs.

In the late 1920s the Arthur Lodge had more than 1,000 members but by 1991 there were only 70 members. Very few younger men joined as the years went by - a problem now faced by many service clubs.

Pitcher, an Odd Fellows member for the past 24 years, said he remembers the lodge having approximately 200 members but that is now down to 17 members on its books.

Towards the end a typical meeting would have about five or six people in attendance, he said.

“We’re down to just a handful of active members and most of them are getting up there in years so it looks like we’re going to end our operations,” Pitcher said.

The Odd Fellows have donated a considerable number of items to the Sault Ste. Marie Museum to ensure the memory of the lodge stays rooted in the community.

“Hopefully they’ll be able to put together an exhibit and maintain the history for people to look at so that we’re not totally forgotten,” Pitcher said. 

That exhibit is in the works.

“The rich history and artifacts, including thrones, codebooks and detailed scrapbooks will be kept alive at the Sault Museum, where we hope to hold an exhibit in the next year or so,” said Will Hollingshead, Sault Ste. Marie Museum executive director.

“We want to capture the history of an organization so far reaching in our community, and recognize the significant contributions they have made over the years,” Hollingshead said.

“We got together for meetings every Wednesday night so that’s a part of my week that's changed,” said Pitcher, an Algoma Steel retiree.

“We’ve got other interests and we’re moving on but we’ll still miss it. I’m involved with the amateur radio club and one of my fellow members, Bob Woolley, is a championship bowler who bowls at least once a week, and he also enjoys golf. We’ll just do the retiree thing I guess.”

- With files from the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library

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Darren Taylor

About the Author: Darren Taylor

Darren Taylor is a news reporter and photographer in Sault Ste Marie. He regularly covers community events, political announcements and numerous board meetings. With a background in broadcast journalism, Darren has worked in the media since 1996.
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