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The Early History of Shakespeare Lodge No. 750

[Most of this information was derived from the history in our Centennial celebration booklet. Much of that came from the 75-year announcement. We are indebted to RW Daniel Semel and the late Bro. Ezra Samuels]

There is no known record of William Shakespeare having been a Mason. Thus, it must be presumed he was not. To the man curious who wonder then why the name "Shakespeare" was chosen, the answer, regretfully, is buried in the tombs of our organizers. Perhaps the enduring qualities of  Shakespeare's works inspired them to choose a name for a Lodge they hoped would also endure. The name was well chosen. The Lodge has had many older active members to give sagacious counsel, and younger ones to contribute youthful enthusiasm and vigor. it has balance. It is a world in itself. It is a way of life. Many men spend the best years of their lives at Shakespeare lodge. Man does not live by bread alone. He is a gregarious creature. As he grows older, in the natural order of things, he loves his friends. He becomes lonely. but not at Shakespeare. It has been peopled only by friends. Through the years, many Masons have become affiliated with Shakespeare Lodge. More men have switched to Shakespeare than any other Lodge.
Shakespeare's earliest development is indeed unique, having received its original warrant on February 3, 1870, from the Prince Hall Grand Lodge, as Progress Lodge #12. It was also referred to as Downstate Lodge #12. There is an excellent article by Brother Joseph Walkes.

Shakespeare had its origin in the filing of a petition by:

Jacob P. Solomon, Lawyer, born in England, True Craftsman No. 651
H.R. Cohen, Insurance, born in Prussia, True Craftsman No. 651
Henry H. Wilzensky, Lawyer, born in USA, Emanuel Lodge No. 654
Bernard Brooks, Merchant, born in Prussia, True Craftsman No. 651
William J. Trimble, Clerk, born in USA, True Craftsman No. 651
William Bennett, Merchant, born in Poland, Mount Neboh No. 227
Victor Heinberger, Clerk, born in German, Mount Neboh No. 227
Patrick Feney, Marshal, born in Ireland, Montgomery No. 68
John H. Callender, Brewer, born in Scotland, True Craftsman No. 651
Thomas J. McGrath, Auctioneer, born in Ireland, Montgomery No. 68

All of these Brothers, with the exception of Brooks and Bennett, eventually returned to their Mother Lodges. The first meeting was held at 96 Bowery.

The petition for our Shakespeare Lodge was granted and our Dispensation issued on February 16, 1874. The new Lodge was instituted March 10, 1874 and at once became a member of the Eighth Masonic District. The Dispensation was returned on May 15, 1874. During the three month period of Dispensation, 13 men were made Master Masons, 11 more reached the Fellowcraft Degree, and eleven candidates were initiated. These, added to the original ten petitioners, made a total of 45 men on the rolls when the warrant was granted on June 5, 1874. The Charter was granted on June 16, 1874 and Grand Master MW Ellwood Thorne formally constituted the Lodge six days later.

It was but a little more than three months from the time the Lodge was instituted to the time it was constituted, indicating the remarkable proficiency in the work by the first line of officers. This tradition has continued. Shakespeares officers have always been first rate and while other lodges have had a shortage of available talent, Shakespeare has been fortunate in having a surplus. Our ritual work has received worldwide acclaim. Shakespeares degree teams have a reputation dating back to the 19th century. Records disclose that Shakespeares degree teams performed the Hiramic drama for countless thousands both within and without New York. When our team performed, the Grand Lodge room had to be procured for the performance. The attendance was so large that admittance was by invitation only.

In 1874 the Lodge met on the second floor of Bennetts Hall at 96 Bowery, between Hester and Grand Streets. In those days it was considered a good location. Meetings were held every Monday and Wednesday throughout the year.

It wasn't too long before Shakespeare was advised by Grand Lodge that its Bowery Lodge room was unfit for Masonic work and the Lodge was ordered to cease meeting in that insecure place. By coincidence there was a room for us in the new Masonic Temple on 23rd Street, which had not yet been fully rented. When the present addition to the Temple was completed in 1909, we moved into the Corinthian Room. In 1925, we moved to larger quarters in the Koran Room at Mecca Temple (now the City Center on West 56th Street). In the late 1930s, we returned happily to the Masonic Temple on 23rd Street, to the beautiful but un-air conditioned Colonial Room where we now meet.

Shakespeare's early years were marked by a sincere through often difficult effort to make the Lodge a success. Membership grew slowly but steadily. From a membership of 17 our first year, we grew to 229 after 25 years. At 50 years we were 864 strong. At 75 years the membership totaled 703, and at this Centennial year (1974) we number 575. We almost reached the thousand mark in 1928 when we attained 954 members.

Our early years were also characterized by a struggle to achieve fiscal solvency so that we could contribute to the many charitable needs of the members. In 1874 the Initiation fee was $20 and dues were $6.35. Some paid by warrant (as checks were called in those days) but most paid cash and the Lodge's Cash Ledger is a magnificent example of Spenserian script.

Early on it became customary to support the widows and orphans as wells as to contribute to any worthy destitute brother. Supplies of coal in the winter, food and clothing for the needy, passage West for the consumptive are just some of the ways the Lodge helped out. Contributions were also made to victims of the Civil War and collections were repeatedly made to help rebuild Southern Lodges destroyed in the conflagration. Charitable endeavors have continued throughout the years. Shakespeare has always been first to answer the call.

Brotherhood is evidenced in many ways. For example, before the turn of the 20th century, it was a Lodge custom that, when a brother passed away, the entire Lodge was summoned by telegram to meet at the decedents home. There, in funeral cortege, the coffin was carried by pallbearers, followed by solemn brothers, many of them in full dress (required garb for members at Masonic Balls and for officers at meetings) t the cemetery, where the Master convened the Lodge to

To show appreciation and respect for hard work and general esteem the Lodge customarily gives gifts. Today we give aprons, gavels, wallets, books and sometimes money. In our early years the gifts were of gold inset with diamonds, silver tea sets and dinner services from Tiffany. District Deputies regularly received cut crystal bowls on their visitations. A popular gift was the Grandfather Clock. In 1921, the Lodge gave such a clock to the Masonic Home in Utica, which stands in the lobby of the Soldiers and Sailors Hospital, marking time as accurately today as it has since 1921.

Some customs die hard. In 1974, our Centennial Master, W LeRoy Kramer, considered resuming afternoon degrees to be followed by convivial evening meetings. There was a precedent for this. As far back as 1881 the pressure of too many candidates led the Lodge to hold afternoon sessions.

In fact, before World War I, Grand Lodge gave us dispensation to conduct more than one degree a day, without the usual proficiency, on candidates enlisted, drafted or commissioned in the Forces in the Great War, regardless of age! Private Arnold Landres and Seaman Jerry Feiman were among those who received all three degrees in one day.  Under date September 1, 1918, dispensation was granted by MW William S. Farmer, Grand Master of Masons in the State of New York, empowering Shakespeare Lodge No. 750 to confer the three degrees of Masonry upon Benjamin J. Sheldon and Meyer J. Feinan, the second and third degrees upon Ralph J. Frank and the third degree upon Arnold G. Landers and Isidor Weinberg, who are now in the service of the US Army and Navy, at a communication called for September 21, 1918 at 2 pm, waiving the provisions of Section 20 Regulations, Book of Constitutions. The special communication was held on September 21, 1918, and the degrees conferred, with W Jacob S. Sheldon in the East.

RW Dan Semel provides some additional insight into this unique event:

"What is most interesting is the fate of these Lodge brothers. Of the five raised by Shakespeare in 1918 in a single day, three became intensely active and dedicated officers and at least four were longtime members. "Jerry" Feiman was Treasurer. He then became the lodge accountant for decades. One of our most ardent adherents, he attended frequently, bringing in his son Richard, and even saving his "Club Sandwiches" (the newsletters of the Shakespeare Fellowcraft Club) and lodge notices. Ralph Frank fulfilled his father Abram's dream by becoming Master in 1926. Arnold Landres became Master two years later in 1928 and was the star (Jubalum) of Shakespeare's famed Hiramic drama team. He had the look and bearing of a matinee idol. There is extant a photograph of our degree team in costume and Arnold Landres is pictured in the center. I am not sure if Arnold's son became a member - he was an actor and may have joined Masonry in another area like California. The 1918 Master, Jacob Sheldon, raised his father, Benjamin Sheldon, in that one day class. I knew Ralph Frank, Arnold and Jerry Feiman and they attended meetings even in their old age and loved our lodge."

Masonic social activities, picnics, excursions, etc., are more than just fun for the members and their families. They are also money-makers for the charity funds. It became a yearly custom for the Lodge to hold a dinner and Masonic Ball usually on Thanksgiving Eve. The choicest location was selected and the finest musicians engaged. Dancing til morning has been a Shakespeare tradition that has continued to the present. Our Centennial Ball saw the dance floor overflowing as the clock struck midnight.

The 19th Century Shakespeare Lodge customarily held public installations of officers followed by social activities.

Our early members were a hearty lot. Many lived close enough to walk, but some had to come from Brooklyn by horse drawn carriage. A few came by horseback or carriage and train from Philadelphia. It is also noted in the minutes that a number of brothers regularly arranged their schedules to arrive from Connecticut and Rhode Island by packet boat.

In 1901 a disagreement as to the expenditure of Lodge funds caused twenty brothers to demit. They formed William McKinley Lodge No. 840. In following years other members split off to found Marshall Lodge No. 848 in 1904, Civic Lodge No. 53 in 1906, and Courland Lodge No. 885 in 1911. All these Blue Lodge are still thriving and are now fellow members in the Sixth Masonic District. Despite these losses, Shakespeares strength is evidence by the fact that we continued to grow and prosper.

In the 20th Century Shakespeare has been fortunate in having outstanding secretaries. It began in 1904 with Abram Frank, whose long reign ended in 1938, to be followed by our ever lovin Max Zigas, who served until 1972, when Ralph Katz assumed the role.

Shakespeare has been fortunate in its 100 years by having many brothers selected to wear the purple. This Tyrolean color is attained only by dedication and achievement.

The Lodge was host to Bro. William Jennings Bryan, on April 21, 1921. He arrived with a committee composed of RW Louis A. Sable and Max Monfried and the Master that year, W Charles Kroll. He orated for nearly two hours. He said, "If you can get people near together, it is easier to talk to them than if they are scattered. Personal magnetism that goes from human being to human being cannot pass so well over vacant chairs as it can when they touch each other."  Brother Bryan was a member of Lincoln Lodge No.19, Lincoln NB. He was a very gifted orator, and was a President nominee three times: 1896, 1900 and 1908. He was well-known for his attacks on the teaching of evolution in schools, culminating in the 1925 Scopes Trial, where he was pitting in the courtroom against Clarence Darrow. Brother Bryan spoke in Shakespeare Lodge on April 21, 1921. The minutes for the meeting as well as a transcript of his speech are on our Lodge website. It is a fascinating study.

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