by Brother Gerald D. Foss (1910-1997)
Past Master, Historian, Grand Historian
St. John’s Lodge, No.1, Free and Accepted Masons, Portsmouth, New Hampshire is one of the oldest Masonic Lodges in the United States. Only Philadelphia, PA; Boston, MA; Savannah, GA; and Charleston, South Carolina can claim to have had a Masonic Lodge earlier than the date of the present charter of St. John’s, No.1, Portsmouth. The charter is the documentary evidence of the authority under which a Masonic Lodge is permitted to work. The present one issued to St. John’s Lodge, No.1, Portsmouth, was executed April 28, 1790 by the Grand Lodge of Masons for New Hampshire. It contains a preamble which sets forth that the Right Honorable, the Earl of Loundon, Grand Master of Masons in England, did, in the year of our Lord 1736, erect and constitute a regular lodge of Free and Accepted Masons in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, by the name of St. John’s Lodge. Further, it states that the Lodge has continued from that time in regular succession to the present day.
Masons were in Portsmouth prior to 1736, for there is an old letter signed by six Masons, dated Portsmouth, February 5, 1735, addressed to Henry Price, Grand Master of Masons at Boston which has been preserved and now is in the possession of the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts in Boston. Among the early names on the roster of St. John’s Lodge, No.1 is one who had lived in Portsmouth since his birth in 1674.
The minute books are its most treasured possession. There are over twenty-two volumes containing over 16,000 pages. The first minute is dated October 31, 1739. No other Masonic Lodge in the United States is known to have records from such an early date to the present time. The first three volumes contain four sets of by-laws, signatures of members, and attendance of members at various meetings, as well as the votes which were recorded. These volumes are in an excellent state of preservation and are carefully guarded by the officers of this lodge as they have been by others who have preceded them.
In the early years the meetings were held in homes of members. The first one noted is that of Henry Sherburne (1674-1757), Treasurer of the Province of New Hampshire. His home was located on the banks of the Piscataqua River at the foot of what is now State Street, but the building was destroyed in the great fire of 1813. A boulder in Prescott Park with a bronze plaque on it marks the approximate location of the site. Two exceptions are noted in 1749 when on October 26 and December 11 the secretary recorded that the meetings were held on board the America. This 44-gun frigate was then being built in the Meserve Shipyard for the Royal Navy of England. This shipyard was located on the North Millpond.
From 1751 to 1755, most meetings were held in Stoodley’s Tavern, then located on the site of the present Federal Building on Daniel Street. On October 16, 1755, the lodge voted to move to the Earl of Halifax Tavern on Queen Street. This tavern was operated by John Stavers on the northerly side of what is now State Street. There is a vacant lot where it once stood. Stavers erected a new tavern in 1766 at the corner of Atkinson and Court Streets. He built a lodge room and two anterooms on the third floor for exclusive use of St. John’s Lodge. It was called Mason’s Hall and was used by the lodge from 1768 to 1776 when it was voted to move to the home of Nathaniel Folsom, Jr. at the corner of Congress and Fleet Streets. This change was brought about by the war for a mob had destroyed much of the tavern, and John Stavers had fled to Stratham. He was persuaded to return and open his tavern. When the war concluded, the Masons again returned to the lodge room known as Mason’s Hall and remained there until 1792 when they rented the Senate Chamber of the State House in Market Square. Here they remained until 1805 when they rented the upper floors of the New Hampshire Marine and Fire Insurance Company. This is now the Portsmouth Athenaeum. A new lodge room was built in Franklin Block in 1820 by Langley Boardman. This building was located on the northwesterly corner of Congress and Fleet Streets. Other Masonic organizations had now been established which shared use of the lodge room with St. John’s Lodge, No.1.
During 1859 the third floor of Congress Block was leased by St. John’s and St. Andrew’s Lodges for the use of all Masonic organizations, but this lease terminated suddenly when the building was destroyed by fire November 30, 1865.
A syndicate was formed to build a new Congress Block. While the building was being constructed, the lodges met in the Federal District Court Room on the third floor of the United States Custom and Post Office Building by permission of the Treasury Department. The new lodge room in Congress Block was dedicated March 28, 1867. Here St. John’s held its meetings regularly until 1924. During 1920, St. John’s Lodge, No.1 purchased the Wallace Hackett residence on Middle Street with the objective to erect a Masonic Temple for the use of all Masonic organizations. Its members raised approximately $100,000 within a few years and in 1928 erected the present Masonic Temple.
During the many years of its existence, it has been under the rule of two governments, England and the United States. A glimpse at the early records reveals much of the early history under British rule. The cashbook was maintained in pounds, shillings, and pence until 1795. The fees for initiation and quarteridges were in English coin. Many of the members were officers of the Royal Navy or Army for there were ships of the Royal Navy on station here most of the time. Other names and occupations indicated the royal governor of the province, the rector of the Anglican Church, the officers of the province, and, since Portsmouth was an important seaport, many mariners and captains are listed on the roster. Perhaps the most prominent names under the royal governor would be Wyseman Clagett and Samuel Livermore as King’s attorneys, Jonathan Warner, Henry Sherburne, and Theodore Akinson, Jr. members of the Governor’s Council.
An abrupt change is indicated in 1774 when attendance records show the loss of the English ruling class – the merchants and those who are soon to revolt are the names now on record. Only six candidates were initiated in 1774; four would be patriots of the Revolution while two were loyalists who would leave the country.
During 1775 only a few meetings are recorded for the men of Portsmouth were engaged in preparing for its defense. At the peak of the crisis there were approximately 1,800 men under arms in Portsmouth and vicinity manning four forts. Special attention was given to this port by General George Washington for he needed a northern port at this time through which he could obtain supplies and munitions. He dispatched Colonel Joseph Cilley and Brigadier-General John Sullivan to Portsmouth on temporary duty to oversee this work. The port was saved and on November 24, 1775 Colonel Joseph Cilley was made a Mason “gratis” for the good work he had performed for his country. Brigadier-General John Sullivan was recorded in attendance.
Twenty-eight candidates were made Masons during 1777. Nearly every man was engaged in some branch of the armed forces of the United States or on privateers.
The first by-laws dated 1739 recorded that the lodge was located in the Province of New Hampshire. The words “United States” were used in the minutes for the first time on April 3, 1777. In less than forty years, a substantial change had been wrought.
The members of this lodge played an important role in the American Revolution. At least fifty-four are known to have been in military service. At one time, all colonels of the three New Hampshire regiments assigned to the Continental Army were members of this lodge, they being Colonels Joseph Cilley, Nathan Hale, and Alexander Scammell. Only Cilley survived. Nine members died in the war whose names are recorded on the bronze plaque located in the lobby of the Masonic Temple.
Members also played an important role in forming a government of the United States, for William Whipple signed the Declaration of Independence for New Hampshire, and Nicholas Gilman, Jr. signed the Constitution of the United States. Four others served in the Continental Congress at various times – John Sullivan, Samuel Livermore, Woodbury Langdon, and Pierse Long.
After the government was established, others who served in the Congress and United States Senate were Samuel Livermore, Henry Dearborn, Nicholas Gilman, Jr., Edward S. Livermore, Clement Storer, George Sullivan, John A. Harper, Henry Hubbard, Samuel Cushman, and Frank Jones.
Henry Dearborn was the first native son of New Hampshire to be appointed to the Cabinet of the United States. President Jefferson appointed him Secretary of War in which position he served from 1801 to 1809. He was a long-time member of this lodge.
Four members have been Governor of New Hampshire. They were John Sullivan, 1786-88, and 1789-90; Henry Hubbard, 1842-44; Ichabod Goodwin, 1859-61; and Wesley Powell, 1959-63.
Twelve members have been Mayor of Portsmouth. They were Robert Morrison, Frank Jones, Thomas E.O. Marvin, John S. Treat, Calvin Page, Marcellus Eldredge, John S. Tilton, Edward E. McIntire, Orel A. Dexter, Kennard E. Goldsmith, Cecil M. Neal, and Arthur F. Brady, Jr.
From the colonial days of New Hampshire to the present time, members of this lodge have participated in government, business, and industry. Shipping was the main industry in the eighteenth century and thus many were merchants and captain mariners. Later, when corporate organizations became the primary vehicle for conducting business, one would find among the incorporators one or more members of this lodge. Among the illustrations are the Portsmouth Aqueduct, the Piscataqua Bridge, the Portsmouth Savings Bank (the first savings bank in New Hampshire), Portsmouth Gas Company, the Electric Light Company of Portsmouth, and the Granite State Fire Insurance Company. George Raynes, builder of famous clipper ships, for which Portsmouth was noted, was also a lifetime member of this lodge. The first captain of the Unites States Revenue Marine Service was Hopley Yeaton whose commission was signed by George Washington, President of the United States, and Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State. He became a member in 1769. He served as a Lieutenant in the Continental Navy aboard the Frigates Raleigh and Deane.
The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard was established in 1800, being the first in the United States. Since that year many members have served the United States government in both civilian and naval capacities. A few members have attained the rank of Admiral in the United States Navy. Many more have attained civilian status as Masters of various departments of the shipyard.
Since 1736 over 3,000 men have received the Masonic Degrees in St. John’s Lodge, Portsmouth. A glimpse at the records will show that they have been engaged in nearly every worthwhile endeavor in our community, state, and nation.
Although Masonry is not a religious society, its members are urged to support the church or synagogue of their choice. The list of ministers and officers of several churches and the synagogue of Portsmouth record that many members have been engaged actively in religious activities from the days of its founding.
Although Masonry is not an insurance organization of a relief society, the pages of the minutes are filled with charitable acts. In early times it was voted to give the member, his widow, or orphans, a cord of wood or a few shillings. Later, prior to the time that Portsmouth had a hospital, the pages are filled with a record of watchers, an act by which a seriously ill person would have someone near him during the long night. Sometimes there are food orders. On another occasion, two young children became orphans. Thousands of dollars were expended by Masons in this area to board and room these children in a good home, educate them, clothe them, and maintain them until they could engage in a productive occupation.
This lodge participated in the 200th anniversary of the settlement of Portsmouth in 1823, and also in the 300th in 1923 and the 350th in 1973. The Masons of Portsmouth entered a colorful float in the featured parade which won the Grand Prize. This lodge marked its 100th anniversary with an all-day celebration in 1836, its 150th in 1886, its 175th in 1911, the 200th in 1936, and the 250th in 1986.
As one of several bicentennial programs conducted by St. John’s Lodge to commemorate the birthday of the United States, a Special Communication was held Sunday evening, July 4, 1976 by dispensation of the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of New Hampshire. Coincidentally, this lodge held a Stated Communication Thursday, July 4, 1776, the observance of which was appropriately marked on July 4, 1976 by reading the minutes of the meeting held 200 years before and by a patriotic address on the life of William Whipple, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence from New Hampshire and a member of this lodge.