Volume LVMay 2008Number 2

The Masonic Lodge That Almost Wasn't

George Washington Lodge No. 143, Chambersburg, has a history that portrays a resiliency even amidst the adversity of war.

An official marker by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in front of the Masonic Temple proclaims it was "Built in 1823-1824. Oldest Pennsylvania building erected solely for Masonic use and now used exclusively for that purpose." The marker also notes that the historic building was "Spared when Confederates burned the town on July 30, 1864."

In March 1799, the Grand Lodge received a petition to warrant a Masonic Lodge in the town of Chambersburg. Lodge No. 79 was formed a little more than one year later with General James Chambers, son of the founder of Chambersburg, as Warrant Master. After just five short years, Lodge No. 79 fell away. But a group of committed Masons sent another petition to Grand Lodge for a warrant to institute George Washington Lodge No. 143, which was granted in 1816.

In the early days of George Washington Lodge, members met at various locations in Chambersburg. Within a few years, though, the Masonic Temple land was purchased, and a contract to build the Temple was signed in the amount of $2,500 in April 1823. By 1831, financial trouble had befallen the lodge, and the charter was returned to Grand Lodge. For the next 29 years, members of the lodge were resigned to again hold meetings a various locations, and the Temple was used as a church printing house. In 1860, the Masonic Temple became available, and the members of George Washington Lodge No. 143 paid $2,000 to regain possession.

A state of normalcy returned to the lodge until July 1864, when Confederate forces marched into Chambersburg. Under the orders of General Jubal Early, Brigadier General John McCausland took 4,000 men into Chambersburg and demanded $100,000 in gold (or $500,000 in cash), or else he would burn down the town. This demand was in retaliation for Union General David Hunter's burning of prominent southern sympathizers' properties in West Virginia.

Bro. John S. Gardner, W.M., George Washington Lodge No. 143, Chambersburg, stands next to his proud father, R.W. Grand Master Stephen Gardner.

When the deadline for ransom had passed, on July 30, 1864, McCausland set 50 fires at the same time, beginning with the public buildings. According to the "Life of Brigadier General John McCausland" by James Earl Brown, 527 buildings were destroyed, and property damages totaled more than $1.2 million. With practically the entire town on fire, there was one half-block that was untouched - the half-block that included the Masonic Temple belonging to George Washington Lodge No. 143.

According to fairly well authenticated legend, a high-ranking Confederate officer saw the Temple and recognized its character. Allegedly, at his word, soldiers were stationed around the halfblock to prevent the Temple and neighboring buildings from being destroyed.

Today, the George Washington Lodge is still active with 692 members and is under the direction of Worshipful Master John S. Gardner, son of Stephen Gardner, R.W. Grand Master (pictured right).

Note: Much of this information was obtained from an article written by Bro. Carl R. Flohr, P.M., published in the November 1998 issue of The Pennsylvania Freemason.

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