Cedar Falls Odd Fellows seek to reinvigorate historic lodge


CEDAR FALLS, Iowa (AP) — Jason Mehmen ascends a dark, narrow gated staircase to the second floor of the historic Odd Fellows Lodge at 402 W. Second St., across from Overman Park.

He presses a switch and enters a large open room.

“This is where our lodge members gather for meetings,” he said, gesturing around.

The lodge is steeped in age and history – and a bit of mystery too. The draperies are closed tightly to mitigate the cold drafts that seep around the old window frames, creating a cloister-like feel. The lodge officers’ chain, jewel and pendant badges are displayed in display cases on the walls. A collection of ornate chairs with well-worn upholstered seats hold court at the top of the room. Wooden folding chairs line the perimeter.

Mehmen’s mission is to fill those seats. “We need more members. We want to replenish the ranks. There are 15 active members and a total of 24 members, including senior members and those who continue to pay an annual fee of $50 but no longer participate. “I would like to double the size of this lodge in the next year or two.”

The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reports that the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Cedar Valley Lodge No. 233 is in a phase of rebuilding its membership list and historic building.

At its peak, the lodge had between 80 and 120 members.

One of the oldest lodges in Iowa, the local chapter boasts a 150-year history in Cedar Falls. Since its charter, members have been a who’s who of Cedar Falls civic leaders and business people. Over the years, membership has dwindled in fraternal groups like Odd Fellows, Elks, and Moose. Older members die but are not replaced by younger members. With so many options for entertainment and community service, the fraternal orders and their mysterious mysterious rituals have been considered anachronisms.

Mehmen wants to revive interest and participation in the Odd Fellows Lodge.

“My family has been a part of this lodge’s history for 100 years,” said Mehmen, who joined in 2016. There were just five active members when he started. “I agreed to become a member because I realized that we had to maintain and rebuild this charter.”

He is now secretary and financial secretary, as well as property trustee.

In high school, Mehmen was sponsored by the lodge on a United Nations pilgrimage tour. “It had such a profound impact on me and that’s why I got a degree in political science and philosophy,” said the Iowa State University graduate. After “hunting jobs all over the world,” Mehmen, his wife and family moved back to Cedar Falls 10 years ago. He is Vice President of Recruitment Operations at Capital Search.

The Odd Fellows is an international fraternal organization and self-help society founded centuries ago in England. The original members were workers who united for social unity. At the time, the public viewed them as “peculiar” or “strange” comrades, which was later adopted as the name of the order.

A diverse organization, the American Order was established in New York in 1806 to “visit the sick, relieve the afflicted, bury the dead, and educate the orphans.” In its early days, Iowa chapters built brick-and-mortar orphanages around the state, helped the sick and elderly, and promoted the personal and social development of its members. Like many fraternal organizations, the symbolism and rituals of Odd Fellows are shrouded in mystery.

The symbols still hold meaning for members, Mehmen said, like the bundle of sticks seen in Odd Fellows footage. “You can break a stick, but you can’t break a bundle of sticks. There is strength in unity,” he explained.

Today, Odd Fellows continue to dedicate their time and effort to improving their communities and society as a whole, improving themselves and helping others and helping those in need. “Traditionally, Odd Fellows have practiced what others pray for. We help, and we don’t produce it. We want to take action and have a direct impact on our community.

For more than 40 years, Odd Fellows and Rebekahs, a service-related branch, have regularly hosted family-style Swiss steak and ham dinners that are well attended by the public. Donations and volunteers make the meals possible, and the meat comes from Steege’s Meat Market.

Open Lodge night, usually the second Tuesday of each month, is an opportunity to learn about joining the order. Sometimes up to 20 people show up; only two attended the most recent event. “Some people who quit become real members, some don’t, but it’s still a fantastic conversation,” Mehmen said. Both men and women can participate.

So far, there are four potential new members this year. “So a long way to go to achieve our goal. However, we have come so far, I am delighted with the progress.

He credits “torchbearers” for keeping the organization at an all-time low, including the late Marilyn Hurlbut, Evelyn Turner and her grandson, Jason Turner, Bill Burman, Dave Andersen, Martha Hurlbut, Robert Hurlbut, Rick and Teddi Moore, Judy Moore, Glen Chase, David Kramer, Nathan Hinkle, Joseph Gambrell, Frank Carrol, Gary Mehmen and Larry Voigts.

The members also intend to save their 152-year-old headquarters. Sheldon Fox built the Civil War-era brick Italianate home on property purchased from John Overman. Sheldon built the first mill in Cedar Falls and was a financier. Later, when his widow and daughters died of influenza in 1916, the house was inherited by a cousin, Mary and EL Fry. They never occupied the house and the Odd Fellows took deed of ownership on December 30, 1926.

The home’s original wraparound porch and central rooftop gazebo have been removed over the years, and inside, the grand spiral staircase is gone. Renovation projects have also changed the interior footprint, but the 14-foot ceilings and massive pocket doors remain.


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