Fraternal and social orders were organized early in Tuolumne County’s history. Many gold seekers were active participants in a fraternal organization before coming to the gold fields and were eager to establish groups here. One of the first was the Free and Accepted Masons.
The first Masonic meeting in Sonora was held on April 28, 1850. On Nov. 27, 1850, a charter was granted to a lodge to be “known as Tuolumne Lodge No. 8, F. and A. M.” making it one of the oldest Masonic Lodges in California. Several streets in Sonora bear the names of former members of the lodge, who were active in the formation of the city. They include: Theall, Dodge, Linoberg, Yaney, Elkin, Green, Wyckoff, Stewart, and Lyons.
In 1851, with a membership of 50, the first Masonic building was located on the northeast corner of Washington and Church streets. Those attending the cornerstone ceremony were Charles Radcliffe, master of ceremonies, Judge Anson Tuttle, Emanuel Linoberg, Mayor C.F. Dodge, William Perkins, Joshua Holden, Alonzo Green, and Major Sullivan.
On June 18, 1852, a fire destroyed most of the city between Church and Elkin streets. The two and one-half story Masonic Hall had been gutted, but the adobe walls were still mostly intact. After the fire, the county entered into an agreement with the Lodge to rent the first floor. Repairs were contracted to convert the space into a courtroom and offices for the county clerk and sheriff.
The adobe walls were lowered to one story and a second story was erected using locally fired red bricks and a new roof was added, probably made of canvas. In late November 1852, a series of storms melted the adobe bricks and caused the upper brick walls to fall into the street and the roof to crash inside the building.
In 1858, Joseph Armitage’s “iron front” building was erected on the west side of South Washington Street. At the time it was considered one of Sonora’s most substantial buildings. The Masons entered into an agreement with the owner allowing the lodge to conduct meetings on the upper story. Access to the lodge quarters were by means of a spiral stairway leading from the sidewalk. On March 31, 1871, the upper floor was destroyed by fire, along with all of the Mason’s records, leaving them without a lodge once again.
In April 1873, the Masons voted to purchase the property destroyed by fire and proceeded to rebuild the lodge. Money was raised by giving a series of dances and parties. In February 1874, the lodge authorized funds to “furnish the Lodge in a proper manner.” In 1906, the lower floor was leased for a post office, where it existed for over 60 years.
Another fire caused damage to the Masonic Hall in the early morning hours of Oct. 15, 1927, after a recent remodel and improvements costing $25,000. The iron doors which opened into the post office, very likely saved it from serious damage. Unfortunately, water and smoke damaged most of the lodge’s furnishings and all of the priceless old oil paintings. Circa 1929, the lodge was completely remodeled in the Spanish Eclectic style.
Betty Sparagna is a volunteer with the Tuolumne County Historical Society