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Tiny cars and exotic regalia: the history of fraternalism in Detroit

Oct 8, 2015

Does wearing exotic uniforms, wielding sabers, riding camels, or driving tiny cars sound like a good time to you? Then you might have been right at home in one of the scores of social clubs that sprang up around America hundreds of years ago.

The Freemasons, the Odd Fellows, the Loyal Order of the Moose, the Daughters of Rebekah and the Order of the Eastern Star – men and women flocked to these clubs, especially in Detroit.

Bill Loomis took a look at these groups in his piece, Hanging at the club: the golden age of fraternal societies.

Loomis tells us that many of these groups date back to the 18th century.

“The first Freemasonry lodge was opened in Detroit in 1764 by the British,” he says.

He says that for a long time, it was a secret organization that allowed the elite people of Detroit and military officers to keep in touch, and that membership was very exclusive “up until the Civil War.”

Then during the War, an actor named Justus H. Rathbone found himself out of work and started an order called the Knights of Pythias, which Loomis says was, “a major change, because it was open to anybody.”

It quickly grew to be the third largest fraternal club in the nation.

What was it about these organizations and their elaborate costumes, secret handshakes, and songs that attracted so many people?

“That’s a question people still ask,” Loomis says. “A fellow might own a small hardware store in Saginaw, and suddenly he comes into these conventions and he’s wearing yellow silk pantaloons and a Turkish vest and all this kind of crazy stuff. Why did they get into that?”

Loomis and others think that answer goes back to the Victorian days, when there was “a great deal of interest in the spirit world and ancient cults and religions and séances,” and that these societies were a way to sort of reenact a lot of those things.

"Everybody was involved, everybody was into it."

In line with that mystical fascination, these groups by and large didn’t settle at calling themselves “clubs.” Tabernacles, temples, nests, lodges, hives, sororities, covens, and dens were popping up all over the country.

Animal themes were prevalent as well, notable examples including the Order of the Owls, the Loyal Order of the Moose, and the Improved Order of the Deer.

Loomis tells us that a lot of the culture of these groups is rooted in theater, and as the outfits or “regalia” became more exotic and complex, “membership just soared.”

Detroit really took off as a central hub for many of these clubs after the Knights Templar had their first national convention there in 1872, according to Loomis.

It drew thousands to the city, there were parades and banquets, “and suddenly, Detroit was seen as a go-to place for a lot of these groups until about 1916 when it was voted the best convention city in the country,” he says.

Loomis tells us it wasn’t just white men who had their own “secret” societies. Women, African Americans, Germans, Irish, “everybody was involved, everybody was into it.

While the golden age for these groups came to a close around a century ago, Loomis says many like the Shriners and Kiwanis are still around today, but they place a bit more focus now on charitable works than regalia and the occult.

Bill Loomis’ story on the golden age of fraternal societies can be found this Sunday at detroitnews.com.