Sarasota Blue Lodges

How did they get started?

by William H. Garland, Esq.


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District 23 Blue Lodges
Sahib Shriners

Most local Masons know that there are four Blue Lodges physically located in Sarasota County. They are Sarasota No. 147, Venice No. 301, Cary B. Fish No. 346 and The Builders Lodge No. 376. What most people do not know; however, is that only three of these lodges originated in Sarasota County, one of the lodges was chartered in another county!

The answer has to do with history. Sarasota Lodge No. 147 was formed in 1905 when Sarasota was a part of Manatee County. Hence Sarasota No. 147 is the lodge that did not originate in Sarasota County. To study the "Sarasota" Blue Lodges, we have to start with those lodges that were formed in Manatee County— before there was a "Sarasota" County.

The First Lodge
Prior to 1842, the entire area was Indian Territory. In that year the Territory opened and the first white settler, Josiah Gates, homesteaded on the banks of the Manatee River. He was one of the founders of the first Masonic Lodge in the area a few years later.

Manatee Lodge No. 31 was chartered on January 9, 1853, barely ten years after the first settler in the area. The issues facing the nation in that year were dominated by the growing tensions between the north and the south. The Indian Wars were still in progress and this was a vital concern to the local settlers. Manatee Lodge met in the home of Brother Josiah Gates, which contained three floors. The top floor was the Lodge meeting hall.

For some thirty years, Manatee Lodge was the only Lodge in the whole area. It was active throughout the War between the States and through the long period of Reconstruction. The stories of Masonic charity in these hard times are etched in the lodge minutes. The pioneers of the area are well represented in the pictures of the past Masters, displayed very prominently in the entrance hall to Manatee No. 31.

Life was far different for those pioneers because the services that we now take for granted were completely unknown. This was indeed a wilderness. There were no adequate roads; (a condition which some people say has still not changed); no automobiles; no trains; no airport— in fact, nothing! Without radio, television or modems, news had to come by mail and that meant a trip to Ft. Brooke! (now Tampa) . Ft. Brooke was also the nearest medical facility and the closest connection with the outside world. Just to get a perspective of the conditions that existed at the time that Manatee Lodge was chartered, consider the fact that the President of the United States was Zachary Taylor, and how much do you remember about him?

The Second Lodge
The Manatee County borders stretched all the way from Palmetto to Punta Gorda and east beyond Arcadia. There was no established community that could serve as a County Seat anywhere near the center of this vast area and a location was chosen where (hopefully) the County Seat would flourish and develop into a town. The chosen place was Pine Level. Pine Level is now located in DeSoto County, somewhat west of the city of Arcadia.

The only explanation that I can find for this location becoming the County Seat was that it was equally inaccessible to everyone in the County! Pine Level did remain the County Seat long enough to establish a Lodge.

Pine Level Lodge No. 66, was chartered in January of 1883, when James Garfield was President of the United States. To get a perspective of what was going on in the country, this is the same year that the Brooklyn Bridge opened. In those days the yellow fever threat was the major health consideration and for a short time in the 1880's all of Manatee County was under a quarantine monitored by the US Army!

The Third Lodge
The third lodge in this area was Palmetto No. 110 founded in January 1890 and still a very active and thriving Lodge. Benjamin Harrison was President of the United States at that time. This was also the year of the Battle of Wounded Knee.

Manatee County had been trimmed down to the area encompassed in today's Manatee and Sarasota Counties and the little village of Braidentown was the surprise choice as the County Seat. There had been a highly contested battle among the contending cities of Palmetto, Manatee and Sarasota and in a last ditch compromise, the rival factors of Palmetto and Manatee agreed to vote for Braidentown rather than risk the County Seat being way down south in Sarasota! The cities in the north knew that Sarasota could only be reached over an impossible and sometimes impassable dirt road or by the unreliable old railroad, truthfully and affectionately known as the "Slow and Wobbly". Of course the Sarasota forces were extremely upset and planned from that time forward to gain their independence and establish their own county!

The Fourth Lodge
Now that the city of Braidentown was the County Seat, it wanted its own Masonic Lodge. It also wanted a lower number than its rival Palmetto. Accordingly, the Braidentown forces requested and obtained an inactive number (No. 99) and to this day there is still a friendly rivalry over the fact that the fourth Lodge has a lower number than the third Lodge!

Braidentown Lodge was established in 1898 when William McKinley was President of the United States. This was the year of the Spanish-American War and the patriotism that united the Country after the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana Harbor.

Braidentown was rapidly developing as a community; it had three doctors and a dentist! Across the river you could get to Tampa by rail! Simply cross the river by ferry and get on the new railroad line.

Braidentown Lodge is an active lodge today and it is your author's home lodge. I look forward to the fact that in another year, Braidentown No. 99 will really be ninety-nine!

The Fifth Lodge
Sarasota Lodge No. 147 was established in 1905 when Teddy Roosevelt was President of the United States. The original No. 147 had been assigned to a Spanish speaking Lodge in Tampa, some ten years earlier, but that Lodge went dark. The number was available when Sarasota Lodge was formed and they accepted it.

Nationally, our country was excited over joining the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans through the building of a Panama Canal. Locally, the Masons of Sarasota were anxious to live down their image as a "vigilante town" and to develop the sophistication promised with the arrival of Mrs. Potter Palmer and her substantial Chicago resources. A prominent citizen, J. Hamilton Gillespie, was introducing a new sport to the community known as golf. The first area golf course was actually in use; located at the site of the current Sarasota County Courthouse.

Many of the members of Sarasota No. 147 were actively involved in developing Sarasota as a County unto itself, which they succeeded in doing in 1921.

The Sixth Lodge
Sarasota County had been a separate County for thirty years before it had a new Lodge. In April 1951, Venice Lodge No. 301 was established. Harry Truman was President of the United States and General Douglas McArthur was telling the United States Congress about "old soldiers who never die". Also in Congress, Senator Estes Kefauver was initiating an investigation of the Mafia.

The area was growing by leaps and bounds as more and more retirees discovered that Social Security and pensions supported a pretty good life style; especially in congenial mobile home parks.

The Seventh Lodge
In April 1963, Cary B. Fish Lodge No. 346 was established. It bears the name of a Florida Grand Master who came from this area. 1963 was a tough year in American History because of the Kennedy Assassination. I am sure that every person who reads this article can remember where they were and what they were doing at the time that the news was announced.

A serious set-back in American traditions occurred in this same year, because 1963 was the year in which prayer in public schools was banned by the United States Supreme Court.

The Eighth Lodge
Englewood Lodge No. 360 was established in April of 1967. Lyndon Johnson was President of the United States. The Country was deeply divided over the Vietnam War in those times. We had 475,000 men and women in military service in Vietnam at the time that Englewood Lodge was established!

This was also a year in which many of the major cities in this country experienced serious racial riots. It was the year in which Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

The Ninth Lodge
The Builders Lodge No. 376 was established in April of 1977. The President of the United States was Jimmy Carter.

In local news the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had gone unvictorious in their first season and were on their way to setting an 0-26 all time loss record in the NFL! Nationally, the United States signed a treaty to turn the Panama Canal over to the Country of Panama. Ironically this continued the cycle that had started in the year when Sarasota No. 147 was established and the Panama Canal was being built. Do you suppose we will get another Lodge when the Canal is actually transferred?

Summary
From pioneers in 1853 through several major wars and the demographic changes, this area of Florida has evidenced a rich Masonic history. As in many developing parts of the nation, the pioneers carried their Masonic traditions with them and established a lodge soon after they established a community. Changes occurred in county government; political names changed and people changed from pioneers to established citizens, but, the lodges continued, spanning the changes and the decades. It is noteworthy to me that our original Lodge (Manatee No. 31) meets today within a few hundred feet of its original site on the third floor of Josiah Gate's boarding house!

As we travel on in Masonry, we must remember that the Shriners of the 21st Century will be coming from lodges just like these. It behooves each and every one of us to "look well" to the Blue Lodges.


About the author: William H. Garland is a practicing attorney in Bradenton, Florida, a Past Master of Braidentown Lodge No. 99, also in Bradenton and a Sahib Shriner. He provided this article as a follow-up to his speech on the same subject at the January 11, 1996 Thursday Luncheon at Sahib Shrine Center.


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