The long-obscure story behind South Berwick’s landmark Odd Fellows building is revealed at the Counting House Museum this season, answering the question, “Who were the Odd Fellows?”
A new exhibit presents a peek behind the historic façade, beginning with the two original tall, heavy black doors that were transported to the museum when the Odd Fellows chapter closed in 2011 after 166 years.
The Counting House is open 1:00 to 4:00 pm on weekends through October, and year round by appointment.
Ceremonial robes, colorful costumes and banner, a ballot box and other regalia, record books and members’ biographies are also shown, along with interior photos of the ceremonial hall as it once looked on the upper floors of the historic brick building in the village square, said to be the oldest commercial building in York County.
Also on exhibit this summer are a new archaeology display, a presentation on the South Berwick of 200 years ago, trades of South Berwick from the 1600s through the 1900s, and a World War II love story. Admission is by donation.
The Olive Branch Lodge No. 28 of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows was instituted in South Berwick on June 3, 1845. Charter members were leading citizens, including two physicians, Charles T. Trafton, and Caleb Sanborn, book seller John G. Thompson, and a future state senator, John B. Nealley. Their prominent homes are still found in South Berwick today.
The father and second cousin of author Sarah Orne Jewett, whose home is now a National Historic Landmark facing the Odd Fellows Block across the street, were also early members.
Historical society members Gillian Cusack and Rick Stevens, who created the exhibit, explained that in the 19th century, a key advantage for members was health and life insurance.
“Other than the social aspects of being a member of the Odd Fellows, the main draw was the group’s dedication to protecting and caring for their members at a time when there was no welfare, trade unions or health insurance,” explained Cusack. “Income was passed back to the members in the form of services and benefits to the sick and to bereaved families.”
By 1863 the South Berwick lodge had initiated 237 members, and of those, 150 had been helped by health insurance, eight members’ funerals had been covered, and four widows supported, with total benefits of over $2000, or over $38,000 in today’s dollars.
Cusack said the Odd Fellows organization is one of the earliest but least documented fraternal societies, with legends tracing its origins back to the Israelites in Babylon.
In 13th century Europe, when tradesmen formed guilds, there were too few people in small towns for separate trade guilds, so “fellows” from a number of trades joined together, calling themselves “Oddfellows.” In 1810, a group in Manchester, England, set up rules and allowed other towns to form similar organizations under their association. In 1834 the Oddfellows in America declared independence and became the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The organization became the first national fraternity to include both men and women when it adopted the Rebekah degree in 1851.
In 2011 the South Berwick Odd Fellows chapter disbanded. Some of their ceremonial collection, furniture and records were obtained by the Old Berwick Historical Society and by Rick and Kiki Stevens of South Berwick, who loaned items for the Counting House exhibit.
Other Counting House exhibits have been created by Harvey Bennett, Cari Quater, Norma Keim, Beth Tykodi, Elaine Holland and Nina Maurer.
A grant from the South Berwick Strawberry Festival Committee provided funds for new mannequins to display historic Odd Fellows gowns and robes. The exhibits are also supported by society memberships and 50 individual donors.