Long before Sun Valley Co. cut ski runs on Bald Mountain, a group of men trekked to its peak each summer to confer upon one another the ancient and secretive rites of Freemasonry. They came from all walks of life; some were wealthy community leaders, others labored in the mines. All were "on the level," and considered equals in "the craft" of Masonry.
Hailey's Masonic Lodge No. 16, one of the oldest in Idaho, was given status on the National Register of Historic Places last month. The occasion brought forward three "master masons" from Hailey to discuss the rituals and symbols of this ancient fraternal order.
"The Masons are much more open these days in terms of discussing the meaning of their symbols," said Ted Angle, the current "worshipful master" of the lodge, an archaic title that he believes adds too much religious connotation to his leadership position.
"During the 1700s in England it was important to keep secret the ceremonies and passwords of the Masons," he said. "There were people of different opinions regarding the English monarchy and how it was run. If you didn't believe in the way it was run, you stood the possibility of being persecuted."
About 5,000 Freemasons are active in Idaho. The Hailey lodge serves as a meeting hall and ritual chamber for about 40 men who gather each month to practice the principles of "brotherly love, relief and truth."
Thirteen signers of the Constitution and 14 presidents of the United States were Masons. So where a great many well-known people of American history, including escape artist Harry Houdini, astronaut "Buzz" Aldrin, and World War II General Douglas MacArthur.
At various times in history, the Freemasons, or Masons as they are called, were persecuted by French kings, church leaders, fascist dictators and U.S. presidents. Because of this, the fraternity has been steeped in mystery for centuries, using secret handshakes and other means to communicate alliances between initiates. Today a great deal of information on Masonry can be found on the Internet.
The Hailey Masonic Lodge was founded in 1885 above the Mint Bar on Main Street in Hailey and later destroyed by a fire. The current building at 100 S. Second Ave. was completed in 1937 by contractor John M. Rutter. The National Register designation was awarded for the building's sustained use as a gathering place for leaders of the community, as well as for its architectural significance.
Twenty portraits of past lodge masters line the northern wall of the Hailey Lodge. They include photographs of fiddle maker and rancher Mannie Shaw, mining foreman Frank Gelsky, Sun Valley Co. employee Val McAttee and automobile salesman Lawrence Heagle. Episcopal Minister W.D. Ellway, who once gave sermons across the street at the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, was a worshipful master during the 1950s when more than 200 masons met each week in Hailey.
For Masons, architecture provides the symbolic framework at the core of their practice. It is believed that Freemasonry derived from the stonemason guilds of the Middle Ages, who used the square, plumb line and compass to build the great Gothic cathedrals of Medieval Europe. These tools used by architects, or "operative masons," later became the symbols for "speculative masons," symbolizing honesty, rectitude and circumspection of desires in dealing with others.
Entering a Masonic lodge, one walks up a flight of three steps, then a flight of five, then of seven. The first three steps signify the three stages of life: youth, middle age and old age. The second flight of steps signifies the five senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch. The last seven steps signify the seven liberal arts and sciences: grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.
"There is an exquisite morality within these practices," says Lodge Officer Ben Schepps, an actor and tradesman living in Hailey. "It is about building a moral edifice, rather than a physical one. We take good men and make them better."
Schepps became a master Mason 12 years ago after passing through the two preliminary stages of "apprentice" and "fellow in the craft." He and Hailey electrician David Seeber, the newest master Mason of Hailey, are knowledgeable in the use of the Masonic symbols , many of which are on open display at the Hailey Lodge.
The building itself opens to the east, as all Masonic lodges do. Inside are two gold-colored columns capped with lilies and pomegranates, representing the columns built by Hiram Abiff, the legendary builder of Solomon's Temple in ancient Israel in 960 B.C, the temple of the Israelites of the Old Testament. There is a capital letter "G" above an altar, which stands for both geometry, the science that made cathedral building possible, and for God.
However, Masons view religious faith as only a starting point for further development of character.
"As a rule we don't talk about any particular religion or political party while in the lodge," Angle said. "It is required that a newcomer believe in a supreme being, but you won't be quizzed on which god or scripture you follow."
Seeber became a master Mason in less than six months, memorizing passages from Masonic texts and learning the allegorical stories that exemplify Masonic philosophy. Seeber's great-grand-father was a 32nd-degree Mason, the highest level attainable. He took an interest in joining the Masons himself a few years ago after meeting Schepps.
"I felt something was missing," he said. "I sought deeper ties to the human community. When you experience this for yourself, it is so much richer than can be described."
Anyone wanting more information about the Masons of Hailey can call Ted Angle at 788-9458.