Not So Secret Society

Eau Claire’s freemasons and the freemasonry scene

Ryne Thornsen, photos by Andrea Paulseth |

“IN HERE, WE DEVELOP NEW SECRET HANDSHAKES.” One of the many cool rooms in Eau Claire Masonic Center, where three local freemason lodges do their mysterious work.

You’ve likely seen the Eau Claire Masonic Center – the large, stone-pillared building on Graham Avenue – but have no idea as to what happens in there. The building is operated by three local freemason lodges that use the center to perform their various rites and rituals, all of which are very mysterious –the stuff of movies like National Treasure. The masons I talked to would not fully reveal anything unless I joined them, had my hands cut off to prevent writing this article, and agreed to be confined to a dungeon for six months. OK, that’s not true, but they are extremely (and infamously) secretive.

The freemason society is an example of several community organizations/groups that could be going the way of snail mail if membership doesn’t increase. Members of the three local lodges (Eau Claire Lodge 112, Sanctuary Lodge 347, and George B. Wheeler Lodge 351) are averaging 70 years in age. Also, in 30 years, the lodges have disintegrated from 700 members to 200.

“Anonymity is part of why we aren’t getting out there,” says Les Paulson, who’s been a freemason since he was 25. Membership is down because “no one hears about our good deeds,” Les explains, such as helping the less fortunate with medical bills, or the dyslexia center they are constructing in their building. “Kids are doing a lot else these days,” he says. Attracting younger members while competing with other, increasingly vocal social activities is more difficult than ever.

That didn’t stop Eau Claire resident Alex Galston, a 26 year-old who joined the freemasons in his hometown of Black River Falls in part to stay connected after moving away, and in part “because I was curious, honestly, as to what masons do other than pancake breakfasts.”

Alex describes the masons as a fraternal organization that gets together regularly and “is all about making yourself a better person. Following rules and principles and character traits – like honesty and do unto your brother and things like that.” They’re also often involved in fundraising for charities and other philanthropic work.

    Alex is the youngest member in his chapter by more than 10 years, and estimates the average age of the members to be 60-something. While some may blame the lack of youth involvement on being out of touch with the current generation (Eau Claire’s masons just recently moved to PowerPoint presentations and Facebook), Alex thinks it’s stigmatized as “something only old men do.”

“I think it’s something that might be on its way out,” he added. “It’s kind of thought of as passé, and Nic Cage didn’t help anything. The conspiracy theory angle makes it seem hokey, when really it’s just misinformation. They don’t do very good PR; secret society and all that, they don’t really put up billboards or newspaper ads.”

Freemasons are a quiet society with flexibility so members can make what they will of it. Les got started as a young man trying to find his own way and he looked to the masons for assistance. From his training, he says he can speak in front of 300 people and never feel nervous. He pushed freemasonry as: “If you’re looking for something in life, not a religion, good fellowship with good men, we make good men better.” And there are lodges for women, just in case you’ve done your research and found out that freemasons are typically a men-only society.

To be a freemason, the only qualifications are a belief in a supreme being (freemasonry is not a religion – something regularly confused), dedication to charitable works, and willingness to shape morals just as stonemasons (their predecessors) carved stone. Call them if you would like to learn more or request a tour of the Masonic center, the latter of which I highly recommended.

    Eau Claire Masonic Community • • 832-7759