Second in series

AYER -- Freemasonry is not a secret society, nor an exclusive craft guild for skilled cathedral builders. But keepsakes from the Masons' storied legacy abound in the organization today.

One surviving standby is the secret handshake, known only to members, aka "brethren."

Signs, symbols, art and artifacts; a vocabulary of terms and tools from the stonemasons trade, such as the maul, the square,the apron and the trowel are embedded in the Masons' rituals, retrofitted for modern times, along with a philosophy that underscores charity and fellowship.

The organization is non-sectarian as well as non-profit and Masons may belong to any church or none at all. "We accept anyone," say the officials at Caleb Butler Lodge in Ayer, which held an open house at the Masonic Center on Scully Street last fall. "All are welcome!"

One caveat, however. Belief in a supreme being is a must.

Historically and currently, all Masons are men. (The age requirement for members in Massachusetts is 18.) But other groups under the modern Masonic umbrella bridge gender and generation gaps: Demolay for children and the Rainbow Society for women.

The umbrella also covers the Shriners, known for its children's hospitals, burn treatment centers and distinctive, tassled toppers. To become a Shriner, one must first be a Mason.


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Lodge officials shared this information and more at the open house and gave guided tours of the modest brick building, a former church, renovated to its new purpose and with work still in progress.

Standout stops included the great hall where meetings and ceremonies are held, with its pillars, thrones and other ornate features and functional features; a library of very vintage volumes, artifacts displayed in various rooms, including a charred collection of past officials' ceremonial jewels rescued from Ayer's "great fire" in 1872, an American flag in a glass case that a lodge brother, Staff Sgt. James Bursey, flew over his tent while stationed in Iraq in 2003 and a picture gallery of past masters. The roster dates to E. Dana Bancroft, who obtained the lodge's first charter in 1859.

Historic highlights

A history compiled for the lodge's 150th anniversary in 1984 summarizes events marked over that time. It begins with a gathering of 10 Masons at Bancroft's home in the village of South Groton, now the town of Ayer. This group paid $15 to apply for a charter and voted to name the lodge "Excelsior."

The new lodge held its first meeting in March of that year in a place called "Break O Day." The building stood between the current sites of the Mobil station and Moore Lumber on Ayer's Main Street.

The switch from Excelsior to Caleb Butler is explained in a history written for the 50th anniversary of the lodge. "The subject...had been talked about among the Brethren considerable..." it states. Excelsior at that time was "merchandise of questionable quality," so they re-named the lodge.

Caleb Butler belonged to Saint Paul Lodge and served as its master from 1833 to 1836. He later became grand master of Masons in Massachusetts.

It was an "honorable" name that the lodge brothers believed "stood for something in the community," the history states.

In 1860 the lodge moved into the Phelps and Harlow building at the corner of Main and West Streets, aka Groton Junction. Caleb Butler and Saint Paul Lodge once shared meeting space there but both had to find new headquarters after the great fire of 1872, which burned for two days and destroyed the entire north side of Main Street.

The lodge's next long-term location was in the new Savings Bank building on Main Street.

When the cornerstone was laid in May 1898, the Masons put some of their "pertinent papers and records," into a copper box that went inside, along with those of other fraternal organizations, churches, town departments, the post office, court, the library and others.

The stone was lowered with Masonic pomp and trumpet and "duly pronounced" by the grand master as "square, level and plumb," tenets of the trade from which the Masons evolved. 

Settled in its new home, Caleb Butler Lodge held its first installation of officers there in January 1899.