First in a two-part series about local Masons and their time-honored traditions
SHIRLEY -- When Gary Trollope joined the Caleb Butler Masonic Lodge four years ago, he had retired from decades-long careers in the military and the high tech industry and was seeking new paths to pursue. But neither his work in the Army nor later civilian jobs prepared him for the renewed purpose he has found as a Mason, including a nascent skill he's been perfecting ever since.
During a recent interview at his home, shared with wife Arlene now that the couple's two adult daughters have left the nest, Trollope talked about how becoming a Mason -- a fraternal order that traces its origins back to 14th century stonemasons who established organizations to deal with the medieval version of local building codes -- sparked his interest in another historic craft: woodworking.
It all started with yard work. Having hired someone to do landscaping that included building a wall, Gary said the man doing the work, Bill Woodward, made a pitch for the Masons and asked if he'd like to learn more about the group, whose umbrella includes the Shriners (a Masonic branch) hospitals and other charitable work and whose traditions, ceremonies, symbols and "secret handshakes" are legendary.
Specifically, Woodward offered to sponsor him for membership in the Caleb Butler Lodge in Ayer. More than 150 years old, the lodge occupied several locations before finding a home of its own in a former church building, now in the latter stages of renovation.
Membership boomed when the former Fort Devens was an active military base but has dwindled since and the lodge often hosts public events, in part to attract new members, such as monthly pancake breakfasts and an annual Christmas party. For the past few years, Gary Trollope has played Santa.
He has now attained the level of Master Mason. But his most notable work for the lodge so far is not set in stone but crafted in wood.
The project began in December, 2015, when Woodward came to him with two old porch pillars and a request: Could he turn them into ceremonial columns for the lodge? He'd never tackled anything like that before. "All I was doing was making kids' toys" in his basement workshop, he said.
When did Woodward want them? February. Not likely. "I'd never seen this type of structure,"Trollope said.
He launched into research mode and found what he needed to know online and then some. He learned, for example, that the pillars, or columns, in each lodge that had them might be different. "It's up to the Master," he said.
There were some standards, such as height. Other must-haves included pediments, or bases, and dual orbs at the top: one an old-world globe, earth; the other a celestial globe, a map of the heavens. They are designed to look like the pillars outside King Solomon's Temple in ancient Israel would have, Trollope said. Works of lost art.
The structures must be portable, built in sections to come apart, and angles had to be precise for a series of rings on which the globes are mounted. Trollope experimented with techniques, tools, came up with a "wedgie segment" that worked. The rings are glued together.
The project took 18 months, learning included, and with serendipitous finds along the way as well as challenges. Creating ornate decor for the columns, for example, such as acanthus leaves, a nod to Greek sculptures of the past.
"Those are carved!" Trollope said, looking stunned as he recalled how daunting that seemed when the Lodge Master at the time asked for them to decorate the top of the columns.
He found websites -- old time woodworking shows -- that helped, and an on-line mentor: Mary May, who learned her craft from European masters and makes reproduction wood and stone carvings for "old manse" renewals, fireplaces, furniture. Antiques from scratch. "She has a book out," Trollope said.
In the end, he constructed compromises that worked, given the tools at hand and his evolving expertise. The pillars were already fluted, one step less. "Everybody liked them," he said.
The final step was painting and the color he was looking for wasn't cheap or easy to find. Many of the Masonic columns he'd seen were painted gold, but he decided on bronze, Trollope said. Woodward approved. "It's your perception," he said.
The finished products now stand in the Caleb Butler Lodge, used in current ceremonies and destined for future ones. A gift for generations of Masons to come.