By Moira Blazi
On fourth street, tucked between Mineral and California, right behind Libby’s Closet and across the back ally from the American Legion bar, sits an unassuming white door with an intriguing symbol and the letters IOOF. There is no sign, or sandwich board, no display window, in fact no window at all.
But behind this mysterious door, there are meeting rooms for an ordinary group of community minded folks, who call themselves The Independent Order of Odd fellows, (IOOF), a charitable fraternal organization dating back to 1800’s England. When the Montanian visited the lodge, a group of about ten folks were sitting at a long table drinking coffee and planning an upcoming German dinner. Another table was covered with about 30 vases of colorful artificial flowers, and, in the corner sat a cotton candy machine. No mystery, just nice friendly folks.
“One of the main things we do is raise money for scholarships for kids in Libby and Troy, usually two or three a year,” Jr Beebe told the Montanian. Beebe, now the secretary of the local chapter, formerly served as the Grand Warden of the state of Montana, a position which allowed him to become acquainted with the protocol and rich history of this group.
“The name Oddfellows started way back in England in the late 1600’s, and at that time the social classes of society did not mix, and there were no programs for people in need, so a group of wealthy businessmen got together to help the poor,” Beebe told the Montanian. For a group of respected citizens to go calling on the wealthy to ask for help for the poor was an odd thing indeed, and soon the name stuck. At least this is one of the theories, and the one Beebe and his brother and sister Oddfellows wish to believe. Another theory is that the group began as a fraternity of those in the smaller, more specialized, “odd” trades. “But, nobody really knows,” Beebe said with a smile.
Either way, a young journalist named John Wilkes founded the original order of Oddfellows in London in 1730. Later, in 1819, in Baltimore Maryland, allegedly in response to a newspaper advertisement, a group was assembled in the seven stars tavern and founded the International Order of Oddfellows (IOOF), the very same organization that exists today in over 20 countries all over the world.
Led by Thomas Wiley they established their principles of universal fraternity, “Holding the belief that all men and women, regardless of race, nationality, religion, social status, gender, or rank are brothers and sisters.” The group is solidly non-sectarian and non-political, and endeavors “to improve and elevate the character of mankind by promoting the principles of friendship, love, truth, faith, hope, charity, and universal justice.”
The Libby chapter has for years, provided eyeglasses and eyecare for those who cannot afford it. They participate in the adopt a soldier program and regularly send packages to servicemen and women overseas. “We send the special little things they want that remind them of home like taco bell sauce packets,” Beebe said.
The group runs the polish dog booth at Nordicfest, and has adopted two and a half miles of Farm to Market Road, marked with an official highway sign recognizing the Cabinet Mountain Oddfellows.
Noble Grand Tena J Shank endeavors to follow those principles and “keep it organized, interesting and fun,” she told the Montanian. The group was founded in 1900 and currently totals about 23 members with 13 or so active folks that meet in the same spot they started 100 years ago.
As Noble Grand, Shank gets to sit in the “throne” chair at the head of the meeting hall, one of several they got from roundup Montana. In the corners of the hall are two mannequins that Shank got from her mom, dressed in traditional Oddfellow “Guardian” costumes. It all adds to the aura of tradition, fun, and mystery, but “mostly all we do is sit around talking about the good things people do,” said Shank.
Said member Sharen Cohenour, “I used to be a member of the Rebeccas, the woman’s auxiliary group, which I joined when I was 31, I then joined the Oddfellows in 2001, as soon as they said women could join.” She has now been a member for 55 years. Bruce Switzer has been with the group for over 40 years, and past Noble Grand Charlotte Woods, and her husband Charles have been with the group for 21 years.
It is truly a group which chooses to focus on the goodness in the world, said relatively new member Mary Beall, who is known as the nice one. “I saw a brochure and it sounded great, these are good, kind people, that’s what made me join”.
For more information about the Libby Oddfellows, call Noble Grand Tena J Shank at 291-8233.