When a local family was displaced by a fire or stressed by a child with a rare illness, when Meals on Wheels needed a home in Pittston, when the Care and Concern Clinic sought benefactors and the Pittston Library mounted a capital campaign, 42 men and woman from Greater Pittston provided generous help.
And by choice, they sought no publicity. The low profile is fine with members of Thistle Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
The Odd Fellows came into being as a counter to the Masons. To join the Masons, which can be traced back to guilds of stonemasons in Europe in the 15th century, one had to be a stonemason. So the Odd Fellows were formed in England in the 18th century as a fraternity for men of the odd trades, such as laborers and miners.
The first U.S. Odd Fellows lodge was started in 1819, “by five guys in a bar in Baltimore,” as Tom McHugh, a Thistle Lodge officer and one-time statewide officer, put it. Odd Fellows membership took off. By 1852, there were 2,835 lodges in the then 31 states, including the Odd Fellows Thistle Lodge, which was founded in Pittston in 1852, four years after the first Masonic Lodge. The Thistle Lodge was a miners’ lodge and it served its members in time of injury, illness and death, keeping families whole
In 1952, the U.S. lodges brought $1.5 million into their treasuries and gave away $600,000. That $1.5 million is the equivalent of $50 million today.
The Thistle Odd Fellows were always good with money. When they outgrew their original lodge, which was where Pittston Ambulance is today, they sold stock to their own members for a new building and made money renting to tenants. They invested wisely. As McHugh explained, in the 1950s and 1960s, Thistle treasurer Alan Dobbie, a banker, and a smart guy, invested Thistle money in local banks, including the First Bank of Pittston and the Miners Savings Bank.
“As these banks grew, they were gobbled up by bigger banks and the stock continued to grow. In the 1990s, we invested in tech stocks and our wealth took off. The Odd Fellows don’t have to go and ask the public for money with golf tournaments and other events.”
While the Thistle Lodge donates to specific charities, such as Meals on Wheels by renting a space to them in their lodge for $1 a year and by running camps for kids with arthritis and asthma, the lodge also will donate randomly to families devastated by fires or other calamities.
Though they don’t give away $1 million to just one cause, McHugh likens what they do to the old TV show “The Millionaire,” where an anonymous multi-millionaire gave a million to someone chosen randomly. Some of the causes they support are found on gofundme.com.
Today, Thistle Lodge is the only Odd Fellows Lodge left in the Pittston area. In the heyday of fraternal organizations (1880s-1930s) there were five. There were other lodges outside of Pittston, including a Wyoming Monument Lodge.
McHugh said when he joined in 1980, the Lodge was going gray.
“When I walked in, I was in my 20s. Most of the guys were old Italian men in (their) 80s. I didn’t know what to expect, but they were so nice, they welcomed me with open arms.”
Seeing the Lodge needed new blood, McHugh took it upon himself to recruit and got his friends to join. He also came up with an idea to help the other existing Lodges — Dallas, Lehman, White Haven and Askam — get new members.
“I wanted to show them it was easy so I stole members,” he said with a laugh. For example, he signed up a member who lived down the street from the Dallas Lodge and made sure the Dallas members knew about it.
The founding principal of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows was “Visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead, educate the orphan.”
To those ends, in the past, the Odd Fellows were known for founding and taking care of cemeteries. They founded the Pittston Cemetery in 1857 and passed it on to the Pittston Cemetery Association in 1884. When the cemetery association called for help with a cleanup a couple years back, the Odd Fellows responded.
In the past, the Odd Fellows operated four orphanages in the state. In August 1916, 50 kids ages 12 to 14 from an orphanage in Sunbury came to Pittston for an outing at Valley View Park.
Though the Odd Fellows keep a low profile these days, it wasn’t always that way. In 1884, the now defunct Pittston Lodge had an anniversary parade, led by the Thistle and Liberty Cornet bands, through Pittston and West Pittston. At the rear of the parade the Rebekahs, a women’s auxiliary, rode in carriages.
There are no parades these days, but every Monday the Thistle Lodge still meets at the headquarters above Meals and Wheels on Main Street, discussing ways to make our area better by quietly helping people in need.
For information, visit glpaioof.org.