"Freemasons In Central Illinois" Exhibit Opens At Eastern Illinois University

Article by
Todd E. Creason   
Photographs by
  Gregory J. Knott
reprinted from Midnight Freemasons with permission

Dr. Debra Reid (second row left) and students on exhibition project (and a few Masons)

That's me, Greg Knott and Michael Shirley
I wrote a short piece last week on my From Labor To Refreshment... blog about an exhibit that was about to open at Eastern Illinois University entitled Freemasons in Central Illinois.  The exhibit was part of a class project, and a few months ago I was called upon to offer a little background information on the subject of Freemasonry to a couple of the students in that class, Chase Driskell and Bailee Julick, who were involved in researching and putting together the exhibit--so I was anxious to see what they came up with.

So Greg Knott and I decided to take a drive to Charleston (IL) and meet up with Michael Shirley at the opening reception (Michael teaches history at EIU and was also involved in the project).  I'm not sure what I expected, in fact, Greg asked me on the way down.  In truth, I expected a couple display cases in the library--maybe an apron, a fez, and a couple Masonic lapel pins.  What we found when we arrived at the Booth Library was truly remarkable.  We weren't talking about a class project as I had interpreted that to mean.  What we found was a very extensive museum-quality exhibition.

See what I mean about location?
Demolay robe on display
And you know what they say in real estate?  Location, location, location!  EIU couldn't have found a better space for the exhibit to be displayed.  The Booth Library looks like a medieval castle--in fact, I remarked that the building looked like it could have been designed and built by Freemasons.  It was the perfect setting for a Freemasonry exhibit. 

There were numerous displays, each on a different area of Freemasonry.  There was a large case in the foyer that outlined in broad terms the scope of the entire exhibition.  There were a number of remarkable pieces on display there--the most stunning of those pieces was a Demolay robe.  There was another case that talked about perceptions and misconceptions about Freemasonry--it even had a movie poster from National Treasure with the prominent all-seeing eye as part of the poster design.  

Considering how broad the subject is, the exhibition did a great job touching on various aspects of the Fraternity, and breaking it down for the uninitiated into easily digestible pieces.  

Famous Masons?  Where do you suppose that idea came from?
There was a display about Prince Hall Masonry.  There was a display that outlined all the appendant bodies of Freemasonry--York Rite, Scottish Rite, Shrine, etc.  And smaller displays that went into Masonic symbolism and even talked about some of the Masonic traditions--like the purpose and meaning of the Masonic apron. 

But the most impressive part was the collection of Masonic artifacts--a number of individuals and lodges loaned pieces for display.  There were Knights Templar swords and antique uniform pieces, Scottish Rite caps, rings, jewels, rods, a couple beautiful antique aprons, old photos, a very old altar set (Bible, square and compass)--and yes, that Shriner's fez (which belonged to Michael Shirley).  It was very impressive how many items they'd collected.

And there was a display on how the students put everything together with photographs showing how the pieces were cleaned and prepared for display by students wearing latex gloves--now that did make me smile.  It's true, they had some old antiques there, and they should be treated carefully.  And they had obviously been well trained in handling old museum pieces. What I thought was funny, is that many of those items in the display cases, when not on exhibition, are probably still in use by the lodges that loaned them.  That's one of the things about being such a tradition-based organization--we don't store our antiques display cases, we actually continue to use them decade after decade after decade.  A very good example of this is the Washington Bible.  The Bible that George Washington was sworn into office on was borrowed from a Masonic Lodge, and it is still in possession of that Masonic Lodge.  Newly-elected Presidents to this day still have the choice of using the Washington Bible when they are sworn into office--and several have. 

But the students were really the most impressive part for me--they had really learned their subject well, and had obviously enjoyed working on the exhibition a great deal.  And it showed.  One thing that I heard repeated several times, was just how much there was to Freemasonry.  One of their greatest challenges was defining what they were going to explore in their exhibition.  One of the students said she could fill an entire museum on the subject of Freemasonry alone.  I told her there are entire museums, and libraries too, dedicated solely to the subject of Freemasonry--quite a few actually. Probably the best-known of these is the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Washington, D.C.  A memorial and museum supported by all 50 United States Grand Lodges.

PGM Noel C. Dicks at EIU
We met all the students and were told of their contributions to the exhibition at the reception--two of the students had marketing/design experience (which I think really showed in the exhibition).  And the students were also treated to an unexpected surprise--Past Grand Master of Illinois A.F. & A.M. Noel C. Dicks had been interviewed several times by the students working on the exhibition, and was on hand to offer a few congratulatory remarks.  He was obviously very impressed with the final product as we all were.

Dr. Debra A. Reid
Congratulations to the students and thank you so much for all your hard work:  Nicholas Collins, Alexander Hamilton, Alyse Bennett, Stephanie Templin, Bailee Julick, Marisela Luna, Emily Scarbrough, Mark Stanford, Lashanna McGahee, Amy Wywialowski, and Chase Driskell.

And the EIU staff involved: Bev Cruse, Stacey Knight-Davis, Philip Mohr, and Donna Nichols.

And the Freemasons involved: Michael Shirley (also served as Project Curator), Noel Dicks, Ryan D'Arcy, William Jones, Frank Lincoln, Marc Wilson, and Todd Creason.

And for those that loaned items for display: Coles County Historical Society, Library of Congress, Alex Gillespie, Frank Lincoln, Michael Shirley, Tuscola Lodge, Charleston Lodge, Villa Grove/Camargo Lodge, Westfield Lodge, and our Grand Lodge A.F. & A.M. of Illinois.

And very special thanks also to Dr. Debra A. Reid for putting together such a terrific curriculum for her students.

"The Freemasons in Central Illinois" exhibition will be on display at the Booth Library at Eastern Illinois University until January 18th.  If you are in the area, I strongly suggest you pay the library a visit.  


Todd E. Creason, 33° was the original Midnight Freemason. He's the author of several books and novels, including his popular Famous American Freemasons series.  In 2012, Todd expanded his popular blog The Midnight Freemason into a collaborative effort Midnight Freemasons. Todd is the Past Master of Ogden Lodge No. 754 (IL), and a member of both the Scottish Rite, and York Rite. He's also a member of the Ansar Shrine (IL) and Charter President of the Illini High Twelve in Champaign-Urbana (IL).  He is also the author of the blog From Labor To Refreshment . . .

WB Gregory J. Knott is the Past Master of St. Joseph Lodge No. 970 in St. Joseph (IL) and a plural member of Ogden Lodge No. 754 (IL), and Homer Lodge No. 199 (IL). He's a member of both the Scottish Rite, and the York Rite, and is the Charter Secretary of the Illini High Twelve Club in Champaign-Urbana. He's also a member of the Ansar Shrine (IL). Greg is very involved in Boy Scouts--an Eagle Scout himself, he serves the Grand Lodge of Illinois A. F. & A. M. as their representative to the National Association of Masonic Scouters.

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