175 Years in the Making..A Memorial and Celebration

by Midnight Freemason Emeritus Contributor
Brian L. Pettice, 33˚

The following is the text of a speech given at the Olive Branch Lodge 175th Anniversary Celebration and Memorial Observance by Brian L. Pettice, then Worshipful Master of the Lodge.  The Observance was held at Block 2 of Spring Hill Cemetery near the family gravesites of William E. Russell and John P. Norvell, two integral early Masters of the Lodge.  It began at 6:30 am Saturday, September 25, 2021.  A video of the event is viewable here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D0CZdYITzwo 

Good morning.  For those of you that may not know me, my name is Brian Pettice.  I am the current Master, or presiding officer, of Olive Branch Lodge 38.  On behalf of the officers and members of the lodge, it is my pleasure to welcome you to our 175th Anniversary Celebration and Memorial Observance.

This observance is the first of two events the lodge is holding to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Charter issued to the lodge by the Grand Lodge of Illinois on October 6, 1846.  The second of the events will be a Lodge Re-dedication performed by the Grand Lodge Officers next Saturday, October 2nd at noon at the Masonic Temple and we certainly hope to see many of you there as well. 

The Re-dedication has been in the works for almost two years as you have to plan that far ahead in order to get on the Grand Lodge’s schedule, but the idea for this event came to us just a few months ago.  

Hanging in our lodge room is a framed newspaper article from September 1946, written by Gilbert Haven Stephens who was both a Past Master of Olive Branch 38 and a Past Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Illinois.  In it, he describes the history of the lodge and its members at its 100th anniversary.  Late last year we began to transcribe Brother Stephens’s article and to share it along with other historical articles on the Lodge’s newly created website to commemorate our 175th year.  As we transcribed the article, we also searched the internet for information on the many brothers that Brother Stephens had written about.  We were amazed at some of what we learned.  

We learned that from very humble beginnings, the lodge would become one of the common denominators shared by men who would greatly affect the history of the city, state, and nation.  We learned that Brethren of Olive Branch Lodge would be among those Illinois Eighth Judicial Circuit attorneys whose political dealings would secure the 1860 Republican Presidential nomination for Abraham Lincoln and that one of those Brothers, Ward Hill Lamon, would be among the President’s closest confidantes and companions.  We learned that among those young men from Danville who would fight in the Civil War would be two brothers, John Charles and William Perkins Black, who after the conclusion of the war would both become members of Olive Branch Lodge and whose battlefield heroics on separate occasions during the war would earn them the distinction of being the first pair of brothers ever to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.   We learned that, Jasper C. Winslow, the first Mayor of Danville under the Charter that the city still operates under today, was a Past Master of Olive Branch lodge.  We learned that Brethren of Olive Branch Lodge served as Generals in war and ambassadors in peace and otherwise.  They were state and federal legislators and judges and leaders in business and in the community.  We learned of their many successes and accomplishments.

We also learned of their hardships.  We learned of their travels and trials to get here-- that a combination of optimism and desperation often led them here to start new lives in what was then still a rugged and sometimes unforgiving land.  We learned that the first emergency meeting of the lodge was for a funeral for a brother who was struck by lightning while walking home from work building a log house.  We learned that death would often visit our brethren and their families—indiscriminately striking both young and old, and those in the prime of their lives.  We learned that political, cultural, and moral division cursed their generations like no others—with many of them serving in the inevitable war that would pit brother against brother and state against state and nearly tear a nation apart.

We learned that many of these men are laid to rest right here in this cemetery where we stand this morning.  And so we thought to visit them here and to HONOR them here.  We came here early in the year and discovered that the gravestone of the first master of the lodge was in disrepair with its lettering nearly unreadable.  We decided to do what we could to remedy that and I think you’ll all agree that it now looks better than it has in decades and will be a reminder to future generations of the accomplishments of the man who lies here-- William E. Russell,  who more than anyone is responsible for bringing Freemasonry to our area. 

We also discovered nearby the gravestone of another brother, John Perry Norvell, who came a little later, but who was responsible for seeing that the lodge survived after the Civil War, serving as Master 12 times.  The way we discovered the graves of these two brethren—both so close together in distance and in importance to the lodge-- convinced us that, among all of the brethren we might talk about on this occasion, these were the two that we should.

So to introduce you to these two brethren I would like to share a bit of what Most Worshipful Brother Stephens had to say about each in his article from 75 years ago.  About Brother Russell, he had this to say, (Quote) “The few years that elapsed from this beginning (1827 when the town was founded) to the time when the town numbered about 500 passed slowly.  In 15 years, very few families were emboldened to try their fortune in this uninviting place where only the salt wells gave promise of any future.  But among those who came, there were those who had lived in the East, and had enjoyed the fellowship which came from Masonic membership…. In the winter of 1846, a meeting was called in the home of one of these Masons, and plans were perfected to petition for the privilege of organizing a lodge.  Those who attended knew full well the influence for good such an organization could be.  The putting into activity the principles of friendship, love, morality, truth, charity, and relief found a fertile field and was one of the great blessings which came to this pioneer community.

A temporary organization was formed and William E. Russell, a Mason who had received his degrees in Pennsylvania, was given authority to contact the Grand Master, William F. Walker, who lived in Chicago and present the petition.  It was a long trip to make but he set out on it with the determination to get the coveted authority.  He returned in about ten days and, calling the brethren together, delivered the dispensation by early candlelight on the evening of April 7, 1846.  This official document read thus:  ‘I grant a dispensation to Brother William E. Russell, John Payne, John Thompson, and the requisite additional brethren to form and open a lodge at Danville, in this state by the name of Olive Branch 38, and designate William E. Russell as master, John Payne as senior warden and John Thompson as junior warden.  The fee of $15.00 was paid for the dispensation.’  The minutes show that the lodge was opened in peace and harmony in due and ancient form.  The first master, William E. Russell, was about 50 years old at that time and took an important part in the civil activities of his time.  He was a trader, or perhaps what we would term a real estate dealer, and interested in the sale of government lands.

To him, Masonry owes more, perhaps, than any other man in the early development of our fraternity.  He not only made the trip to Chicago for the dispensation but in the fall of that year went to Peoria where the grand lodge held its annual session and obtained the charter which made the organization complete.  All this was done at his own expense.

He also organized the Masonic Lodge at Georgetown, now called Russell Lodge in honor of the founder.  He was the guiding spirit that brought Milford Lodge into being, and in 1849 was elected junior grand warden of the Grand Lodge of Illinois.  He guided Olive Branch lodge through a very critical time as master in 1846-1847-1848 and 1849.”(End quote)  We learned this year that Brother Russell was married to his wife Emeline in their native Connecticut and traveled here with at least two children.  Brother Russell died in 1856.

About Brother Norvell, Brother Stephens said this, (Quote) “No history of the lodge would be complete without relating some of the life of John P. Norvell, probably the most enthusiastic Mason who ever lived in Danville if we measure his untiring work and his unselfish devotion to the institution.  He was master 12 years, was well beloved by all the members, as well as by the community at large.

This is attested by the fact that he was several times elected to the best paying and most responsible job in this community-- that of assessor and collector-- notwithstanding that he was of a political party which was outnumbered two to one by the opposition.  He served as alderman and was postmaster during Grover Cleveland’s administration.  Norvell was a clean, whole-souled gentleman of the old type with a heart big enough to take in the whole world if necessary.  He was truly one of God’s noblemen and put into his life and actions those principles which he learned in his Masonic lodge.  Under his guidance, the fundamentals of Masonry in this city were felt in every avenue and strata of life and became a real power for good in the hearts of men.” (End quote.)   We have also learned that Brother Norvell was very likely the first 33 ยบ Scottish Rite Mason from Olive Branch Lodge 38, the City of Danville, and Vermilion County.  He was an unusually active Mason leading all local bodies of the York Rite and serving all of them and the Grand Lodge of Illinois at the state level.  He and his wife, Adah Margaret Terry Norvell, would have five children—only two of whom would live into adulthood.  He died on December 14, 1893.

As we reflect on the lives and accomplishments of these two and all of the brethren who came before us, we ask ourselves what is their legacy?  What is it they gave us that can carry us forward in the future?  We look at these men and think of these men as heroic and they were heroes.  We think that they changed the world and they did.  I doubt, though, that they thought of themselves as heroic.  I doubt that they set out to change the world.  When we look at them, we see the virtue and values that we want to emulate.   Again, I doubt that most of them thought of themselves as overly virtuous. I am sure that they, like us, recognized they were flawed and were working to improve on their own shortcomings.  And though we may not know how truly virtuous these men were or which virtues they displayed in their everyday lives, we do know which ones they aspired to.  We know because we still aspire to them today.  Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth; Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, and Justice; and Faith, Hope, and Charity—these are the virtues we aspire to.

One virtue that these men clearly demonstrated, though, is that virtue the Grand Lodge calls our Heritage-- perseverance.  Our Brethren were swimming in perseverance.  This, I believe, is their legacy to us.  This is what can carry us forward in the future.  We don’t have to be heroic.  We don’t have to set out to change the world.  We don’t have to succeed in all of our aspirations to be virtuous.  To persevere is enough.

When our brethren who came before us met hardship, they did not pause at their first or second step.  They pressed forward and they persevered.   When they endured trials and travails in this rugged, unforgiving land; they pressed forward, they persevered.   When they suffered the untimely death of family and friends; they pressed forward, they persevered.   When they were faced with wars, they pressed forward, they persevered.   In victory and in defeat, in success and in failure, in joy and in grief; our Brethren have, for 175 years, pressed forward and persevered.  

It is perseverance that is their legacy.  It is perseverance that we can emulate today.  Let us not pause at our first or second steps.

When we display in our lives the beauties of Brotherly Love, Relief, and Truth; we press forward, we persevere.  When we govern our own lives and actions by the four cardinal virtues of Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence, and Justice; we press forward, we persevere.  When all of our actions towards mankind are informed by, possess the qualities of, and we choose to live in Faith, Hope, and especially Charity or Love of our Fellow Men; then, my Brethren, will we press forward and then will we persevere.   Then will we give ourselves the best chance to be virtuous and heroic in our everyday lives and the best chance to change the world for the better.

Then, my Brethren, will we have truly honored those who have come before us.

This concludes the historical portion of our presentation.  We will now perform an exhibition of the Masonic Funeral Service in honor of all of our brethren who are at eternal rest.  At the conclusion of that ceremony please feel free to come forward and take a closer look at both of our Brother’s gravestones and, especially, the work done on the gravestone of Brother Russell and his family and to enjoy each other’s company for as long as you like. 

WB Russell's Grave Prior to Restoration
              WB Russell's Grave After Restoration


Brian L. Pettice, 33° is a Past Master of Anchor Lodge No. 980 and plural member of Olive Branch Lodge No. 38 in Danville, IL and an Honorary Member of a couple of others. He is also an active member of both the York and Scottish Rites. He cherishes the Brothers that have become Friends over the years and is thankful for the opportunities Freemasonry gives and has given him to examine and improve himself, to meet people he might not otherwise have had chance to meet, and to do things he might not otherwise have had a chance to do. He is employed as an electrician at the University of Illinois and lives near Alvin, IL with his wife Janet and their son Aidan. He looks forward to sharing the joy the fraternity brings him with others. His email address is aasrmason@gmail.com.

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