FARGO — Historical artifacts dating back to the Dakota Territory, with most never seen by the public, were put on display at the Fargo Masonic Temple as the Masons held their first open house in almost 30 years on Thursday night, Sept. 23.

Among the treasures were priceless Black Hills gold "Territorial Jewels" shaped into symbols that are worn by officers. The state's Masons took the jewels home when the Dakota Territory split up into North Dakota and South Dakota in 1889.

The story, according to the temple's Office Manager D. Henneby, is that when the territory was divided, the North Dakota group took the jewels while the South Dakota Masons took the cash.

"I think we got the better deal," said Ward Gillett, who is building president for the temple.

The largest jewels weren't displayed, but instead appeared in the form drawings as Henneby said they were "too valuable" to be on display with the public walking by.

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"They are our prize possession," she said.

George Vettel, the grand librarian of the Grand Lodge A.F. & A.M. of North Dakota stands next to The Territorial Jewels at the Fargo Masonic Lodge in north Fargo on Sept. 23. Chris Flynn / The Forum
George Vettel, the grand librarian of the Grand Lodge A.F. & A.M. of North Dakota stands next to The Territorial Jewels at the Fargo Masonic Lodge in north Fargo on Sept. 23. Chris Flynn / The Forum

Mason Siirila, the worshipful master of one of the four lodges that meet at the temple, said the largest of the jewels that were on display adorn the leaders of the lodges.

The entire collection of jewels contains about 20 pieces.

Majestic, hand-painted canvas scenery drops that adorned the stage in the temple's auditorium, or "Gold Room," awed the droves of residents who flocked to the temple for the open house.

As the event wore on, a group of four men used ropes to raise and lower the scenery drops dating back to 1900, unveiling seven mostly religious scenes.

Mason Gary Haynie, of Fargo, who has written about the history of the carefully painted drops, said they were hand-painted in 1899 at the Sosman & Landis scenery painting company in Chicago and then shipped to Fargo in 1900.

The scenery was first displayed in the old Masonic Temple that was in the parking lot of the Gate City Bank in downtown Fargo before the new temple was built in 1969-1970. The new temple's higher roof accommodated the scenery drops, as they aren't folded up for storage but instead hang straight up and down.

Haynie said there are about 26 combinations of scenes that can be made with the 60 scenery drops. Each scene measures about 30 feet wide by 15 feet high.

Most are related to Solomon's Temple that once stood in Jerusalem, including the quarry where the stones in the temple were excavated. Others includes scenes of the Crucifixion, an Egyptian temple and a Persian temple.

Haynie said they use the drops about 50 to 100 times a year for various events.

Gillett said there have been concerns about the preservation of the 123-year-old drops, but the late Mason Gurne Bridgeman, who was a longtime caretaker of the scenery donated money for a temperature and humidity control system that helps in the protection.

Some of the other historical artifacts that were on display included:

  • A brick from the old White House that underwent a major renovation from 1948 to 1952 and was sent by President Harry Truman to the local organization. Truman stayed in the Blair House near the White House while the project was undertaken.
  • A pair of ancient bibles, including one printed in 1637 that Siirila believed was brought over to the United States by the Pilgrims. The bibles are used in special rituals.
  • Swords from the Spanish American war.
  • Dresses worn by members of the Eastern Star, the women's group associated with the Masons, that date back to the 1800s.

"We just thought the artifacts were something we needed to share," said Gillett about the open house and showing off the "treasures" to residents.

Another goal was to try to attract new members to the various lodges and organizations said his wife, Carol, who is a member of the Eastern Star. There's also a group from children called Job's Daughters that has about 20 members, she said.

Gillett said the fraternity is about "men becoming better persons and helping the community," a goal that dates back to its earliest days when the organization was formed in 1717 in England, although its roots perhaps dating back even further to the Middle Ages.

"We wanted to raise more awareness about us, too," Carol Gillett said, adding they do a lot of philanthropic work that residents may not know much about.