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The Art Of Fraternal Orders: Bruce Lee Webb 19

For more than 20 years, Bruce Lee Webb has collected work associated with fraternal orders, like the Masons or Oddfellows. Webb is co-owner, with  his wife, Julie, of Webb Gallery in Waxahachie. Now, he’s also a co-author.  Photos of his collection anchor the new book “As Above, So Below,” which he wrote with Lynne Adele, an art historian specializing in folk and outsider art.

Webb stopped by the KERA newsroom to chat about how his collection, and his involvement in fraternal organizations, led him to a deeper understanding of history.

“As Above, So Below” book signing and exhibition is Sunday at Webb Gallery in Waxahachie. A book signing and reading will be held on Thursday Dec. 10 at Uncommon Objects in Austin.

Not to mention a friendship with musician David Byrne, who wrote the forward to “As Above, So Below.”

You can listen to a short version of our conversation that aired on KERA FM.

Here are some more excerpts:

Fraternal orders really took off in the United States after the Civil War. There were something like 70,000 local lodges and maybe 5.5 million members. Can you explain what these fraternal orders are and why people were so drawn to them?

BW I think it has to do with the camaraderie.  If they had been in some type of military engagement during the Civil War, a lot of soldiers maintained their fraternal ties. Whether they were Free Masons or if they were Odd Fellows, then they often would have that insignia. In some cases, it probably saved some of their lives to have been a member of a masonic lodge when they were captured in the South or vice versa.


Bruce Lee Webb

To me, fraternalism is part of true Americana. It’s part of the makeup of our constitution and a lot of it we probably borrowed from France. Liberty, fraternity, equality are the basic ideals of fraternalism.  After the Civil War, I think a lot of people were lost and there was a great coming together through fraternal associations that maybe men had fought against each other during the war. Afterwards they put all that aside and could meet on fraternal basses, put aside politics and differences of religion. Those were some of the principal tenants about the lodges. You’re not allowed to talk about religion or politics in a sectarian way. That’s one of the things that is good about fraternal groups – it brings people together from different mindsets. 

Why were secrets so important to fraternal orders?

BW To conceal a secret, to only reveal it in a ceremonial way, that’s kind of what the basis of what makes a fraternal order work. You have to have secrets. You’re essentially selling a secret, or the revelation of that secret. There’s a progression to the way the information is dispersed, and a lot of times it’s through symbolism. It’s also through an actual ceremonial ritual where it’s like a play and the candidate who’s being initiated is one of the main characters in the play.

It’s a way to bind the group together?

BW They’d all gone through the same ceremonial ordeal to become one with the group.

All of the objects – banners and costumes, works on paper, wooden carvings – how do these come in and why are they important?

BWThe lodges put on theatrical performances and some of the props I really like are simple things. Like a carved eyeball. Or the heart and hand, one of my favorite symbols. Or an emblem of mortality, skull and crossbones, something of that nature. These are the props that go along with the ceremonies, the rituals. There’s also a good bit of didactic material – charts with printed words or, more symbolism with kind of arcane mystic maps that through initiation you would be able to interpret the meaning of. For me, the artifacts speak so much more than words and they go beyond differences in language, time and place.

I think everyone interprets symbols differently.  These symbols are kind of like archetypes, in our subconscious. We see them and we think of what it means. Even without words.

How did you start collecting fraternal paraphernalia?

BWI came along at a time when some many lodges were closing, and I encountered fraternal costumes at a flea market and bought bushel baskets of the hats and Odd Fellows collars. I just thought the stuff was neat.

I started to research it. And then moving to Waxahachie, I joined the Masonic lodge in 1987, and then the Odd Fellows. It gave even more meaning to go through the ceremonies. I’ve really liked that so much of the ceremony is unchanged for a hundred years or more. There’s that sense of history, and I also love a good mystery. That’s the thing sometimes you don’t have to know the full meaning behind something. I like things like sort of being a little bit in the shadows you could say.

 Unknown maker Leather, wood, and metal Webb Collection

Initiation shoes, ca. 1900

Some of these things really do look mysterious…

BWThat’s probably what I really like about them is, that mysterious look and feel. It kind of alludes to the old world, old America.

You have been collecting these items for 25 years?

BWYeah, 25 years, maybe a little bit more. My parents used to set up at the Canton flea market in East Texas and I’d go with them. I started to buy and sell things at a young age.

You learn how your eye can discern great things in a pile of junk and somehow you’re able to hone in and see that item or object that you’re really interested in and pick it out of a big group of things that you’re not interested in. Going to flea markets is kind of the basis of a lot of it for me.

My grandparents were missionaries to South India and my grandmother collected books on occultism, Hinduism and things like that. When I was growing up I would visit my grandparents and kind of be left alone in my grandmother’s library, and I just really love looking at old books. A lot of it has a love of old books is kind of the basis for what I collect.

Odd Fellows heart-in-hand staff, ca. 1890s Polychrome wood, 10 × 4 × 2 in. on 52 in. rod Webb Collection

Odd Fellows heart-in-hand staff, ca 1890s.

Do you remember the first piece of fraternal order related paraphernalia that you acquired?

BWOther than books, the first thing that I acquired that I still have, it’s a carved wooden axe that’s kind of oversized. It’s got a heart and hand painted on the blade of the axe. I bought it at the Canton flea market from a dealer from Nebraska. I think it’s probably from the 1880s, maybe 1870s.  The heart-in-hand painted on the blade eludes to charity and to give from the heart. The broad axe was often taken around the lodge room by the warden of the Odd Fellows, and the brothers would put change or money on the flat blade of the axe and that would be either given to a member that in distress or some type of charitable situation where the lodge was trying to direct funds.

There’s a whole chapter in the book on the heart-in-hand image, which shows up in other folk art.

BWIt does. The Odd Fellows are the prime fraternal group that use it. I know that the Shakers used the symbol. It was also used by a bunch of trade guilds in Europe. It means to put your heart into your work. I’ve heard it explained like this, ” Whatsoever may the hand find to do, may the heart go forth in unison.” I think that’s one of the really beautiful things about fraternal symbolism is there are bits of poetry that are kind of connected with these objects.
Where Hideous Things Slither and Climb, hand-colored magic lantern slide, Knights of Pythias, 1890­1900 Webb Collection

“Where Hideous Things Slither and Climb,” hand-colored magic lantern slide.

One of the most striking pieces to me was a slide that was made for a magic lantern which is kind of precursor to the slide projector. It’s called “Where Hideous Things Slither and Climb” can you describe that scene and how that would’ve been used in fraternal situations?

BWThat slide is part of a set of slides that’s used by the Knights of Pythias and it’s to describe the world before order existed. It’s chaos, it’s the world without order, without the benefit of fraternalism. That’s one of the my favorite images. I love all the snakes coming down the trees. It has this really wonderful creepy feel to it.

That would’ve been used in connection with a lecture after you had gone through the Knights of Pythias ceremony of initiation.

We have to talk about the goats. There are a series of contraptions, mechanical goats….?

ìThe Royal Bumperî mechanical goat, ca. 1910 DeMoulin Bros. & Co. Mixed media, 44 × 54 × 37 in. Webb Collection

“The Royal Bumper” mechanical goat.

BWThe goats, many of them were made by lodge members themselves. As lodges started to form up across the country, companies like the DeMoulin Bros. & Company in Greenville, Illinois started to make these goats and marketed them to Woodman of the World and Modern Woodman of America lodges. Sometimes they would even have these electric apparatuses that would shock the candidate. So you had different aspects of the hazing that was done just in sheer fun. Not all lodges use them. Definitely the woodman did use them, they sold hundreds of them around the country.

The catalogs that DeMoulin put out had really wonderful illustrations that are like cartoon illustrations. You can just imagine the lodge secretary and the other members sitting around the desk deciding which one they’re going to order. “Do we get the Fuzzy Bumper or do we want the Whirling Wonder where the goat spins the candidate around?”

You are a member of a couple of fraternal orders. What role do they play today? How are they relevant today?

BWProbably the heyday for fraternal groups was from 1890, right up until WWII. After WWII the membership started declining. Today, we’re just a shadow of what we were back then.

There’s a sense of history, a lot of people remember a grandfather, an uncle or some family member that was a member and maybe it’s a connection to something that they had gone through. Like, you wanted to do what your grandfather had done. It’s something that’s connected to the old world and so many of us doing our jobs we don’t get a chance to visit on the kind of level that you get to visit at a lodge meeting. Again, you can’t talk about religion or politics.

It also puts you in contact with that WWII generation, some of the older men that I’ve met at lodge just shared so many great stories. Their lives have had a really big impact on me. For me, I like being around the older people that I’ve been around. I like that sense of connection to the old world and old America that seems to be disappearing so quickly.

As Above, So Below_front cover

David Byrne, the musician, wrote the forward to your book. How did that happen?

BWI’ve been a friend of David’s for a while. We’ve met back when he was doing “True Stories” here in Dallas. I actually started thinking about it, he had Shriners in “True Stories.” He’s been interested in the wackier aspects of America too.

He also embraced folk art, the Talking Heads had Howard Finster paint one their album covers.  I know that David collects fraternal stuff himself an I think he really wrote a beautiful forward.

The book isn’t just work from your collection…

BWWe tried to borrow images from a wide variety of collectors.  There’s the Milwaukee Art Museum. We also borrowed from the Texas Grand Lodge Museum in Waco. The masonic grand lodge there has a really wonderful museum and library. Very few people know about it. We’re thrilled to have pieces. You can visit the Texas Grand Lodge Museum and Library. It’s downtown on Columbus Street.

Most people aren’t going to be scouring flea markets in quite the way you have looking for these sorts of objects. But if you’re interested, what can you easily see?

BWA big part of the book is about road trips because so much of the material I’ve gathered is from going on road trips. There’s so much that people when they get in the car they could go out and see things around the country.

Probably the easiest thing to see is your local cemetery.

Also visit local fraternal buildings. Most big cities in America have a Scottish Rite. I’ve found if you knock on the door there’s usually somebody there that will give you a tour and let you look around. There’s a lot of art work in fraternal buildings, whether it’s murals or the buildings themselves or the collections that they have. It’s my thought that this is probably their best advertisement if they’re trying to entice new members, let people see some of the cool artifacts. At least it would affect me that way.

I love going on road trips. Around the country there’s a few folk artist environments that are fraternal. Up in Lucas, Kansas the Samuel P. Dinsmoor Garden of Eden is fraternal. He was a Civil War veteran who wound up getting two pension checks from the government. He took his second check and spent it on cement and supplies to build an incredible environment in the little town of Lucas. It’s called the Garden of Eden and it’s carved stone and cement. It has masonic figures and it has the history of the world. Mr Dinsmoor was a populist, so it has this incredible crucifixion –  labor being crucified and being pulled at the edges by the banker, lawyer, preacher and the doctor. To me there are so many interesting aspects of folk art around the country that have fraternal basis to them.