Location: Oxford, Granville, North Carolina, United States
Prior to the Civil War, the Masonic Fraternity of North Carolina was much smaller and more fragmented than it is today. In that era, Masons in other states promoted philanthropy by supporting Masonic colleges and seminaries. North Carolina Masons hoped such an institution would serve the common good of the state, as well as provide a rallying point for their fraternity.
The story of the Masonic Home for Children at Oxford began in 1838 when David W. Stone introduced a set of resolutions at the annual communication of the Grand Lodge of North Carolina "to establish a Masonic Seminary for the education of children attached to the Fraternity." The resolutions passed, but nothing came of them. The Grand Lodge formed a committee to investigate the possibility of such an institution, but in 1839 the committee asked for a postponement of consideration, and did so again in 1840. In 1842 T. J. Lemay proposed "that the Grand Lodge should...provide for the establishment of a committee to study and report plans for the establishment of a charity school."
Grand Master W. F. Collins prepared a circular dated December 28, 1847, writing: "It is known to every member of the fraternity that this subject has occupied the attention of the Grand Lodge at every communication since 1838. I will, however, here remark, that very little has been done, except to resolve and report upon the subject; the time has now arrived for action – ACTION! Let us, then, not leave to be done by others that which is our duty to perform."
Collins pointed out that Pennsylvania, New York, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee boasted such Masonic schools, and noted that Hiram Lodge in Raleigh had already appropriated $1,000 for such an establishment. The first three lodges to appoint Trustees and report funds raised were Wake Forest, Concord in Tarboro, and St. John's in Wilmington.
The Grand Lodge passed a resolution in 1847 stating that the seminary of learning should educate "free from charge such poor and destitute orphans and children of living brother Masons who have not the means to confer the benefit upon their offspring, upon a fair and equitable plan of admission to be determined by the Grand Lodge." They decided that the school should be set up when $15,000 had been raised and noted that fundraising plans had already been drawn up in the Proceedings of 1846.
In 1850 Luke Blackmer moved that the school be located in the small town of Oxford and the Lodge appointed a committee to determine a course of study. This was a daring venture for North Carolina Masons as there were only 65 lodges in the state with less than 5,000 members at the time. The committee urged that astronomy, natural philosophy, chemistry, geology, electricity and galvanism should be taught, with emphasis on architecture, the power of steam and its application to machinery, various processes of manufactures, metallurgy, natural history and engineering. The aim was to "furnish all young men with as full and complete a collegiate education as can be obtained at any similar institution in the Union."
A committee was appointed to acquire property in Oxford and procure from the general assembly an act of incorporation for a "Masonic College," to be named St. John's College. The Masons bought 109 acres near the Oxford city limits at a price of $4,480.
In 1855 Captain John Berry of Orange County and Major J. N. Holt of Warren County won the construction contract, for a price of $22,500. On June 24 of that year, the traditional anniversary of the birth of St. John the Baptist, the cornerstone of St. John's College was laid with appropriate Masonic ceremonies: "The capstone having been lowered, the principal architect presented the working tools to the Grand Master, who handed them to the three principal officers for the testing of the work. With the square, the Deputy Grand Master proved the stone square, and that the craftsmen had performed their duty. With the level, the Senior Grand Warden pronounced it level and the Junior Grand Warden announced that it was true to the plumb. Corn as an emblem of plenty was scattered on the stone, the wine of joy and gladness was poured, and the oil of peace poured out, symbolizing love and sympathy for the widow and orphan, and mercies for them."
Rev. Leonidas Smith of Warrenton addressed the several thousand Masons in attendance: "Let Masons then cherish this institution of itself. It will be a refutation of all the slander that has been heaped on the fraternity. It will show what we are and what we aim to accomplish. It will be a standing evidence of our character, of our ability and of our benevolent intentions."
|Original Main Building|
When completed in December of 1857 the building expressed the intentions of the Masonic Fraternity: "The building is 122 feet by 40 feet, the center is 63 feet, is four stories and a basement, contains 53 dormitories, a Chapel 40 feet by 60 feet, four recitation rooms, two society rooms and other rooms for chemical and other purposes." The four rooms suited for accommodations of professors were provided each with a fireplace. The chapel with its gallery could seat 1,200 people comfortably.
The college opened on July 13, 1858, but floundered. The school changed hands several times and converted from one type of institution to another. The Grand Lodge tried unsuccessfully to offer the building to the State as a military school when the Civil War broke out, and war refugees were allowed to squat in the building for some time as makeshift caretakers.
For years the Grand Lodge tried to sell the property as one failed venture after another occupied it. In December of 1872, John H. Mills suggested that "St. John's College be made into an asylum for the protection, training and education of indigent orphan children." After a raucous debate, Grand Master John Nichols cast the deciding vote, launching the first permanent orphanage in North Carolina:
The Oxford Orphan Asylum.
John H. Mills, also the founder and editor of the Biblical Recorder, a publication of the Baptists of North Carolina, was elected superintendent. The Grand Lodge appropriated $500 for the initial support of the institution. Mills moved into the dilapidated building, with its missing windowpanes, and began working using the one chair and one table available.
On a cold, bleak Saturday afternoon in February 1873, Robert L. and Nancy Parrish and Isabelle Robertson, all from Granville County, were received into the home. Past Grand Master Francis D. Winston recalled the scene: "I was a student at Oxford in the Horner Military Academy and saw Mr. Mills receive the first orphan at this institution. I shall not forget the scene. I had gone there to carry a bundle of clothing collected from my fellow students. It was on Saturday afternoon. A dull cloud hung in the sky. A man with a one-horse wagon drove to the door. Mr. Mills, with gruff voice, asked his mission. He told it. The gigantic form of our friend shook with emotion. He lifted the pale youth from the wagon with the paw of a lion. He raised him in the air, and with melting pity and tears, let him drop upon his heart and kissed him. It was indeed the caress of the lion, but it was truly the caress of love."
The people of Granville County and the state responded well to requests for help. There were many days when the bottom of the flour barrel had to be scraped and the last stick of wood put into the little stove to keep the children warm. One may read of Mills' journeys with his old wagon on foraging trips. Later a group of children, singing and taking collections, brought considerable financial help and became the forerunner of the Oxford Orphanage Singing Class, officially begun in June 1873.
The institution admitted 136 children the first year, with 109 remaining at the year's close. The Grand Lodge raised its donation to $1,000 the second year.
The Asylum's mission was handicapped in the beginning by poor transportation across the state, which especially affected the ability to reach children in the mountains. On a trip to the French Broad Baptist Association meeting in Buncombe County in 1874 Mills met John Robert Sams, who shared Mills' concern for children from the mountains. Mills and Sams accepted an offer of the buildings and grounds of the abandoned Mars Hill College in Madison County by its Trustees. Since Mills' title was Superintendent of the Asylum, Sams became Steward of the Mars Hill Branch. Sally Greene of Greensboro was appointed First Matron.
The Mars Hill branch received its first child, Zeb Vance Goode of Burke County, in 1874. Goode ran away the next year. Some children were sent from Oxford and some admitted from surrounding counties. In 1875 the Masons voted against the proposal of Rev. L. M. Pease of Asheville that the Mars Hill branch be moved to that city, but Pease moved the institution to a rental house there anyway. Per a clause in the Mars Hill agreement stating that the college should be used as an orphanage, the property reverted to its Trustees. The Masons were not able to modify the rental property to meet the needs of the children. With no suitable location available for the Asheville branch, Grand Master George W. Blount directed it to be closed and all children moved back to Oxford.
In 1876 the Grand Lodge appointed a committee to request an annual appropriation for the orphanage before the General Assembly. The General Assembly made no appropriation but encouraged the committee that such an investment might later be made. The next year a committee including T. S. Kenan and Zebulon Vance again appeared before the General Assembly, making clear that the benefits of the orphanage were not only for the children of Masons, and that in fact most of the children in the Asylum had no affiliation with Masonry. In 1878 Senator W. S. Harris of Franklin introduced a resolution that was approved, appropriating $3,000 per year to the orphanage. This amount grew to $5,000 in 1881 and $10,000 in 1885.
The orphanage constructed a house in 1879 for hospital use. The following year the orphanage needed an additional boys' building, so part of its land was sold to raise money. The building was erected in 1882 and located several hundred yards west of the College.
A considerable awakening of interest in orphanage work in North Carolina brought more financial help for the orphanage during the years of 1879-80. Each Masonic Lodge appointed an Orphan Asylum Committee to raise interest in the orphanage and collect funds to send to the superintendent. Religious denominations passed resolutions commending the work at Oxford and urged their pastors to forward collections from their churches to the superintendent. The state's appropriation grew to $5,000 in 1881 and to $10,000 in 1885.
Until 1884 the superintendent of the orphanage reported directly to the Grand Lodge and was annually re-elected by the body. As of 1882 the Asylum employed:
John H. Mills, Superintendent
J. S. Midyette, Assistant Superintendent and Teacher of Third Form, Boys
Miss A. E. Shelton, Teacher of First Form, Boys
Mrs. E. E. Midyette, Teacher of Second Form, Boys
Miss Mary S. Long, Teacher of Third Form, Girls
Miss A. M. Clewell, Teacher of Second Form, Girls
Miss M. A. Harrison, Teacher of First Form, Girls
Miss M. F. Jordan, Books, Correspondence, and Vocal Music
Mrs. E. H. Jones, Manager of Sewing Room
Miss S. P. Van Duyn, Housekeeper
Students were also given vocational training. Older girls assisted in ordinary housework and the making and mending of clothes. Older boys assisted in the preparations of firewood and coal, care of livestock and cultivation of the soil. Although only $500 was appropriated for the first year's work, Mills reported that $5,704 had been spent and $160 was left over.
In January of 1884, Grand Master Bingham and the Orphan Asylum Committee recommended that the Grand Lodge appoint a Board of Directors for the orphanage. Mills was re-elected as superintendent, but declined to accept, as he considered the creation of the Board a reflection of his ability to manage the orphanage. He agreed to remain in charge until his successor was chosen.
The successor was Dr. Benjamin Franklin Dixon, who began on Apr. 1, 1884 and built upon Mills' foundation. The Walker building was erected during this year, thanks to a gift of $1,000 from Mrs. Letitia Morehead Walker in memory of her son, John Morehead Walker. Another house was built just to the northwest of the Walker building. It housed the superintendent for two decades and in 1904 was converted into a hospital.
Dixon enthusiastically supported the children's vocational training. The cornerstone of the Angela B. Duke "Industrial" Building was laid on June 24, 1886, with Gov. A. M. Scales present. The building opened in March 1887. In May a shoe making and repairing department was added, allowing the boys the opportunity for industrial training in the printing office, in the shoe shop, and on the farm. The shoe shop and printing departments moved into their own buildings that year.
During Dixon's progressive administration the number of children peaked at 264. Dixon resigned in September of 1890 and the Reverend Junius T. Harris, a Methodist minister, was elected to replace him. Unfortunately, Harris was stricken with pneumonia and died on Nov. 19, a little over a month later. Dixon returned to manage the orphanage until a replacement could be found.
In January of 1891 Dr. W. S. Black of Raleigh was elected superintendent. His wife, "Aunt Mary," was well loved by the children. During his administration the age of discharge for the children was raised from 16 to 18. The orphanage opened a broom factory on the property but it was a short-lived venture. Mrs. Black died Oct. 31, 1893. Dr. Black resigned from the orphanage in May of 1894 and returned to preaching.
N. M. Lawrence of Tarboro was elected superintendent following Black's departure and incorporated the Oxford, North Carolina, Orphan Asylum early in his administration. Lawrence converted the orphanage from its previous "barracks" system to a more efficient cottage system still in use today. Benjamin Duke, a director of the institution on the part of the State, offered to donate half the funds needed for the new buildings if the Masons could procure the rest. Four boys' cottages, four girls' cottages and a central dining room were completed by 1899.
The orphanage purchased the Hundley Bros. woodworking shops in 1896 for the children's training. The woodworking shop was moved some distance from the grounds closer to the boys' cottages, into a brick building erected mostly out of material from the boys' old building. Not far from the woodshop two brick buildings were erected for laundry, sewing, the printing office and the shoe shop.
Lawrence resigned from the orphanage on July 1, 1898. He was succeeded by Colonel William J. Hicks, who ran a powder mill near Raleigh during the Civil War. Around that time the Board of Directors created the office of Lady Supervisor and selected an energetic and capable woman, Nettie Nichols Bemis, as the first to hold this position. Miss Bemis began in August of 1897.
The industrial departments of the institution were centralized for supervision and economy. Rooms for the superintendent were converted into classrooms in the St. John's College building, and the superintendent's residence was converted into a hospital. A separate administration building was erected, verandas added to the St. John's College, deep wells bored and sewer systems installed.
The orphanage was relatively quiet in 1903 - there was not an automobile in town, no paved sidewalks or streets, no motion pictures, and no electric lights. On College Street, the orphanage was lined with a whitewashed plank fence. The 1902 orphanage report states that C. W. Toms of Durham, at his own expense, got an estimate for the installation of an electric light plant: $4,750. The Board decided not to install it.
During 1918 the influenza epidemic hit the orphanage. Miss Bemis remembers there being 250 children sick at one time, 42 of them with pneumonia. With nine of the faculty sick as well, townspeople volunteered to come to the campus to cook, nurse, or perform other chores.
Hicks offered his resignation on September 1, 1909 but remained when R. L. Brown was elected assistant superintendent. On Jan. 14, 1911, Col. Hicks died and Brown took his place. The Grand Lodge had now raised its annual donation to $3,600, the state appropriating $30,000, and the orphanage could accommodate 325 children. During Brown's administration the cottages were remodeled and a fireproof school building was erected and named after Past Grand Master John Nichols. In 1918 the orphanage had new sidewalks poured over the existing dirt paths worn by the children. A new hospital was erected and named for Colonel Hicks. The orphanage was separated from the school, so now the Superintendent and school principal could each devote their full time to their respective duties. Nettie N. Bemis served as part-time principal during the school term, 1925-1926. Superintendent Brown died on Mar. 12, 1928 while walking across the campus.
The Manual Arts Training Miss Bemis received at the Pratt Institute before she came to the orphanage served the children well. Girls were trained to work with raphia, reed, and to make baskets, while boys were trained in woodworking, metal work, and electricity. The Arts and Crafts Department was self-supporting, with townspeople and friends of the Home placing orders for baskets and crafts during its heyday. During World War I the Manual Arts Fund was used to buy liberty loan bonds, and exhibits of the children's work were sent to be displayed at the State Fair.
|Oasis Swimming Pool|
The York Rite Loan Fund was established to send worthy orphanage students to college; the A. B. Andrews fund for the same purpose; and the York Rite Library Fund was established to purchase books and magazines for the children. The orphanage also became the beneficiary of the legacies of Benjamin N. Duke and a Trust Fund given by John Neal, a graduate of the orphanage. The enrollment in the orphanage topped 400, the property valued around $1.3 million, and the annual expenditures at $175,000.
The Oxford Orphanage
In 1923 the name of the institution was officially changed to "Oxford Orphanage." Lucille Tuttle of Asheville became the first "institutional visitor," later known as "caseworker" and today as “Director of Admissions." Robert E. Ward, a former student of the Home, managed the Department of Practical Electricity. His course was quite popular with the older boys, teaching repairing and rewinding motors, armatures and transformers, together with other commercial electrical business.
The High School presented its first diplomas in 1922 to a graduating class of ten. Five entered East Carolina College, two attended Woman's College at Greensboro, one at Greensboro College, one at Wake Forest and one entered nurse's training at Park View Hospital in Rocky Mount. By that time there were 11 grades with 122 pupils who followed a course of study closely matched to that of the state. The classrooms in the old Main Building were crowded, long and narrow, and poorly lit. Part of one grade had to be transferred to the study room in First Girls' Cottage ("1-G"). Sixty-five former students gathered in the Masonic Hall on June 27, 1924, to form the Oxford Orphanage Alumni Association.
|Architect's Rendering of the Hick's Memorial Hospital|
On Aug. 1, 1928, the Reverend Creasy K. Proctor of Rocky Mount assumed the duties of superintendent. He at once stepped into prominence around the town and county. He organized the Granville County Chamber of Commerce and served as president for two years. He was president of the Rotary and Shrine clubs, and his Masonic affiliations embraced all degrees of the York and Scottish Rites and the Sudan Shrine. He was deeply interested in renovating the orphanage's buildings, and was instrumental in the erection of the R. C. Dunn "Baby" Cottage and the Angela B. Duke "Industrial" building. During his administration the enrollment of the home peaked at 393 children. Rev. Proctor died on June 25, 1946.
After Dr. Proctor's passing, some twenty men applied for consideration for Superintendent. The Board of Directors met in Raleigh on November 25, 1946, and selected the Reverend Alan DeLeon Gray, a Methodist minister and graduate of the Duke Divinity School.
Eli Troy Regan, a 1929 graduate of Elon College, joined the orphanage staff that year as the athletic director for boys and served as the first football coach at the orphanage. The team chose the name "Red Devils." Regan served for 42 years at the Orphanage: 14 years as football coach, 14 as principal of John Nichols School, and 14 as assistant superintendent under Mr. Gray.
The Oxford Orphanage Singing Class, well known throughout the state, discontinued their travels in 1942 due to World War II gasoline and tire rations. The singing class had not only provided great financial support for the Home, but also was an excellent public relations vehicle. The mid-forties also marked the last St. John's Day celebration for some time, due to the war and the polio epidemic.
After the war the Singing Class returned in the form of the John Nichols School Choruses – a boys' chorus, girls' chorus, mixed chorus, boys' quartets, girls' quartets, and so on. Glancing through issues of The Log, the Orphanage's year book, from these years yields records of these groups attending competitions around the state and returning with superiors and other awards.
A favorite trip of the Singing Class, Chorus, and later the church choir was the annual Mocksville Picnic, held on the second Thursday of each August. The Eastern Star Ladies and Masonic wives of the Mocksville, Advance and Farmington Lodges collaborate to hold an extremely popular outdoor pot luck dinner, charging admission to raise funds for the orphanage. The children performed a small concert beforehand and afterward enjoyed an afternoon of carnival rides there on the grounds. The Mocksville Picnic was begun in the 19th century and continues to this day.
|York Rite Memorial Chapel|
|Grand Master, Maurice Parham, and A.D. Gray at the Gym Cornerstone laying|
Construction began on the Creasy K. Proctor Recreation Center on Apr. 6, 1955, the cornerstone laid by Maurice Parham and A. D. Leon Gray. The building houses a full-sized gymnasium, two large classrooms, large training rooms in the basement and full locker room facilities. The orphanage laid the second cornerstone for the new St. John's Administration Building on June 24 of the same year. The building was occupied in March 1959, eight months before the laying of the cornerstone for the new dining hall and kitchen building, which was connected to the rear of the administration building.
Beginning in 1964 the older boys' and girls' cottages were torn down and new cottages constructed. Nine new buildings were completed and named in honor of past employees or benefactors. The cottages were constructed of cinderblock and brick for about $255,000 each. The first floor of each cottage offers spacious living and study areas, as well as a small kitchen, washer/dryer rooms and apartments for the cottage parents. The second floors contain 14 rooms for students and a large central bath and shower room.
|Royster Building's ruins|
In 1973 the Oxford Orphanage Red Devils switched from football to soccer due to equipment costs. The football field saw its last use in the fall of 1972, and Brent Stewart was hired as the orphanage's first soccer coach. The large corn field behind the Proctor Gymnasium was levelled and converted into a soccer and baseball field. The original baseball field was located where the Olympic pool is now, with home plate by the farm office and center field to the rear of Master's Cottage.
Superintendent Gray retired in 1973. Henry F. Flowers succeeded him, but resigned shortly afterwards. Johnny Ferguson had been chosen to succeed Flowers, but was terminated in five months. The Board selected Robert Winston as superintendent in 1975. Under his administration the old Hicks hospital building was destroyed and an infirmary was installed in the second floor of the St. John's administration building.
In 1976 Winston and Grand Master Les Garner reinstated St. John's Day celebration, which hadn't been held since World War II. Initially, the celebration was rather small and held on Sunday – attendance hovered around three or four hundred. The parade lined up behind the Treasurer's Residence, went nearly around “The Circle,” and returned to the field behind Flowers and Regan cottages. The first units included the Sudan Band and the color guard.
In following years the parade outgrew the campus, but local churches protested a parade past their sanctuaries during worship hour. The celebration was moved to Saturday, and attendance exploded to its present size. The first entertaining act was to be Frances Bavier, known as Aunt Bea from Andy Griffith, but she took ill and couldn't attend. They then tried to schedule Don Knotts but he had other obligations. They finally settled on Chub Sewell, a lawyer and public speaker from Carthage. In 1974, the next year, a country music act was scheduled.
Winston resigned in 1981 and "Gabe" Austell was hired on May 25 of the same year. He left the Home on Feb. 3, 1984, and Don Moul succeeded him on Aug. 1, 1984. Moul left the home on Mar. 29, 1989.
In the 1980s the campus of the Orphanage saw several of its older buildings destroyed. 4-G, the last of the original cottages, was demolished in June of 1984. The vacant Duke "Industrial" Building was razed in 1985; later St. John's Day visitors parked their recreational vehicles over its foundation. In 1987 the Oasis Shrine swimming pool was filled in and a new Olympic size pool constructed in the field behind Masters Cottage.
|John Nichols School Building|
The Masonic Home for Children
The Rev. David R. Grissom was selected superintendent and began on January 3, 1990. Well loved and trusted by the children, Rev. Grissom worked tirelessly to improve their education and quality of life. To avoid stigmatizing the children as "orphans" and to better reflect the Home's current population, the administration officially changed the institution's name to The Masonic Home for Children in 1994.
During 1997 and 1998 several generous donors gave money to help renovate the aging York Rite Chapel. Spearheaded by chaplain Sherri Moore, the improvements included replacing the carpet in the sanctuary, installing nine beautiful stained glass windows, and a Yamaha baby grand piano and an Allen digital pipe organ which enjoy the Chapel's wonderful acoustics. In 1998 the empty chapel basement, formerly rented out to the public school system, was converted into a library and educational center for the children with the help of generous donations. The children have access to a computer lab for research and classwork, and now each cottage has several computer workstations with Internet access thanks to a campus-wide fiber-optic network installed in 1999.
In 2000 the Home launched an ambitious campaign to attain state licensing, in addition to improving and expanding services to the children. Construction has begun on a set of new, handicap-accessible one-story cottages situated in a semi-circle beginning just behind Dunn Cottage and wrapping around into the middle of the field behind the swimming pool and tennis courts.
In June of 2003 Reverend Grissom left the home to return to the pulpit full-time, and Mr. Allen Hughes, a former student of the Home, was appointed acting Superintendent.
- A Pictorial History of the Oxford Orphanage
- Facebook Page
- NC Highway Historical Marker
- Photo Album
- The Sixty-Sixth Annual Report (1938)
- The Grand Lodge of NC, Masonic Home for Children page
- YouTube video by Delt∆Riøt25
- YouTube video by the Masonic Home for Children
- Pinterest pictures
- Life At Oxford, a story by Nettie Nichols Bemis
- Avirtual cemetery created by Johnny Mac for alumni of the Oxford Orphanage and the Masonic Home for Children.
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