The John T. Heard Lodge A.F. & A.M., the Masons, recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, having been chartered in 1864, and is the oldest fraternal organization in Ipswich.
The lodge convened its first meeting in Newman’s Hall. At this meeting members established a tradition, which has been adhered to this day. They voted to convene their meetings the first Wednesday of each month, on or before the full of the moon.
In 1870 the lodge met in the Central Block building, owned by George Wildes, where it occupied the entire third floor. On Jan. 13, 1894, fire destroyed all of the main business section of Central Street and the Lodge lost its library, written history, banner, regalia, furniture, among other artifacts. Because of the fire destroyed the lodge’s early records today’s members are unable to find any records of the preliminary meetings wherein these charter members agreed to petition the Grand Lodge and decided to name their Lodge after John T. Heard.
John T. Heard, himself, had never been, nor did he even become, a resident of the town. He had been a distinguished Grand Master in the Grand Lodge in Massachusetts. His family, however, was a branch of an influential Ipswich merchant family. Doubtless these two factors influenced the early members in their decision.
Later the lodge dedicated quarters in the Tyler Building in 1910. When occupying the Tyler Building in 1931 the apartments were refurbished at a considerable expense and then again in 1958. A Hammond electric organ was purchased in 1948 and installed in the Lodge room and is still used today. The Lodge rooms were ample and able to accommodate the membership, but being on the third floor proved to be inconvenient for many of the members
In 1956 a building committee looked into the possibility of building a new Masonic temple in Ipswich. On Sept. 3, 1958 the lodge voted to approve the purchase of the Walter Hayward property on Topsfield Road, which consisted of a fine old Colonial house and 8.5 acres of land. It was intended to use the spacious rooms of the house for ante-rooms, kitchen and banquet hall and to add a new wing to provide a lodge room. However, the property was only used for a few social occasions when on April 9, 1961, a fire of unknown origin destroyed the house. The membership used the insurance money to build the current temple.
Under the direct and diligent eyes of James L. Tedford and Harris F. Penniman as well as many, many brothers, ground was broken on Sept. 23, 1967 for the current Ipswich Masonic Temple. On June 1, 1968 a special communication of John T. Heard Lodge was held at the Tyler Building on Central Street followed by a parade behind the Clan Wallace Bag Pipe Band for the purpose of participating in the cornerstone-laying ceremony. At 3 p,m, that afternoon Most Worshipful Thomas A. Booth, Grand Master of Masons in Massachusetts, accompanied by the Grand Lodge officers laid the cornerstone of the Ipswich Masonic Temple in accordance with ancient Masonic traditions.
But Ipswich’s Masonic history dates back to the time of the Revolutionary War when Unity lodge was given its charter in 1779. On March 5, 1779, William McKean, Thomas Dodge, and others had petitioned the Massachusetts Grand Lodge praying liberty to hold a Lodge in Ipswich. The petition having been granted, Unity Lodge was established with William McKean as its master and Nathaniel Wade, friend of George Washington, a colonel in the Continental Army and forbear of two of John T. Heard’s masters, among its officers.
During its early period Unity Lodge flourished, as did most of the Masonic Lodges of the same period and its members contributed much to the promotion of the American Revolution. So prosperous was the lodge in its early days, in fact, that it contributed 100 pounds to the children of late Grand Master Joseph Warren. Even though it is probable that this gift was in the depreciated currency of the period, no other similar gift by other Lodges is known.
Among the list of Lodges in commission in Massachusetts in 1792, Unity Lodge stood 14th in rank. Gradually, from that time, however, the Lodge seemed to be oppressed intermittently with financial difficulties. Five times in the next 30 years the Lodge petitioned for remission of its Grand Lodge dues, though the request was not always granted.
Finally, at an indeterminate date, between 1830 and 1833 Unity Lodge passed unobtrusively out of existence. For a period of about 30 years, 1833-1864, Ipswich did not have a Masonic presence.
Today, John T. Heard Lodge is very active in the community with blood drives, a medical equipment program, and an Angel Fund, which reaches into both of the elementary schools in the town. The lodge received the prestigious Mark Twain National Awareness award in 2010, awarded for exemplary work towards achieving lodge recognition within the community and continues today to play a large role in the town.
In addition, the lodge has direct involvement in the Ipswich Dinner Bell community meals program. Most recently, the lodge played a key role in helping with the construction of the new playground at Winthrop school. The lodge has held a summer fundraiser over the past three years and has raised in excess of $20,000 for cardiac research. The Lodge also actively participates in the High School’s scholarship program having committed over $75,000 to the future leaders of our community over the past 30 years.