Business, politics, Masons, and religion 

If Leroy touted his Rotorooter and its edge in his plumbing business, Grandpa answered with his Republicanism. Not that he ever ran for office or even served as an Election Day poll checker, as far as I know. Presumably, he could be counted on to contribute financially to campaigns, but even there I’m in the dark. “I know James was a Republican, but I do not know how involved he was,” Wilma says.

Despite his own partisan identification, Grandpa spoke repeatedly of his friend Jesse Haines, his wife’s second-cousin and Hall of Fame pitcher who was urged to run for county auditor after retiring from Major League Baseball. When Republicans approached Haines to run on the slate, he acknowledged that he was good at dealing with the public but knew nothing of auditing. And so, when elected, he invited his young opponent to become his assistant, the half of the team who actually knew the details of auditing. But there was a caveat: if you accept, you agree not to run against me; in return, when I retire, I’ll support your campaign. As a result, Haines returned to office for seven consecutive terms, totalling 28 years – and, true to promise, on his retirement, Jesse Yoder ran unopposed for successive victories.

I imagine that Grandpa’s Republicanism was somehow interwoven with his freemasonry. I faintly remember he wore the ring and perhaps the lapel pin. Beyond that, and an awareness that Grandma was a member of the women’s auxiliary, Order of the Eastern Star, I know little. What I do realize is that these would have been a repudiation of both their Quaker and Brethren heritage, which opposed both the taking of oaths, secrecy, and favoritism to individuals. The United Brethren had already struggled with the issue, as Tom Crouch describes in The Bishop’s Boys: A Life of Wilbur and Orville Wright:

“A group of young ministers – Liberals, as they would come to be called – argued that the church must be brought into step with the times. Secret societies no longer aroused the horror they had in 1840. The Masonic order had grown from a membership of perhaps 5,000 during the 1850s to as many as 200,000 members by 1865. Membership in a lodge or fraternal order offered a sense of belonging and identity so often missing in the lives of American who had left farms, small towns, or villages for the big city.”

The tension finally led the denomination to split in 1882, with Wright heading the minority conservatives. The description of the sense of belonging and identity for those who left farms and small towns for the city would certainly fit the situation of Leroy and James, in moving to Dayton.

Discussing Bishop Milton Wright, Crouch observes, “Masonry – perceived as an elitist conspiracy whose only real purpose was to confer unfair advantage on its members – ran counter to his most cherished values.” But to a young man, now moved to the city and attempting to establish a livelihood, these connections might be considered helpful to survival or success.

As a child, we attended the Shrine Circus, which performed each year in a pavilion at the County Fairgrounds. I knew we got the tickets through Grandpa, but I didn’t know he was a member of this select group of Masons. The circus seemed a rather weird tradition, something I just couldn’t appreciate within its hawking of cotton candy and Cracker Jacks, the parts we really liked. The trapeze artists, elephants, and lion tamers simply came from a surreal dimension that somehow failed to impress children who had television at home.

We knew the Mason’s large limestone temple next to the Dayton Art Institute overlooked the Great Miami River and downtown. There were later stories Grandpa had planned to sponsor Dad in membership, using money he placed in a cigar box after he gave up smoking cigars. But Dad never joined, and I don’t know if it was for lack of interest or whether Grandpa never pressed the issue. Or, for that matter, what happened to the money.

“I know James was a Mason,” Wilma wrote. “I think it was more for business than anything else.”

Sometime after Grandma’s death and his remarriage, Grandpa sent me “this clipping out of my Shrine Monthly News. I like it very much and a bit of joy comes as I realize I am one – only one – of ‘those Shriners.’” I long ago lost the clipping and now wonder just what it was he so much valued. Nevertheless, Masonic membership was part of his self-identity.

While I’ve relocated repeatedly as my career has demanded, ultimately living in 10 locations (one of them twice) in eight states after leaving Dayton, I’ve found community within my profession, varied interests, and, in time, religion. Grandpa, without college training or fraternity membership or, for that matter, credentials as a war veteran, must have felt largely alone and adrift in his move to the city. For whatever reasons, church affiliation was not sufficient. In setting out in business on his own, connections would be essential. As a Mason, he was part of an old-boy network. All of this is in addition to the deep human yearning to belong to a circle, whatever the price.

What struck me at the funeral home was the fact that in the casket he was draped in the Masonic white apron, and then, when the secret Masonic rites were performed and the family was evicted from the room, the mysterious leaves – myrtle, laurel, sage? – were left behind on the rim. It was enough to make me wonder what other secrets his life had held.

*   *   *

One thing that was inescapable in their house was its religiosity, rather than any underlying spirit of piety or extended discipleship. There was a print on the wall above the mantle of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and another in the living room of Jesus Knocking at the Door. The LP recording with Billy Graham’s soloist, George Beverly Shea, singing “How Great Thou Art” was a favorite. There must have been a hymnal or two at the piano, and tracts or pamphlets beside the sofa.

When it came to music, I don’t know if Grandpa could read the notes and follow the baritone line in the church hymnal, but I do remember his singing there as strong and dramatic, even sanctimonious – something echoed as he joined in the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer or in giving grace around the dinner table.

Once, I asked if he’d ever read the Bible. “Five times, straight through,” he answered.

His theology was no doubt conventional, mainstream Protestant on the fundamentalist side. When new translations of the Scriptures became available, he denounced one because it didn’t use the phrase Virgin Mary – obviously parroting something he’d heard from the pulpit.

Unlike their Quaker and Brethren paternal grandparents, who would have relied on laity for a “free gospel ministry,” both he and Grandma held professional clergy in high esteem. This was one field, along with medicine and perhaps teaching, where higher education was respected. Even so, my mother told of one of the Euclid Avenue ministers who admitted, after Grandma’s death, that he used to steal sermon nuggets from her – that she had more religious insight than he did. Even so, according to Mom, Grandma would say, “Don’t you just feel he’s talking straight to you?” Mom felt no such thing.

When their youngest daughter married, they took great pride in the fact the groom was an ordained minister. Even though Uncle John held only a student pastorate before turning to a career of academic administrator, Grandma’s notes always refer to him as Rev. John Orr – there’s no recognition of the Ph.D. anywhere. Even so, there were also rumors that after many conversations, Grandpa wasn’t all that comforted by his son-in-law’s theology or faith. The Yale Divinity School degree no doubt added to the suspicions.

For all of their religiosity, I have no clue as to when, where, or how Grandpa was baptized. Quakers traditionally rejected any ritual of water baptism – Scripture, after all, also speaks of a baptism of fire – and like the Brethren and Mennonites, believed that baptism, whether of water or the Spirit, was an adult choice. Grandpa’s parents must have argued over the issue, Joshua from the Quaker perspective and Alice from her Lutheran and occasional Presbyterian roots. The United Brethren, meanwhile, were an amalgamation of traditions; they had, for instance, practiced footwashing at a time when many Mennonites didn’t. By the time I came along, the church was practicing the sprinkling of infants, with an expectation of a confirmation service around puberty.

While I have similar questions about Grandma, her father – perhaps maintaining some of his Brethren roots as well as a degree of stubbornness – was not baptized until two days before his death to cancer. The obituary notes it was into the United Brethren faith of his wife.

Grandpa sometimes told of a commercial artist he knew, one who became ashamed of his most successful work – the Four Roses emblem for a brand of whiskey – because of all the lives ruined by that product. Grandpa also spoke of being part of a boys’ class where the teacher blew cigarette smoke into a fishbowl and then, as the fish floated belly-up to the surface, warned that the use of tobacco would do the same thing to humans.

Apparently, the tobacco lesson didn’t halt Grandpa from becoming a regular cigar smoker when he moved to the city. There was, after all, that cigar box he was supposed to fill with the money he saved by not smoking – the one he was going to use to sponsor Dad in Masonic circles. Meanwhile, TJ remembers not being allowed to smoke cigarettes, even though she was once caught in the bathroom and severely reprimanded. This, when Grandpa was still smoking cigars.

As for the liquor, she relates that Grandpa kept a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in the basement stairway “for medicinal purposes,” something both of her brothers-in-law hit on their visits, adding water to the bottle before they left.

TJ paints a stricter portrait of Grandpa and Grandma than I’d held. Where I’d seen their faith largely as a rejection of the old ways of their Quaker and Brethren ancestors, choosing the “fast lane” of the United Brethren, TJ saw more the influence of the holiness revival movement.

On her part, TJ was more rebellious than I’d suspected, too. She was not allowed to go to the movies on Sunday afternoon. But knowing there would always be 10 or 12 people invited over for dinner after church, and that Grandpa would then take a nap in his chair once the men retreated to the living room, she’d go off “for a walk” and meet up with her friends, who would then go to the matinee anyway.

As TJ recalls, Sunday dinner was always a big event. Grandma would put several more chickens in the pot or the oven, in anticipation of guests who would be invited after the service. She spent much of Saturday preparing. When my sister, Jill, remembers having to do a pile of dishes afterward, my wife injects: “No rest for the women, was there?”

When I told TJ I thought she had the nicest room in the house, in part because of the light, she told me of its downside. Grandpa expected her to get up on Saturdays to help her mother, and if she tried sleeping in, he’d take a broom handle and pound the kitchen ceiling – right under her floor.

My mother once wondered what it would be like to have a meal with just Grandpa and Grandma at their house, rather than a crowd. She began to wonder if there was some reason they were afraid of a more intimate dinner. My guess is that it was just their idea of a good time – the more, the merrier. After all, Grandpa had grown up with at least two brothers and three sisters all crowding the table.

TJ remembers she wasn’t allowed to dance or play cards, so she played at her girlfriends’ instead. Grandpa and Grandma, meanwhile, played a card game called rook, insisting it was OK “because you can’t gamble on it.” To which Thelma replies: “You can gamble on anything.”

Still, this was a more relaxed position than Grandpa’s father had taken, when he found Leroy playing with cards, grabbed the deck, and tossed it into the coal-stove. To him, cards, like dancing, were a vain waste of time. In contrast, Grandpa and Grandma were already a leap away by having cards in their house in the first place.

And, yes, you could gamble on anything, including the games Cousin Jesse was pitching.

As for dancing, Wilma said, “All I heard when both my grandmothers were together was how awful dancing was. And shorts. Grandma Ehrstine used to say she would not let her neighbor kids in her house; she did not want them to sit their dirty butts on her chairs.” Since Hannah Binkley’s mother came from Phillipsburg’s leading Quaker family, the anti-dancing views were no doubt influenced by multiple religious denominations, not just United Brethren.


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