Fraternal societies flourished in Montana and throughout the United States in the mid to late nineteenth century, an era sometimes called the “Golden Age of Fraternalism.” By 1897, approximately six million Americans were members of a fraternal group and over 200,000 new members were accepted every year.
Fraternal organizations were typically racially segregated and, although membership overlapped, they often catered to different social classes, ethnic groups, and religions. Though exclusively male organizations, each fraternal organization had its own female auxiliary (the Rebekahs and the Pythian Sisters, for example). Fraternalism was tailor-made to counteract increasing isolation associated with industrialization, immigration, and urbanization. Also, before work-place insurance was commonplace, many fraternal orders offered members health insurance and funeral benefits.
Fraternal societies arrived in Montana with early gold seekers and became a central part of almost every Montana community. They typically operated out of rented rooms until they raised capital to purchase property. The Grand Lodge of Montana, formed in Virginia City on January 24, 1866, met in the space over Pfouts and Russell's drug store. In 1867, they moved into their new two-story stone building, still in use by the Masons today. In mining camps like Elkhorn, fraternal orders collectively built a Greek Revival false-front wooden building. Later lodges were built in the popular architectural styles of the day, including Beaux-Arts, Renaissance Revival, Neoclassical, and Egyptian Revival.
Some society’s converted buildings constructed for other purposes into lodges. For example, in Joliet, the Odd Fellows bought the Rock Creek Bank building and in Missoula the Knights of Columbus purchased the Joseph Dixon residence. When fraternal organizations designed a lodge or temple from scratch they often rented the first floor to businesses while reserving the second floor for themselves. In fact, one way to identify a Masonic Temple is to look for a windowless second-story room, where the Masons conducted secret ceremonies.
Lodge membership declined after World War II, but fraternal organizations remain important to many Montanans, and their buildings—many of which are architect designed—still grace Montana’s main streets.