When I began writing this blog three years ago, I made two promises to myself. 1) I would never stray outside of the nineteenth century. 2) I would never write about Myron T. Herrick or Archibald Willard. The reason for this second promise was simply that Herrick and Willard are, by far, the best known figures from Wellington’s past, and both have had articles and books aplenty published about their lives. I did not feel that I could contribute anything new to either story, so I vowed to steer clear.
I can cheerfully report that I have since broken both of those promises, wandering back into the eighteenth century and forward into the twentieth…and beyond. I have even written about topics that brushed gently against the lives of both Herrick and Willard. But today I offer up something unprecedented: a post dedicated to the life of Archibald Willard and, I believe, on an aspect of his biography that has never before been documented.
Regular readers of the blog will recall that for some months past, I have made reference to an ongoing research project of a larger scale than that for my standard posts. Early in 2016, I was contacted by members of Wellington’s Masonic Lodge #127. They were about to come into possession of something wonderful: three enormous and previously unknown paintings by Archibald Willard. They wondered if I could assist them in researching the history of the pieces, and in having them “restored.” As it happens, I worked for a number of years at a regional art conservation center based in Cleveland. I put the lodge in contact with a talented, AIC-accredited paintings conservator and in March of this year we all came together to study these unusual objects.
Wellington Lodge #127 has always known that Archibald Willard was once its member. They have beautiful, leather-bound ledger volumes from the nineteenth century that record his joining, and faithfully paying dues even years after he moved away from the village. But there is even more to be told about Willard’s connection with the Wellington Masons. And since October 11th is the 98th anniversary of his death, now seemed a perfect time to share that story.
The first meeting of a potential Masonic lodge in Wellington occurred in a garret under the eaves of the Wellington House–later called the American House–in 1844. It would be eleven more years before young Arch Willard, then aged nineteen, moved to the village with his family. The teenager had some nascent artistic talent, and got a job at Tripp’s Carriage Depot, where he was soon employed doing decorative painting on the vehicles. (He was also later employed by the Couch furniture company for the same purpose.)
September 13, 1858 is a day that is remembered in local and national history as the day of the Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue. What is less well remembered is the fact that so many people were present on the village green and able to participate in the famous rescue, because they were already there observing a large fire as it swept through the business block on the west side of South Main Street. Most of the buildings were completely destroyed, including the large brick building on the corner, owned by Dr. Eli Boies. By 1858, the Masons had relocated their meeting hall into Boies’ building, and consequently lost everything in the fire. It was to be the first of several such devastating fire events for the Wellington lodge.
Dr. John Rust also lost his wood-frame building in the September 13th fire. Masonic records indicate that in October, the lodge discussed the fact that “Do. J. Rust was about to rebuild his Drug Store and had offered the Lodge the priviledge [sic] of putting on the thrice Story he putting on the roof and the Lodge paying him One Hundred and fifty Dollars ground rent” (Wellington Masonic ledger, vol. 1, 10/26/1858 entry). The group voted to accept the offer, and began raising funds to pay for the third-floor addition.
The building was erected in 1859 and its third-floor Masonic Hall was dedicated and celebrated with a special event at the Congregational Church on January 17, 1860. The nation, meanwhile, was careening toward four years of war, during which time Archibald Willard would serve two tours of duty in the Union army, marry local girl Nellie Challacombe, and see the first of their five children born.
By 1866, the war had ended and Wellington’s Masons were already having problems with their facilities. The chief issue seems to have been inadequate space, and a committee was formed in June to determine “what a new Hall will cost, what we can sell our present Hall for~” (Masonic ledger, vol. 1, undated pre-6/30/1866 entry). Instead, less than a month later, the committee reported that conditions for building were “unfavorable” but “propositions have been made to enlarge our own Hall by extending to the west” (7/24/1866 entry). The lodge voted to agree to the extension proposal, and once again commenced fundraising to pay for the work.
On September 12, 1866, The Lorain County News reported that “the Masons are enlarging their hall by putting on twenty-one feet to the length and raising the roof, adding a Reading and Reception Room, which will make it a very fine Hall” (pg. 3). And then, for the first time, Archibald Willard makes an appearance in the records of the lodge, petitioning for membership on February 2, 1867. The committee formed to review his petition reported favorably, and he was elected into the lodge in March, when he was thirty years old.
One day after Willard’s election, the following notice appeared in The Lorain County News:
“Masonic Hall. The new Hall just finished by the Free Masons is one of the best in the State. The furniture, carpets, chandeliers &c., are all new and of a splendid quality. The walls and ceiling are frescoed in the finest manner. Four large paintings decorate the walls. The one in the east represents the rising sun reflecting its rays upon the ruins of castles on the distant hills. The one in the south represents midday with the trees and plants of the tropics. The north represents icebergs with a frail ship dashing among them and overtopping all is the Aurora Borealis sending up its glare to the blue sky above. The west represents rocky hills and extension [sic] plains, with wild scenes almost to the setting sun. The ceiling overhead represents the blue sky interspersed with clouds with twinkling stars glistening beautifully in the light of the splendid chandelier. Several miles of striping around the pannels [sic] on the walls and ceiling add greatly to the beauty of the whole—This work was done by our young townsman, Mr. A. Willard, and reflects great credit to him as an artist. The plans and designs of the hall and all its fixtures were mostly by Mr. L. Bowman who has been indefatigable in his labors to have every thing well done and in good taste. It will repay any one to visit this beautiful Hall” (3/20/1867, pg. 3).
The “Mr. L. Bowman” mentioned as being responsible for heading up the expansion and redecoration was Levi Bowman, a Jewish businessman born in Germany who was treasurer of the lodge. He and his wife raised eight children in Wellington, and Levi owned a clothing shop in the building immediately adjacent to Houghton’s. (Lepha Sherman Houghton was employed in Bowman’s shop when she moved from Massachusetts to Wellington; it was there she met married tailor Jack Brown and became pregnant with his child. She later died from a botched abortion attempt.) Bowman was a member of Lodge #127 for more than forty years, until he moved to Dayton just before the end of his life in 1900.
It is Levi Bowman’s name that is listed in Masonic records as the person who recommended Willard for membership in the lodge, and Willard’s profession is noted not as “mechanic,” as might be expected for someone working in a carriage shop in the period, but as “painter.” Masonic rituals and symbology were closely-held information in the mid-nineteenth century, and I am tempted to wonder if Willard in some sense had to become a Mason in order to secure the lucrative job of decorating their hall. He progressed through the three degrees of Entered Apprentice, Fellow Craft, and finally Master Mason, finishing on May 21, 1867. On July 16th, a list of bills presented to the lodge for compensation included “One by A.M. Willard $75” (Wellington Masonic ledger, vol. 2, pg. 28). This was presumably the bill for painting services. But then on September 10th, this curious entry appears: “It was then moved, sec’d + carried by vote of Lodge that the fees for conferring the Degrees of E.A. F.C. + M.M. be remited [sic] to Bro. A.M. Willard” (pg. 33). I examined thirty years worth of Masonic records and this is the only instance I found of any member having his initiation fees returned by the lodge.
Willard paid annual dues to Lodge #127 until he withdrew in December of 1891, thirteen years after he left the village and moved his family to Cleveland. If he was an active member of the group during his residence in town, it is not reflected in existing records. I can find no mention of him ever serving as an officer–except for one day in 1872, when he stood in for an absent member. The only committee I found any reference to him serving on was also formed in 1872, to assess “the condition of the hall” (pg. 194). The building was experiencing water leaks, and it makes sense that the artist who painted the space was asked to inspect the impact on his work.
The Masons endured the water leaks, and another fire in 1881 that damaged, but did not destroy, the Houghton building. In 1900, a massive fire leveled the three-story brick building on the corner of Main Street and what is now West Herrick Avenue. A group of Masons decided to pool their resources and build a “splendid business house…The third floor is to be finished off into one large room, and would be ideal quarters for the Masonic fraternity, the members of which have hoped to secure it for the blue lodge and Chapter” (Wellington Enterprise, 3/26/1902, pg. 1). Ironically, as this modern edifice was being erected, the Masons’ first home in Wellington, the American House, was being demolished to make way for a new public library, a gift to the community from none other than Myron T. Herrick.
The Reserve Building was erected over the course of 1901 and 1902. In December 1902, The Wellington Enterprise reported that “the contract for finishing off the third floor of the new Reserve building will be let soon, and before spring the new Masonic quarters will be in readiness for the fraternity. When these rooms are finished Wellington Lodge F. & A.M. [i.e. Free and Accepted Masons] will be as comfortably quartered as any society in Lorain county” (12/24/1902, pg. 1) Unfortunately, there is a gap in the surviving copies of the Enterprise, so we know only that the Lodge was comfortably settled by the spring of 1904.
What, then, of the enormous paintings acquired by Lodge #127 this year? They have been donated by the lodge to the Southern Lorain County Historical Society, also known as the ‘Spirit of ’76’ Museum; the two groups are now working together to secure conservation funding. We know the panels were painted by Willard, as one of the three is signed by him. They appear to be Masonic tracing boards, teaching objects produced in groups of three and used for instruction within a lodge. The precise provenance of the panels has not yet been established; we can say only that they were painted by Willard and so must date within the span of his artistic career, ca. 1860 to 1918. My research is ongoing and will hopefully be the topic of a future post.