Back in October, I wrote about the painter Archibald Willard and his relationship to Wellington’s Masonic Lodge #127. Willard was a member from 1867 until 1891 (more than a dozen years after he moved away from the village) and began his tenure there by decoratively painting the interior of their new hall on South Main Street, sadly no longer standing. I undertook this research nearly a year ago, at the request of the lodge, when they came into possession of three enormous painted panels, full of Masonic symbology and with at least one panel signed by Willard.
I have continued to research the provenance of these extraordinary objects. In the museum world, “provenance” is the term indicating the unbroken record of ownership of an object, which can be used to authenticate its origins (i.e. prove that it was created by a particular person, or in a particular region or time period) and that, in turn, may affect its value. It’s rather like a chain-of-deed on a house. In establishing an object’s provenance, the researcher builds a record of ownership with supporting evidence like bills of sale, letters, photographs, etc. The goal is to move backward in time, from the present day to the theoretical day the object was created. And it can be just as challenging as it sounds.
I debated how to construct this post. Would it be easier for readers to follow the thread of the narrative moving forward or backward in time? I decided that since the flow of the research progressed from present to past, that is how I would lay out the story. I hope that this structure will illuminate not only the timeline, but also the research process itself.
Our journey backward in time begins in early 2016. Wellington Lodge #127 took physical custody of three oversized paintings on canvas, rolled together on one tube, from the Ohio Masonic Home in Springfield, Ohio. Staff at the OMH knew that they had held the three objects for some time, but the Wellington Lodge was not immediately able to connect to anyone with first-hand knowledge of how long the panels had been in Springfield, nor where they had come from previously. The Wellington lodge reached out to me to ask if I would assist them in conducting historical research to try and answer those questions.
Over a process of many months, we were eventually able to speak with several past and present staff members of OMH, and learned that there was a folder of information somewhere within their offices, which was thought to hold the key to solving the mystery. The folder was eventually located, and though it did not contain everything we had hoped for, it did hold the clue that took us one step further back in time: thank you letters to members of a now-defunct lodge, West Mansfield #588, for donating “these absolutely beautiful, historical murals” to the Ohio Masonic Home. The letters were dated June 2004.
In chasing down information about the now-defunct West Mansfield Lodge, I reached out to Knowlton Library in Logan County, in the hopes that they had a local history room. They forwarded my query to the Logan County Historical Society, which was incredibly fortuitous for me. Ms. Beth Marshall, the Archivist/Assistant Curator of the society, has been invaluable in her assistance and generous in the donation of her time. The LCHS not only maintains a local newspaper collection, but also holds a collection of local Masonic materials. And incredibly, one of Ms. Marshall’s most dedicated volunteers is a man named Donald Corwin, who was both a member of West Mansfield Lodge #588, and remembered the panels personally. Mr. Corwin provided a wealth of oral history leads to follow.
West Mansfield Lodge #588 merged in 1996 with East Liberty Lodge #247. Mr. Corwin informed me that in the interim period, between the 1996 merger and the 2004 donation of the panels to the Ohio Masonic Home in Springfield, the panels “adorned [the] Harriet Chapter OES.” OES is the Order of the Eastern Star, a Masonic-style organization open to men who are Master Masons and female relatives, spouses, and descendants of Master Masons. Mr. Corwin was kind enough to send a few snapshots showing the panels hanging on the walls of the hall.
We now take our biggest leap backward in time. Mr. Corwin recalled that the oral history of the panels within the West Mansfield Lodge was that they had been on display for “nearly a century” and had been given to West Mansfield by a lodge in nearby Bellefontaine. The transfer of the panels was accomplished using a horse and carriage, so the story said. Bellefontaine no longer needed the panels because they had supposedly acquired a state-of-art magic lantern for projecting images.
In order to establish the provenance of the panels, we must try to back up each assertion with documentary evidence. Mr. Corwin was able to gain access to the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century meeting minutes for Bellefontaine Lodge #209, and found several entries that seem to substantiate the particulars of the story.
An undated entry from 1904 reads, “On motion, the Trustees of the Lodge were appointed as a committee to conf[er] with the Chapter, as to the purchase of the Stereopticon and views, and report to the Lodge.” (Stereopticon is another period term for a magic lantern.) And then on January 16, 1906, this: “Also moved + seconded that we present (with our compliments) such scenes of ours as would not [be] need[ed] in new lodge rooms to West Mansfield Lodge #588, West Mansfield, O” (pg. 274). One day later, a follow-up notice reads: “Transfer of scenery to West Mansfield 588 With compliments of the Lodge members” (Minutes of the Bellefontaine Lodge, 1897-1911, pg. 275).
The astute reader will note that we have not yet connected Archibald Willard to this narrative, nor have we definitively connected our written record to our physical objects. Though the 1906 entries I have just noted, coupled with the oral history of a lodge member, provide a strong circumstantial case, there is still work to be done to strengthen the chain of ownership.
Mr. Corwin was able to locate earlier entries within the Bellefontaine Lodge #209 minutes that also appear relevant to our story. On December 21, 1875, the lodge voted to donate “Twenty Five Dollars, towards buying 3 paintings for use of Lodge Room” (Minutes of the Bellefontaine Lodge, 1897-1911, unnumbered page). The following year, in April 1876, this note appears: “Broth[er] Elmer was granted an order on the Treas. for 5.00 for amount he had paid Mr. W.B. Soudare [sic] for work done on paintings” (ibid.). W.B. Soudaire was apparently a decorative painter and paperer who died in Toledo shortly after this entry was recorded.
What was Soudaire’s relationship to Bellefontaine’s interior decoration project? Did he know Archibald Willard? Were they working together, or at least during the same time frame, Willard on the panels (probably in his Cleveland studio; more on that below) and Soudaire on-site in the Bellefontaine lodge room? Was Soudaire doing the finish work on the rest of the room? Or was he in fact originally hired to paint the three massive panels, and his death left an unfinished commission that Archibald Willard eventually completed? At present, we do not know.
What we do know about Archibald Willard is that 1875/76 was a crucial moment in his career. Since at least 1873, he had been working with a Cleveland photographer called James Fitzallan Ryder (1826-1904). When Willard painted his “Pluck” works that year, Ryder caused a public stir by displaying them in the newly-installed plate glass windows of his studio, and offering inexpensive chromolithograph versions for sale. Ryder encouraged Willard to create a work for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, to be marketed on the same model, and the iconic “Spirit of ’76” was the result. This is what Willard was working on during the period the panels were first commissioned.
Ryder’s studio was located at 239 Superior Avenue in Cleveland. Willard appears in the 1875 Cleveland City Directory, listed as a “Fresco Painter,” with a studio at nearby 205 Superior Avenue. By the following year he had relocated even closer to Ryder, into the second-floor commercial spaces of Cleveland’s City Hall, then located at 233 Superior Avenue (present-day location of the Cleveland Public Library main branch).
Also operating nearby on Superior Avenue that same year was a man called Max R. Cooks. He was part of several “fresco painting” firms before settling into a family business called Cooks Brothers. By 1883, his company had relocated one street over, to Euclid Avenue, which in that era was known as “Millionaires’ Row.” Cleveland was home to many of the nation’s most wealthy and powerful industrialists (including John D. Rockefeller), sustaining multiple interior design firms in operation in the city.
In his book, The Spirit of ’76…An American Portrait (1976), Willard F. Gordon–a descendant of the artist–asserted that Max Cooks was a close friend of Archibald Willard and considered him a “genius.” He employed Willard, presumably as a sub-contractor for the Cooks Brothers firm, to “paint frescos and stucco reliefs in many northern Ohio churches, homes of prominent citizens, and public buildings” (56). Gordon cites the painting of the New Cleveland Opera House and the creation of three murals in Washington Court House, Ohio in 1882 as specific examples of their professional partnership.
I was not able to learn much about Max Cooks, nor substantiate the business connection to Willard through other primary sources. In 1947, Cooks’ widow, Clara, was on a bus tour which passed through Washington Court House and asked to see the murals painted by Archibald Willard under her late husband’s employment. No one apparently remembered that Willard had created the murals, and the story proved so popular that it was periodically featured in The Plain Dealer over the following decades (for example, 2-24-1957, pg. 9 and 11-21-1976, pg. 38). Mrs. Cooks’ obituary noted her membership in the Alice Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star.
Was Max Cooks a mason? Was he the conduit through which Willard obtained the commission to paint three enormous Masonic teaching boards? Did Willard execute the commission in his Cleveland City Hall Studio? How long did it take to complete? Were the enormous paintings shipped back down to Bellefontaine via train or wagon, or both? For every question that seems answered, five more crop up to take its place.
The three Masonic tracing boards currently housed at the Spirit of ’76 Museum in Wellington were apparently created at the request of Bellefontaine Lodge #209, sometime after 1875. We do not know how Archibald Willard came to be connected to the project; at present, only his signature on one of the three panels provides evidence of his authorship. Willard was operating out of studios in Cleveland from this time until the end of his life, so it seems most likely he painted the panels there, in the absence of any evidence of a protracted stay in Logan County. Given the evidence of the Bellefontaine Lodge minutes, I presume the “3 paintings” they ordered are the same three objects now housed 140 years later in Wellington. The work was therefore completed prior to 1906, when Bellefontaine donated them to West Mansfield Lodge #588. Archibald Willard died in Cleveland in 1918.