The Secret History

By Kevin Quarmby

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Originally founded in 1834 as a manual labor school to the north of Covington, with young men expected to fulfill their farming duties in the fields as well as study in the classroom, the first Methodist educational project at Oxford soon fell into financial difficulties. Nonetheless, a successful petition of the Georgia legislature in 1836 secured a charter for the school's transition to a "sub-freshmen" liberal arts college, and Emory College, as it was originally called, was born. One name associated with both educational establishments was Emory College's first president, Ignatius Alphonso Few. Hailed as a founding light in the Emory firmament, Few and his short-lived tenure—ill health forced his retirement within a year of the college's opening—are commemorated in a tangible way on the Oxford College Quadrangle. In its center proudly stands the Few Memorial, a pillar-like structure that records the college president's many achievements: his call to the Methodist ministry, his military service, and his devotion to education. Most prominent, however, is the reference to Few's Masonic association. Few and his Masonic "band of brothers" influenced Southern education throughout the Georgia region and beyond.

The spring of 2013 was wet at Oxford College. Rain fell long and hard. On Oxford’s 175-year-old Quadrangle, the paved walkways resembled red brick rivulets crisscrossing the saturated grass. As the grounds became more and more waterlogged, huge trees, some for nearly two centuries offering shelter from Georgia’s searing sun, lost their root-ball foothold. Like stunned Goliaths, these massive giants toppled unceremoniously and frighteningly swiftly, dragging down all that lay in the arc of their demise.

Mercifully, no human would suffer from these surrenders. Oxford’s leadership took wise precautions, especially since open-air Commencement was scheduled for early May. Another tree fall and Oxford’s Class of 2013, along with faculty and some top Emory dignitaries, could be nature’s unwitting victims. Tree specialists scaled and sawed at the college’s remaining verdant heritage. Areas of the Quad were cordoned off with yellow hazard tape as branches were systematically lopped and trunk roots checked for damage or further weakness. Spring 2013, for Oxford College, was not without its drama.

One particularly dramatic fall occurred on the morning of April 4, when a Quad giant succumbed to gravity and toppled ominously toward Seney Hall. The tree’s trajectory sent it crashing into the famous Few Memorial, a square stone pillar that has graced Oxford’s Quadrangle since 1849. This antebellum monument received a glancing blow that dislodged its heavy capstone and demolished the ornate Victorian iron railings guarding its base. Like an unsteady elderly gentleman with his hat askew, the Few Memorial remained standing, battered and bruised from its arboreal bombardment.

The uncanny timing of this act of nature was not lost on a small group of Emory employees for whom the Few Memorial held an immediate significance and fascination. The day before the tree’s damaging descent, the author of this article, accompanied by Randy Gue 94G 97G of Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL), had traveled the forty-odd miles east along I-20 to the town of Greensboro to meet with members of San Marino Masonic Lodge No. 34. This follow-up mission, fully supported by MARBL Director Rosemary Magee 82PhD, was to negotiate Emory’s acquisition of a collection of manuscripts and documents belonging to San Marino, dating back to the lodge’s founding in the 1820s. In addition to a unique eyewitness account of the dedication ceremony for the Few Memorial, these documents also traced the chronology of its conception, funding, and creation. The names of the founding fathers of Emory College, and thus Oxford College and Emory University, fill the pages and sheets of this remarkable antebellum and post–Civil War resource. Was the near destruction of the Few Memorial a message from the grave, or was it yet another sign that Emory’s early history was finally coming to light?

The search for, and acquisition of, this rich archive reads like a dime-novel detective story mixed with twenty-first-century technological good fortune. As a newly arrived assistant professor of English at Oxford College, who is in fact English—I’d traveled from London to Oxford only eight months before to begin my US teaching career—I was intrigued by the overt Masonic symbolism emblazoned on the Few Memorial. A large set square and open compasses stand in proud relief midway up the column’s eastern elevation. Beneath these symbols, a lengthy and effusive inscription describes the Grand Lodge of Georgia’s role in erecting the monument to Ignatius Few, even citing his personal attributes as a “MASON” above those of Methodist “MINISTER of the Gospel” and “PATRON of Education and Learning,” as well as “PATRIOT” colonel in the 1812 war against the British. When questioned, neither Vice President Gary Hauk 91PhD nor Oxford Dean of Campus Life Joseph Moon, the key historians for Emory and Oxford, could offer definitive answers as to the column’s, or the university’s, Masonic heritage. Freemasonry appeared to play a significant, albeit as yet unrecognized, role in Emory’s early years.

Of course, the imagery was not alien to an English “Lewis” (the son of a Freemason), brought up in the British tradition of philanthropy and charitable fund-raising that this fraternity represents today. Gone is the need for covert gathering, when Masonic meetings offered private settings for like-minded individuals to discuss radical political opinion (remember the close Masonic ties of the nation’s founding fathers). In their stead, a fraternity has evolved whose sole purpose is to raise money for national and international charities, the act of giving as anonymous as the persons who give. Freemasonry might have severed its revolutionary ties, but it remains a closed and secretive organization, proud of its history and of its influence.

What, then, to make of the Few Memorial and its overt Masonic association? As for many modern researchers, a first port of call was the Internet and the ubiquitous Google search. Why nobody had keyed in “Ignatius Few,” “Oxford,” and “Freemason” seemed as mysterious as the memorial inscription. Immediately a fascinating news report emerged, digitized by Google Books. A Boston-published Freemasons’ Monthly Magazine article of 1850 reproduces a November 1849 Savannah Republican news item about the “Masonic ceremony of placing the finishing stone upon a Monument to the memory of the Late Rev. IGNATIUS A. FEW,” as “recently performed at Oxford, (Ga.) by the Grand Lodge of this State.” Describing how a “large procession, of whom 560 were Masons, was formed, and proceeded to the Church” (Oxford’s 1841 Old Church), the report describes how an “eloquent and touching address was delivered by the Rev. Dr. Means.”

One can only imagine the sight of such a large gathering as it “moved from the Church to the Monument,” where the 560-strong “Brethren of the Fraternity formed in a circle around [the] base” of the completed structure. All that remained was to place the capstone—that top hat nearly toppled by the 2013 falling tree—with the Worshipful Grand Master of Georgia, William C. Dawson, performing the “appropriate Masonic ceremonies.” The “CORN of nourishment, the WINE of refreshment, and the OIL of joy” being ceremonially sprinkled over the structure, it was left to the “Rev. Dr. George F. Pierce” to close “with prayer.”

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A FEW GOOD MEN: Quarmby (center) with members of San Marino Lodge at the Few Memorial rededication ceremony on March 29, 2014. 

Few, Means, Pierce. These names grace the history books of Emory University, but their Masonic association seemed, as yet, uncharted.

Apart from the obvious excitement surrounding the discovery of this secondhand snapshot of a historically significant ceremony, it raised more questions than it answered. The most obvious stemmed from the mention of a Greensboro Lodge in the article—“San Marino Lodge, No. 34”—that “had first suggested the rearing of this pillar.” As proof of the lodge’s role as the Few Memorial initiator, one of its Past Masters, Y. P. King, “read, from a copy of the minutes of that Lodge, a resolution, calling upon sister lodges throughout the State, to express their approbation of the suggestion.”

What connection did Greensboro have with Ignatius Few? Why should a lodge a day’s horse ride away from Oxford wish to erect a memorial in his honor? Why were so many Freemasons gathered at this educational establishment? What role did Methodism play in Georgia’s Masonic history? So many questions, all posed by a thirty-three-line news report from 1850.

Most intriguing, though, seemed the fact that a copy of the minutes of San Marino Lodge could be read from at all. A copy of the minutes? I could only imagine what such a document might reveal about Emory’s early years. For this Englishman abroad, a geographical bachelor whose family remained in the UK and whose office now represented home, there seemed no better course of action than to follow the trail. More Internet searches revealed references to Y. P. King as a practicing lawyer in Greensboro’s Greene County Courthouse. Likewise, William C. Dawson (US representative and senator for Georgia) was a well-respected Greensboro jury lawyer, whose appointment as judge of the Ocmulgee Circuit Court in 1845 confirms his continued legal interests. As for San Marino Lodge, Grand Lodge of Georgia’s public database confirmed not only the lodge’s continued existence, but also the name and address of the current lodge secretary. If anyone knew about the lodge’s early history, it would be him.

Letters were exchanged, a telephone call arranged, and a trip to Greensboro organized within a matter of days. For a Brit abroad, laughably unable at that stage to drive on the “right” side of the road, such a road trip was impossible without some assistance. Dean Moon, author of an illustrated history of Oxford, agreed to make the journey and add a touch of Southern credibility to this sleuthing venture. We set off for Greene County, Siri sending us down obscure country roads in totally the wrong direction, until we eventually arrived at the lodge building in the center of Greensboro, two blocks from its antebellum courthouse.

Lodge Secretary Jim Moore was there to greet us. A Vietnam veteran, this quiet-spoken, kindly man listened wide-eyed as the tale of San Marino’s association with Oxford unfolded. The lodge had, after nearly 150 years meeting in a purpose-built Masonic temple that occupied the entire top floor of Greene County Courthouse (and which now acts as an additional courtroom), sold and moved to nearby premises in 1997. The move was hasty and, although the original furniture and furnishings were recycled, much of the lodge’s prize historical possessions were necessarily deposited in a back storeroom and forgotten.

The telephone conversations had spurred Moore to search through the cabinets and piles of boxes. On our arrival, he had amassed a small heap of old minute books, letters, and assorted documents. So much material and, on a teaching day, so little time to spend searching through page after page. In an act of unsurprising, though unexpected, generosity, the trusting secretary allowed me to take a boxful of interesting-looking books and papers back to Oxford, to be pored over in the privacy and comfort of my office. Something told me I had struck historical gold. Some sixth sense drove my quest to find the copy of the minutes. It had to be here somewhere; all that was needed was patience and dogged determination.

Back at Oxford, the enormity of the task became evident. There was no systematic arrangement of the material: letters, requests for help, occasional records of punishment for indiscrete liaisons with the wives of fellow Masons. Several large, dusty, handwritten minute books with dates recorded, in Masonic tradition, by adding four thousand years to accommodate the biblical creation story. An undergraduate research assistant eagerly leafed through the archive but, as the time to return the material neared, no sign, no reference, not even a passing mention of Oxford emerged from the pages.

On the eve of the prearranged return trip to Greensboro and the promised restoration of their treasures, a final foray into the dog-eared pages seemed in order. One particularly unimposing minute book remained uninterrogated, its last few pages seemingly ripped from its spine, and some hastily written records roughly sewn in with cord as replacements. The book appeared to be dated later than would be appropriate, but on closer inspection, it proved to span lodge matters pertaining not just to the 1860s, but right back to the 1840s as well. The additional pages, indicative of haste and declining fortunes, recorded the fateful months of war-torn 1864.

Determined to find something of relevance in this final book, I again read each page’s mundane record of lodge meeting after lodge meeting, until a name suddenly sprang to view. Dated January 24, 1846, meeting minutes acknowledged how Bro. Walter R. Branham, accompanied by several “visiting brethren,” had delivered a Masonic sermon at Greensboro’s Union Church. Branham’s name, whose 1840s house on Oxford’s Wesley Street confirms his wealth and status (and whose personal archive resides in MARBL), seemed the first confirmation of an Oxford and Greensboro Masonic connection. This was exciting enough, but what followed might have caused consternation had any passing Oxford police officer seen this normally reserved, late-fifties Brit dancing around his office, punching the air and shouting, “Yes, yes!”

A lodge meeting held September 3, 1846, records the following “resolution” presented in the presence of Grand Master Dawson: “Bro YP King [the lodge’s master] Resolved [to form] a committee to address the several subordinate Lodges within this jurisdiction . . . upon the expediency and Propriety of erecting a Plain and Substantial Monument to the Memory of our late lamented brother Col Ignatius Few.” This handwritten record was the very copy of the minutes referred to at the Few Memorial dedication in 1849. San Marino Lodge No. 34 was indeed instrumental in its erection. Here was the primary evidence; now the excitement of the chase really kicked in. A few pages farther on, even more information sprang to light. The lodge minutes describe how, following the dedication of their Masonic Temple above the newly built Greensboro courthouse on October 17, 1849, the “members of the San Marino Lodge No. 34, in pursuance of an invitation extended to them by the Grand Lodge of the State of Georgia, & addressed to all the subordinate Lodges in the State, attended the Erection of the monument at Oxford, on Friday the 26 day of October 1849 … Erected in honour [sic] of our late Brother Dr Ignatius A Few.” Although this eyewitness account records not 560 Masons, but “some six or seven hundred of the Masonic Fraternity,” the rest of the information remains faithful to the Savannah Republican narrative. The day’s record concludes with a touching tribute: “Long may it stand as a lasting memento of departed worth.”

Such statewide honor for a departed brother notwithstanding, the minute book raised even more questions, not least the extent of the Masonic band of brothers’ influence on the founding of Emory College.

An association with the Greensboro courthouse and, because of its in situ location, San Marino Lodge was certainly feasible given Ignatius Few’s own well-documented legal career. Before his apparent Damascene conversion and calling to the Methodist ministry in 1826, Few was a successful lawyer and head of the Augusta Bar. San Marino’s courthouse lodge most likely attracted lawyers, judges, and attorneys with whom Few had some association. As for Few’s Masonic credentials, these can also be traced relatively easily, at least in relation to the Oxford area. Evidence from the digitization project of Ben Poulson, the present lodge secretary of Golden Fleece Lodge No. 6 in Covington, indicates that Few “affiliated” himself (was already a full-fledged Mason but transferred over) to this local lodge on the evening of December 1, 1838. That year was an important one for Few. He was awarded a doctor of law degree from Wesleyan University and, less than three months earlier on September 17, the first freshmen and some sophomores from Few’s manual labor school were welcomed as boarding students at the newly established Emory College.

Few’s affiliation into the Covington Lodge gave the impression more of a Masonic coup than a benign association. Golden Fleece had seen no new members for more than six years; its fortunes were obviously in decline. That same December evening, however, two more brethren affiliated into the lodge with Few. One was Harmong Lamar.

Thanks to his passion for US political history, Tyler Goldberg 14OX 16C, the undergraduate research student working on this project, immediately recognized Harmong’s surname. He was the brother of Lucius Quintus Cincinattus Lamar I, a Georgia attorney and jurist who committed suicide in 1834, and Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, who fought for Texan independence and became its second president. Harmong Lamar also was the uncle of Lucius Q. C. Lamar II, later secretary of the interior, Mississippi senator, and associate justice of the Supreme Court. Prior to the Civil War, Lucius was a member of the House of Representatives from Mississippi until joining the 1860 Mississippi Secession Convention. Few was associating with a powerful Southern family.

Since Uncle Harmong was Few’s Masonic brother and fellow affiliate, it is not surprising that his then thirteen-year-old nephew Lucius II should later find himself a student at Emory College (graduating 1845). Neither, given the legal associations with the Greensboro band of brothers, should Lucius II’s marriage to the daughter of Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, who inherited Few’s presidency of Emory College, appear anything less than further acceptance into the Masonic family. Longstreet was a respected Greensboro courthouse lawyer, later judge. In 1838, Longstreet entered the Methodist ministry. With the Rev. Dr. Means, who gave the “eloquent and touching” address at Few’s 1849 memorial dedication service, Longstreet helped found the Southern Masonic Female College (SMFC) in Covington (1853–1881), a relatively short-lived experiment for educating young white women in the area, which apparently shared educational resources and faculty with the nearby male-only Emory College. The search through Emory’s Masonic history suggested an ever-expanding band of brothers.

Discoveries from the Masonic archives continue to come to light.From a symbol carved on a memorial pillar, through an Internet search, and on to the discovery and acquisition for MARBL of an astonishing archive, an enigma of Emory’s early history is being—and will continue to be—revealed. A Methodist band of brothers, which through ideological, religious, legal, and philanthropic association fought for education in the unique setting of rural Georgia, may well represent the founding heart of Emory. Masonry’s all-seeing eye offers a fascinating glimpse into our shared past.

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