This Was Then: Royal Society of Good Fellows

Fraternizing on the Island, with benefits.

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The turn of the twentieth century was an era of fraternal organizations and social societies. The Island had long hosted the Freemasons, of course, who met at the Masonic Hall in Vineyard Haven and the Oriental Lodge in Edgartown, as did their female counterparts, the Order of the Eastern Star. Vineyard Haven had the W.C.T.U., and Oak Bluffs had the Grand Army of the Republic (Henry Clay Wade Post No. 201), and their female auxiliary, the Woman’s Relief Corps.

Following this tradition, Assembly No. 187 of the Royal Society of Good Fellows opened in Vineyard Haven in 1888 and operated until 1905. Like the other groups, the R.S. of G. F. was known for picnics, bike races, gatherings, and parties. But unlike most of the others, the primary function of the Good Fellows was actually to sell life insurance. Men interested in membership were required to have a medical examination to certify their health, and dues were paid into the “Widows and Orphans Benefit Fund.” The island branch reportedly underwrote $56,000 of insurance in their first year.

The first Good Fellows Hall was located above the post office on the third floor of Lane’s Block, on the corner of Union and Main Street in Vineyard Haven (today occupied by Leslie’s Drug Store.) In early 1889, huge letters “R. S. of G. F.” were installed upon the exterior of the building to announce its location. About 1896, the lodge moved over Swift Brothers’ grocery store, in the building today occupied by Brickmans. Members gathered there every Monday.

A new “Ruler” was elected to lead the Good Fellows nearly every year, including harnessmaker John Daily (1888), trap fisherman Oscar Bradley (c. 1889), blacksmith Prentiss Bodfish (1891), night watchman Timothy Shugrue (c. 1895), mason Henry Swift (1896-7), fisherman Henry McLellan (1890, 1898), and grocer Herbert Walker (1900). Other members filled an annual slate of unique positions, including “Instructor,” “Counsellor,” “Prelate,” “Guard,” and “Sentry.”

The Good Fellows weren’t alone in the insurance business. The New England Order of Protection was another fraternal organization with a short-lived presence on the Island, and whose principal purpose, other than “entertainments,” also seemed to be selling life insurance. By 1907, they were meeting twice a month in Oak Bluffs. 

And don’t confuse the Royal Society of Good Fellows with the Independent Order of Odd Fellows in Oak Bluffs, a much older organization whose moniker undoubtedly influenced the naming of the R.S. of G.F. The Odd Fellows originally met in a hall shared with a bowling alley in the back of what’s now the Strand Theater. In 1917, the Odd Fellows Hall was built on the corner of Pasque and Sea View Avenue. The new building, today occupied by the Lookout Tavern, was erected and owned by Saleem Mattar, a native of Beirut, then the capital of Syria. Mattar’s “Original Oriental Palace of Art” was a mainstay of Circuit Avenue for decades, selling imported carpets and “fancy goods” where Linda Jean’s is today. After the lodge closed, Mattar continued to sell “oriental goods” and artwork from his North Bluff building for many years. The Odd Fellows met every Monday; its female counterpart, the Martha Rebekah Lodge, met every other Wednesday.

The Improved Order of Red Men, and its female auxiliary group, the Degree of Pocahontas, became popular on the Island in the early 20th century. The Webataqua Tribe, No.163 of Oak Bluffs was founded in 1907, followed by the Nunnepog Tribe of Edgartown about 1914, and the Tashmoo Tribe, No. 98 about 1919. Vineyard Haven carpenter Fred Smith became their first “sachem.” The members, none of whom were Native American, wore long black wigs, feathered war bonnets, and fringed buckskin outfits. About 1923, the I.O.R.M. erected a building in downtown Vineyard Haven — today occupied by the Bunch of Grapes — to house their growing organization. The Red Men, too, offered a small “death benefit,” like the R.S. of G.F. and the N.E.O.P. Membership peaked nationally in 1921; but until 1974, the organization was open to white members only. 

Membership in the Royal Society of Good Fellows peaked state-wide in 1889, their annual meetings in Boston attended by governors and senators alike, and five million dollars in claims paid out across the state to the families of deceased members. But their debts began to accumulate, membership went into decline, and death benefits shrank. Finally, in 1905, the organization dissolved both state-wide and locally, and claims went unpaid. The Vineyard Haven hall was remodelled into an apartment in 1906.