Brooks C. Dodson, Jr., 33°
319 Rexburg Avenue, Ft. Washington, MD 20744–6104
A small Lodge in rural Virginia established a barter system to help its community through the hard times of the 1930s.
Brotherhood, Relief, and Truth—there was never a more urgent need to apply Masonic tenets than during the Great Depression. Members of a rural lodge in south-central Virginia, Payton-Coles Lodge No. 54 of Sutherlin, Virginia, responded by creating and maintaining a unique barter system among all of the residents of their community. I personally knew all these individuals.*
The prosperity of the Roaring '20s diminished and finally ended in economic chaos for most Americans during the early to mid-1930s. Businesses went bankrupt and banks closed. Individuals lost jobs and life savings, and families lost their homes. In large cities or urban areas, breadlines and soup kitchens, sometimes provided by benevolent organizations, were the only means of survival for the more destitute residents. The popular singers Rudy Valee and Bing Crosby summarized the situation in the song, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"
Farming families were generally less affected than their urban counterparts. Most had some degree of self-sufficiency to provide the basic necessities of life. Such was the case in the Sutherlin community, located 15 miles east of Danville, Virginia, near the North Carolina state border. Farms extended along a radius of approximately 10 miles in each direction from the train station on Southern Railway's Richmond–Danville rail line. The frequent trains, provided newspapers, mail, transportation, freight, and a means for residents to ship their products out to market. Many of the residents of this rural community were Masons.
In most rural communities, educational, religious, social, and recreational activities were provided by schools or churches. Sutherlin was different in that it had a very active Masonic Lodge and tended to rely on it to assist in supporting these activities. There was even a sponsored baseball team complete with equipment, uniforms, and a volunteer manager who was an officer in the Lodge. A baseball field was provided and kept by one of the farmers nearby. The children of the community eagerly looked forward to the annual Masonic holiday party with Christmas tree, ornaments, and Santa Claus. My father acted that part as he handed out fruit, nuts, candy, and homemade clothes and toys to all of the kids. The church also held a religious program during Christmas, with members of the Lodge acting as shepherds and wise men and helping, generally, with the production.
Farm income was derived from basic crops of tobacco, wheat, corn, and hay. Several of the more progressive farmers also had incomes from dairies, beef cattle, or poultry, pork, and sheep. Almost every family had a vegetable garden, and the wives of several Lodge members held periodic canning sessions in their homes or in the local elementary school on Saturdays. One of these wives was a teacher at the school. Canned goods were divided among the community participants with some reserved for the aged, sick, and disabled. One enterprising Lodge member cultivated orchards of apples, peaches, pears, cherries, and other fruits. He also had numerous hives of honeybees which pollinated his fruit trees and provided large amounts of honey to supplement the family's income.
It was this unlimited variety of consumer products that enabled members of the Masonic Lodge to create and maintain a community barter system to minimize and help relieve the effects of the depression among all of the residents, regardless of their station in life. Individual or family needs were reciprocally satisfied by the exchange of goods, services, or labor. For example, if a poultry farmer needed wheat or cracked corn to feed his flock, he might exchange eggs or chickens with some other farmer who had an abundant supply of wheat and corn. Similarly, someone who raised pork could likely exchange bacon or ham for fruit, with the owner of the orchards. The dairy farmer frequently traded butter and milk for hay to feed his herd of milk cows. And so it was with the Masonic barter system between residents of the Sutherlin community.
Rural electrification was yet to come, so in order to keep perishable foods, many of the families had an icehouse. During winter months, Lodge members organized and conducted community ice collections from the local millpond. Gathered ice was sawed into blocks and divided among the participants and other residents. Ice was packed in straw, sawdust, and newspapers and stored in icehouses, which had been dug out of the earth. This natural refrigeration kept food chilled throughout the warmer months of spring, summer, and early fall.
Not all Sutherlin residents were farmers. There were several small businesses clustered around the railroad station. Included were two country stores, one of which had belonged to my grandfather and was later owned and operated by my parents. The other belonged to a Lodge member, and both stores traded staple goods such as coffee, sugar, kerosene, shoes, clothing, and hardware for farm produce, often at a loss of profit. A part-time community barber usually cut men's and boy's hair at one of the stores on Saturday night so they would look presentable on Sunday morning in church. The charge was fifteen cents or a pack of cigarettes, sometimes two "Cokes."
At different points in time, both stores had housed the Post Office. The Post Master had been serving as Secretary of the Lodge for years. The three "Rural Free Delivery" mail carriers made sure the Lodge's trestleboard was delivered in a timely manner. Two of the mail carriers were Masons, one being an appointed Deacon of the Lodge.
The largest and by far the most prosperous business in Sutherlin was a large flour and gristmill, powered by a waterwheel connected to a nearby millpond. The pond provided residents with a place to fish, swim, and even try their hands at boating. The mill was owned and operated by generations of Masons. The eldest male of each succeeding generation was traditionally given the first name of Hiram. The youngest was my childhood playmate. The patriarch was said to have been a Virginia Grand Lodge officer in the late 1800s. It was this old, aristocratic family that donated the land and much of the materials for building the community's Methodist Church. A cemetery was located at the back and enclosed with a tall and sturdy wrought iron fence. A Masonic Lodge was located on the 2nd floor, over the sanctuary, with a separate outside stairway entrance. One resident was a retired railroad official and a former member of the Board of Trustees of a Danville bank before it closed during the Depression. No doubt, based on his business background, he was chosen to serve as the Treasurer of the Lodge. His daughter, a highly educated teacher, taught in the local school and served to coordinate all of the Masonic activities held at the school or on its grounds. Included were ice cream suppers, picnics, hot dog roasts, fish fries, and sometimes entertainment, all held to benefit the poor and distressed residents of the community. This family gave much of its time and resources to the Lodge in general and to the neighborhood in particular.
Sutherlin had a sawmill, lumber yard, cabinet and furniture makers shop all rolled into one thriving business. The owner was a part-time undertaker, who often constructed coffins for the deceased of poor families. Accompanied by the minister of the church and chaplain of the Lodge, they made sure that every deceased person in the community received a decent funeral, many times without charge. This same Brother took care of the furniture and furnishings of the Lodge.
Another Brother owned and operated a livery stable and blacksmith shop. He also attempted to repair the few cars that were in the neighborhood. Roads were not paved, so the infrequent Ford, Model T or Model A, was virtually useless in inclement weather, particularly during hard winter months. This Brother kept the Lodge and its contents in good repair while serving as Tiler. In the barter system, he often exchanged services for hay, straw and food, both for his horses and his family.
There were two doctors to care for the health problems in the community. The older was appointed doctor to the Lodge and lived only about 100 yards from the Lodge Hall. He served in a Virginia Regiment during the Civil War. Although in his 80s, he still actively practiced medicine in his well-equipped office at the back of his home. There were several cots or beds to care for the seriously ill until they could be moved, or recovered sufficiently that they could be cared for at home. One of his daughters was a nurse, and the office was stocked with the more commonly used medicines and medical necessities. The other doctor was a recent medical school graduate and made house calls via horseback to those who, for whatever reason, were unable to get to the other doctor's office. Both treated the sick regardless of their ability to pay and often took produce, manual labor, or services in exchange for medical treatment. When a particular drug was needed and not available, the local Western Union telegrapher would wire in a prescription to a pharmacy in Danville or Richmond, and it would arrive within hours on the next passing train. The telegrapher was a Mason and believed to have covered many of those expenses out of his own pocket.
This successful barter system, created and maintained by members of the Lodge, continued through the Depression and well into the late 1930s and early 1940s. How it was continuously supervised and administered remains to this day a mystery known only to the involved members. Peace and harmony obviously prevailed throughout this time, since no one ever recalled an incident in which disagreement or ill will occurred regarding any attributed unequal value of exchanged goods, services, or labor.
Decades passed, and dramatic changes took place in communication, education, transportation, and technology, along with means for providing incomes. Sutherlin no longer exists as it did during the Depression years. The railroad station was torn down, trains discontinued, and even the station's iron nails were scrapped. The Post Office was relocated and consolidated with another many miles away. The old landmark flour mill has succumbed to the ravages of time, along with all of the small businesses that were located near the train station. Only a very few of the farming descendants chose to remain on the farms and actually raise crops. Most elected to move elsewhere, while those remaining took better-paying jobs and now commute to nearby towns in Virginia or North Carolina where industries settled following World War II. This is understood in today's society as progress, but I wonder.
All of the good Brethren of that small, rural Masonic Lodge, who where directly responsible for creating and administering the barter system that aided the entire community, have long since passed to the Celestial Lodge above. The only remaining evidence that they ever existed is recorded in the Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of Virginia and the Square and Compasses that are carved on the tombstones, which mark their final resting places in the cemetery at the back of the church that contained the Lodge Hall. The Lodge no longer exists; it first went dark and later disestablished many years ago. How very sad indeed that their example of fraternal love and affection among members of a community seems today to have also passed with them.
Modern financial controls, along with government regulations, have been created to prevent any future depression of the magnitude experienced during the Great Depression. We certainly hope so! Nevertheless, family, religious, and community values have seriously diminished. Should such a depression, somehow, ever occur again, would these same tenets of Masonry be as unselfishly applied (or even legally allowed to be applied) as they were in that small, rural Virginia Lodge, almost three quarters of a century ago? That is a question that today's Masons, I hope, will never have to answer. But if ever so challenged, my faith is that Freemasonry will again fulfill the tenet of Relief so central to our Craft.
*The author wishes to thank Brother Samuel G. Bennett, 32°, Valley of Danville, Virginia, Treasurer, Kent Lodge No. 305, Kentuck, Virginia, for his assistance in researching this article. Payton–Coles Lodge No. 54 of Sutherlin, Virginia, chartered in 1880, dissolved in 1951 by merging with Kent Lodge No. 305
Brooks C. Dodson, Jr.
is a retired Associate Superintendent, Aerospace Systems Division, at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. He is Past Master of Seat Pleasant Lodge No. 218 in Maryland and a dual Scottish Rite Member in Alexandria, Va., and Washington, D.C., where he served as Associate Director of Work. He is a Past Presiding Officer of all York Rite Bodies in Washington; Honorary Past Grand Commander of Knights Templar; dual member of York Rite in Md.; York Rite College; and a member of Knight York Cross of Honour. Other tri-jurisdictional memberships include: PC-Knights Templar Priests; PSM-Allied Masonic Degrees; Rosicruciana in Civitatibus Foederatis; and Almas Shrine Temple, Washington, D.C.
No charts or graphs, but this guy lived through it in Virginia.
Hope this helps you out - :)
I found another site -
It's a Library of Congress site that shows black and white photos of people in the U.S. from years gone by. I looked under the years 1935-1945 and, though I didn't see any photos that would help your project, I did find out that a huge portion of Virginia still must have been farmland during the Depression. Areas in Northern Virginia which are now all paved over showed people in Sterling, Fairfax, and Vienna all on farms. So, according to what the author of the above journal had to say about how people from farming areas fared much better than those in the large cities, I'd say that Virginia, as an agricultural state (yes, I know, commonwealth), probably fared much better as a whole during the Depression than many other states that had been built up by then. Now that I think about it, all the pictures I've ever seen of people in "breadlines" during the Depression have always been in large, crowded cities, such as New York City.
Think you've got enough to make your teacher happy? :)