In 1893, a group of Baltimore patriots joined the Improved Order of Red Men and began meeting in Hampden Hall on what is now The Avenue. Adopting the democratic ideals, customs and costumes of American Indians, as well as the Red Men motto, "Freedom, Friendship and Charity," they were chartered as Tecumseh Tribe No. 108 of the national fraternal organization.
By 1922, their little social club had grown to more than 100 members and built its own lodge in the 3800 block of Hickory Avenue. As recently as its 100th anniversary in 1993, membership was 350.
Now, the 120-year-old tribe, the last in Baltimore, is selling its building and leaving Hampden. The 25 remaining members, an aging sliver of the group's heyday, will transfer their memberships to the more active Chippewa Tribe No. 19 in Frederick County.
That's 51 miles from Kenneth Heavel's house in Medfield.
"It's sad. It's progress and change," said Heavel, 70, one of six 50-year members. He is past president of both the Tecumseh tribe and the state chapter, and carries the title of Past Great Sachem.
Under national bylaws, the local group, once a familiar sight in parades and charity events, will give up its tribal name and turn in its charter. Members will travel to Frederick twice a month for Chippewa Tribe meetings, probably starting in June, Heavel said.
"We're still having meetings, but the meetings are being held to dissolve," said John Sprucebank, 55, a fourth-generation Tecumseh tribe member.
The Tecumseh tribe soon "will cease to exist," said Jack Wright, Great Chief of Records for the Red Men in Maryland. The local ladies auxiliary, part of a related national organization called The Degree of Pocahontas, has already merged with the Chippewa tribe's ladies auxiliary, Wright said.
Wright is not surprised that the Tecumseh tribe is fading away. He said Heavel almost single-handedly kept it going in recent years.
"Kenny's tired," Wright said. "Kenny was the backbone of Tecumseh Tribe 108."
Its departure is another blow to an organization that had nearly 20 Red Men tribes in Mayland when Wright, 54, of Cumberland, joined more than a quarter century ago. Now, there are six, from western Maryland to the Eastern Shore, including Chippewa No. 19, the oldest active tribe in the U.S., and Conococheague Tribe No. 84 near Hagerstown, the largest in the country, with about 3,000 members, Wright said.
"It's always sad when you lose a tribe," Wright said.
The only two people at the Hampden building when the Messenger stopped in Feb. 22 were two men, who said they were buying the building and that it was under contract. They would not give their names and said they are still deciding what to do with the building, which includes The Lunch Box restaurant.
Heavel confirmed that the building is under contract for $525,000. That money will go to the Chippewa tribe under Red Men bylaws, he said.
Heavel said he doesn't know what the buyers' plans are for the building.
"I'll find out," said Jack "The Nose" Barr, a longtime Hampden resident and former two-term Tecumseh Tribe secretary, who is well known for walking The Avenue wearing his fake nose, a reference to his nosiness and penchant for getting the scoop on happenings in Hampden.
Barr said he was a member of the Red Men tribe in the 1980s, but dropped out because "they kept going downhill year after year," as members aged.
"Now the old ones have died off and the new ones, nobody wants to do anything," said Barr, 78.
The nonprofit Improved Order of Red Men promotes itself as the oldest fraternal organization that originated in the U.S. It was founded in 1765 before the American Revolution by Sons of Liberty, a patriotic group that helped establish freedom and liberty in the early Colonies, according to the Red Men's national website, http://www.redmen.org
Sons of Liberty patterned itself after the Iroquois Confederacy and its democratic governing body, the website states.
In 1773, members of Sons of Liberty met in Boston to protest a tax on tea imposed by England, and when their complaint fell on deaf ears, they disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians and dumped 342 chests of English tea into Boston Harbor, according to the site. During the Revolutionary War, they took up muskets with the Continental Army, the site states.
In 1847, various Red Men tribes came together in Baltimore and formed the Grand Council of the United States. Within 30 years, there were Great Councils in 21 states and 150,000 members nationwide. By the mid-1920s, there were tribes in 46 states and U.S. territories, and more than 500,000 members, the site states.
"They kept the customs and terminology of Native Americans as a basic part of the fraternity," the site states. "Some of the words and terms may sound strange, but they soon become a familiar part of the language for every member."
Today, the Improved Order of Red Men has about 20,000 members in 18 states, according to the national office in Waco, Texas. The organization is "devoted to inspiring a greater love for the United States of America and the principles of American liberty," according to its website.
Along with its women's auxiliary, the national Red Men organization supports charitable, youth and educational programs, the site states. Wright said it is the second biggest contributor to Alzheimer's' disease research in the country.
The local tribe has emphasized community service in the Hampden area through the years and used to have a float in the annual Hampden Mayor's Christmas Parade, Heavel said. The tribe has also donated to various local groups over the years, including the Roosevelt Recreation Center's annual Christmas party, Heavel said.
At one time, there were 26 Red Men tribes in Baltimore alone, plus a Great Council Hall, where archives for tribes statewide were stored.
"It got too dilapidated to use," Wright said.
"Now, we're the only one left," Heavel said. For younger members, "It's not quite to their liking. They have other interests. I don't blame the younger people, but we need youth."
Wright, a member of three different tribes, believes there is still life left in the Red Men's bones, and he points to the Chippewa and Conococheague tribes as examples.
"If I have anything to do with it, we're going to keep on plugging away," he said.
Sprucebank joined in 1976. He and his brothers, David and Mark, all of Glen Burnie, are fourth-generation members of the tribe. Their great-grandfather and grandfather, both of Hampden, were members, as was their father.
They are the future of the Red Men.
"I just like the fraternity and I love the work that we do and the charities we're connected with," said Sprucebank, who works in the parts department of the Bob Bell Automotive car dealership.
Sprucebank tried to look on the bright side and said he doesn't mind driving to Frederick County, which is 65 miles from his house, about the same distance away as Hampden is.
"Two things I won't miss," he said, chuckling, "driving through Baltimore City in the summer around the ballpark and parking in Hampden. Parking is so bad. I won't miss that."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun