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How an obscure fraternal society is fighting to save a piece of 19th-century history in rural Maryland

Chris Milan is helping lead a campaign to save the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Lodge 175.

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows is not, as the uninitiated might guess, a brotherhood for the eccentric or the anti-social. It's a society formed in Britain centuries ago to "improve and elevate the character of mankind" — one that still claims more than 600,000 members, including about 300 in 19 chapters in Maryland.

But that's not what got Chris Milan interested in joining. For the 47-year-old Baltimore County man, it was all about a building.

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Milan is from Kingsville, a close-knit, semi-rural community between the Big Gunpowder Falls and Little Gunpowder Falls rivers.

Like almost everyone else in Kingsville and neighboring Upper Falls, he has attended more bingo nights, bull roasts and birthday parties in the rambling old structure at Bradshaw and Raphel roads than he can count.

Milan is Noble Grand, or president, of I.O.O.F. Lodge 175, the chapter that owns the 19th century building. Now the roof is sagging, the paint is peeling and the insurance company is threatening to cancel the policy. Milan is helping to lead a campaign to save the hall.

Lodge 175 has until the end of the year to raise $25,000 to finance needed repairs or lose the insurance. If it can't, Milan says, the building will be put up for sale, and generations of Kingsville-Upper Falls history will come to an end.

"This is where we have our lodge meetings twice a month, but the whole community has always used the building," Milan said in the wood-paneled assembly hall one recent afternoon. "It's a gathering place for big events in people's lives. We've all been to dances and concerts and graduation parties here. Now our kids are doing the same thing.

"Life wouldn't be the same without it."

The Maryland Historical Trust dates the old clapboard structure to sometime in the 1800s, when a bucolic community founded as McCubbinsville was starting to take shape.

Local historians say the Baltimore County school board bought the half-acre site at the intersection of Bradshaw, Franklinville and Raphel roads in 1859 and built an elementary school. Architects working with the historic trust say its rectangular core and projecting bell tower provide evidence it was a school.

Nearly 40 years later, according to records kept by nearby St. Stephen Church, a business known as the Upper Falls Casino Company was formed to serve "educational, literary, dramatic, musical and social purposes, also for buying, selling, mortgaging, leasing, improving, disposing of or otherwise dealing in land."

The company — and it apparently used the word "casino" in the 19th century sense, to mean a public space that hosted pleasurable activities — bought the site in 1896 and turned the place into a cultural hub.

Over the next several decades, the church records say, it became a "popular venue for hosting events of St. Stephen Parish as well as the Upper Falls Dramatic Club, Salem Methodist Church, St. John's Episcopal Church, the Democratic Party, and the Upper Falls Cotillion Club."

This building is a part of local history. We really have no intention of letting it go.


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As Upper Falls grew, a succession of owners enlarged the building's footprint in quirky fits and starts.

Around 1930, Lodge 175 started holding meetings in a room on the second floor, a space that still holds the accouterments of initiation rites: a thick Bible on a pedestal, an ""I.O.O.F." podium, a throne-like chair.

The lodge has met there every other Wednesday night more or less ever since.

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Jim Drotar, a retired policemen from Kingsville, is one of 26 members today. He serves as Vice Grand, second-in-command to Milan.

The 51-year-old landscaper says he wasn't much of a history nut until he became an Odd Fellow.

Like all initiates, he has become well versed in the organization's lore: how Odd Fellow groups began forming in England as early as in the 1700s to "visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan;" how Thomas Wildey, an English immigrant and himself an orphan, founded the first United States chapter in Baltimore in 1819, then went on to establish and build the I.O.O.F. around the world.

Like many initiates, Drotar, a landscaper and father of two who drives a pickup truck, spends a lot of time explaining the organization's strange name.

He says it derives from its founders' belief that society tends to considers those who are interested in helping others as oddballs.

Odd Fellows are known for using human skeletons in their initiation rites as symbols of impermanence. Milan and Drotar deny that the lodge owns or uses a skeleton.

Yes, Drotar concedes, the group has secret initiation rites, and the rites involve regalia they can't show to the uninitiated. But it's all part of a process of immersing new members in Odd Fellows history and values and communicating the organization's purpose.

"All of us are out to raise funds to support worthy causes, to start scholarships, to contribute to our communities," he says. "We're not nearly as strange as we sound."

Milan, an excavation contractor, and Drotar say they weren't drawn in by the group's altruism. Not at first, anyway.

Both say they'd attended events at "the church-looking building on the corner" for so long, and driven past it so many times, that they never thought about the familiar sign out front, the one that shows the letters F, L and T and three interlocking rings above the words "Independent Order of Odd Fellows."

Seven or eight years ago, when it became clear the building was at risk, both men grew curious, investigated, and realized the Odd Fellows were dedicated to principles they believed in: friendship, love and truth.

Milan says joining the lodge became almost synonymous with getting the headquarters into workable long-term shape. But the jobs ahead were many.

The roof leaked. A newer wing had never been properly attached. Soffits and fascia were rotting, the bell tower was sagging, exterior shingles were cracking, the parking lot was dangerously ungraded, and the whole building needed insulation and paint.

As Milan, Drotar and others pitched in after work and on weekends, tackling one small task at a time, others stopped by to help. A mission quietly took shape.

"You're out front doing a little work, and pretty soon there are three or four cars in the parking lot, people are talking, telling you what's going on in town, and joining in," Drotar says.

Members attached the wing, put up railings, filled in potholes. They patched holes in the roof, replaced rotting wood and insulated the kitchen area.

They were in the process of tiling the kitchen floor, Milan and Drotar say, when the property insurance company called to notify members that their coverage had been canceled. The men say a letter demanding renovations had never arrived.

The lodge found another company, which gave them until the end of this year to meet a laundry list of conditions.

The roof must be replaced, along with the rotted wood around it. The bell tower must be moisture-proofed, busted shingles must be replaced, and more.

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The price tag for the roof alone is $25,000, but according to Drotar, if they can raise most of that amount, they can get the company's permission to keep things going for another year.

"This building has strong bones," he says. "It will get a lot of mileage out of a little TLC."

The past year, at least, has seen a revival.

Jill Brown, a Kingsville native, joined the lodge not long ago, in part out of love for the building.

She organized a night of bingo recently, advertising the event on the marquee outside. It sold out in a matter of days, and an overflow crowd packed the assembly hall to enjoy the game on the hand-operated bingo machine the lodge has owned since the 1960s.

People had such a good time, Brown says, that many have been asking whether it can be turned into a weekly or monthly event. Ticket sales for a second bingo night have been brisk.

A craft collective that holds a show every year has booked time next month, and the usual spate of events is scheduled as the school year draws to a close.

But the very quality that has helped foster community — the building's charming intimacy — limits its fundraising capacity.

It holds only 100 people.

"The interest is definitely there," says Drotar, who celebrated his 50th birthday in the building last year. "Everyone loves this place. But if it were bigger, we could raise more money more quickly."

Lodge 175 has set up a GoFundMe account, and members are spreading word of their situation as widely as possible.

By most measures, the race to repair its flaws by the end of 2018 will not be easily won. But the Odd Fellows remain strangely calm.

Something has kept their order alive for more than 250 years, regalia and secret initiation rites and all, even as the world has changed around it. And as Brown points out, community spirit can be equally hard to extinguish.

"This building is a part of local history," she says. "We really have no intention of letting it go."

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