Tucked between storefronts in the middle of Towson, a glass door marked "Odd Fellows Temple, Towson Lodge No. 79" leads to a narrow staircase. At the top, a heavy door with a peephole opens to a hall where throne-like chairs face an altar.
In a back room, a skeleton lies in a casket.
Generations have met in this stone building to plan good works or hold mystic ceremonies. They were brothers in a secret society, founded in the Old World but, in America, first chartered in Baltimore. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows grew to become the most popular fraternal group in the country for a time. Former members include Ulysses S. Grant and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Now, the group - along with many clubs that saw booming membership in the post-World War II years - is in danger of dying out.
"It's like you've lost an art, the art of fellowship and being together," says Everett W. Smith, a member of the Towson Odd Fellows lodge for more than six decades.
When Smith joined the group just after World War II, clubs and organizations were bustling with new members. Americans, brimming with solidarity and patriotism, flocked to groups with names like the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks, Woodmen of the World and the Improved Order of Red Men.
Membership in nearly all fraternal organizations has plummeted over the decades. By and large, the baby boomers and their children have not joined. Fewer people have free time in the evenings, and those who do are now more likely to spend their leisure hours alone, sociologists say.
And though Odd Fellows lodges have started accepting female members and initiated new programs to attract young people, many people in their 20s and 30s prefer to do their social networking online.
By last year, the national membership had dropped to a little more than 300,000, down from 2 million in 1920. More than 150 of the 183 lodges the Odd Fellows once maintained in Maryland have been sold. The Towson lodge, home to 200 members in the 1950s, now has 30, Smith says.
Most Odd Fellows are well past retirement age. They wonder who will speak the passwords and exchange the secret handshakes once they're gone.
When asked about the organization's future, Smith, 80, whistles.
"I think if something isn't done very speedily," he says, "the Odd Fellows has another four or five years."
There was a time when the group held a position closer to the forefront of society. In 1919, more than 20,000 Odd Fellows flocked to Baltimore for the celebration of the group's centennial in America.
Wearing "glittering sashes and swords," members marched through the city for more than two hours. They were accompanied by 41 bands and floats representing heaven, Plymouth Rock and key moments in Odd Fellowship, along with a 3-foot-tall Canadian soldier and a goat, The Sun reported.
Future Maryland governor Albert C. Ritchie addressed the convention. "Through these hundred years ... the spirit of Odd Fellowship has ever been the same: the spirit of benevolence, fraternity, co-operation, making life better, sweeter, holier," he said. "It is this spirit of cooperation which the world needs more than ever."
At the time, the order was the country's most popular fraternal organization, The Sun reported.
The order traces its roots to 18th-century England, when a group of men gathered to do charitable acts. Observers, surprised that men would spend their free time this way, referred to them as "Odd Fellows," according to the group's lore.
In 1819, Thomas Wildey, a British immigrant living in Baltimore, posted a notice asking other Odd Fellows from England to meet him at the Seven Stars Inn, near the current location of the Holocaust Memorial. The inn was destroyed by the 1904 Baltimore Fire. Wildey and the four men who joined him are generally considered the founders of the order's North American branch.
Many prominent Americans, including four presidents, were members of the group, according to Walker Houchins, secretary of the national headquarters. A companion organization for women, the Rebekahs, was formed in 1851, according to the group's Web site. That group's membership has also dropped drastically, members say.
Busloads of European Odd Fellows still make a pilgrimage to Baltimore to see a statue of Wildey that looms over Broadway in East Baltimore. But there are fewer local members to meet them each year.
The North American headquarters for the order was moved from West Chase Street, just blocks from Baltimore's Washington Monument, to Winston-Salem, N.C., in the early 1980s.
A Romanesque building at Cathedral Street and Saratoga, which served as the national Odd Fellows temple during the centennial celebration, was sold decades ago. Developers renovated that building in the 1970s.
When they did, they found more than a dozen skeletons in lockers and steamer trunks.
Grumbling about parking, state leaders of the Odd Fellows converge in Towson for a steak dinner and installation of officers for the Towson and Glen Arm lodges.
The Towson lodge, which sits between the traffic circle and the Towson Commons movie theater on York Road, was built in 1878.
For decades, two carvings have jutted from the top of the building: a red hand clutching a heart, and a white bundle of sticks bound with a ribbon. It's doubtful that many people hurrying past see them. Perhaps even fewer know of the group's traditions.
Inside the hall, about 40 men and women take seats on dark wooden benches. A few have brought family members along, since the installation, unlike business meetings or initiation rituals, is open to the public.
Standing at a podium, Smith, who is known as "Smitty" around here, raps a gavel three times then recites the Pledge of Allegiance. Several men and a couple of women sit around him in chairs with high, carved backs.
Joe Labuda, 60, a retired Bethlehem Steel employee, leads the ceremony. He has served as grand master, or head of the state group, since May.
Another state leader, Cliff Poist, 66, his glasses low on his nose, grips officers by the elbow and leads them to stand in formation. Along with Labuda, he reads aloud from a red book.
"I invest you with the regalia of your office," he intones, instructing the officers to put on colored sashes. The ceremony ends after Labuda whispers a new password in Smith's ear.
Afterward, Smith and Dan Weber, 84, lead visitors into a musty storage room. Smith opens the doors of a bookshelf, exposing rows of leather-bound books, the lodge's records. A yellowed card on the spine of the oldest book reads "Jan. 10, 1852 - June 12, 1856."
A large closet is crammed with costumes used for the group's ceremonies: embroidered velvet robes in faded shades of magenta and purple, helmets, long wooden spears.
Smith turns his attention to a heap of objects piled against the wall. He lifts two cardboard boxes and pulls back a dusty cloth, revealing a casket.
A skeleton is sprawled inside, mouth gaping open. "It's a reminder of man's mortality," Smith says.
In one initiation ritual, the skeleton appears to speak. The mouth opens when a fishing line attached to its chin is pulled. Springs rigged to the jawbones make it snap shut.
Back in the meeting hall, Smith gestures to the framed photos of past members that nearly cover the walls. "These old bear tamers" would be disappointed to see how membership has dropped, he says.
'Center of civic life'
Many civic groups - from the Boy Scouts to Optimists International to the Red Cross - were founded around the turn of the 20th century but peaked in membership after World War II, says Theda Skocpol, a sociologist and political scientist at Harvard University who has studied fraternal organizations.
Men often belonged to several groups, she says, and there was a booming business in lodge regalia and supplies. The colorful signs for the Optimists, Rotary, Odd Fellows and other groups that still welcome visitors to small towns are evidence of the role the organizations once played in American culture.
But participation in nearly all civic groups began to drop in the 1960s and 1970s, sociologists say.
In 1959, Masonic membership peaked at 4.1 million, but it has since dropped to 1.5 million, says Richard Fletcher, executive secretary of the Masonic Service Association.
Membership in the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks dropped nearly 40 percent from 1980 to 2004, according to Dwayne Rumney, chairman of the group's advisory committee.
Membership in the Improved Order of Red Men, another group with Baltimore roots, has fallen from half a million in the 1920s to 23,000 today, according to David Lintz, director of the group's museum in Waco, Texas.
Some groups, like the Woodmen of the World, draw new members by offering insurance policies and investment services. Others, like Kiwanis International, have created volunteer programs on high school and college campuses.
One factor in the decline of fraternal organizations was a change in public attitudes about gender and race. Umbrella groups had separate organizations for men and women, and the men controlled the women's groups. Separate groups also developed for black Odd Fellows, Elks and Masons, and white lodges were often hostile to their black counterparts, Skocpol says.
Mainstream groups are no longer officially segregated. However, few blacks belong to Maryland's Independent Order of Odd Fellows lodges.
A historically black group, the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, is based in Philadelphia. Several phone calls to the group were not returned.
Race and gender aside, fraternal organizations did prize socioeconomic diversity. Lodge meetings allowed men from all walks of life to form personal and professional ties and hold leadership positions. "It allowed people from ordinary backgrounds to be officials," Skocpol says.
Fraternal groups also promoted cross-country friendships and gave members a sense that they were part of something larger. Now people are more like to belong to "mailing list" organizations - that is, if they belong to any groups at all, Skocpol says.
"A lot of people are staying home and choosing individualized entertainment rather than group recreational activities," says Abby Williamson, a doctoral candidate in public policy at Harvard University who has studied civic organizations.
A book by her adviser, Robert D. Putnam, titled Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, discusses the ramifications of a growing sense of social isolation in this country.
Strong social connections improve public health and safety by encouraging people to watch out for one another, Williamson says, and fraternal groups can stir an interest in political activism, too.
Yet longer workdays and commutes give today's Americans less time for meetings, and they often spend their few leisure hours watching TV or chatting with virtual friends, sociologists say.
Skocpol predicts that the Odd Fellows and many similar organizations will eventually disappear - and with them a chapter of our national history.
"They'll never again be what they once were - they were once the center of civic life in America," she says.
Scrapple and eggs
Every Tuesday, about a dozen men gather for breakfast and conversation in the wood-paneled basement of the North Point Odd Fellows Lodge. A framed reminder to turn off the coffeepot hangs on the wall.
"I can't tell you how many hours I've spent here drinking coffee," says Labuda, the grand master, sipping from a plastic foam cup. A member of the North Point lodge since 1974, he finds time to "burn a pot" with any member who needs to talk.
Over plates of scrapple and eggs, they debate traffic and development in the Fort Howard area, plan their semiformal banquet and discuss the care packages that they send to the troops in Iraq.
The lodge funds a scholarship for a Sparrows Point High School senior, pays for a student to attend a two-week seminar at the United Nations and gives clothes to injured soldiers. The national order contributes to the Arthritis Foundation and funds a professorship at the Wilmer Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins.
The North Point Odd Fellows say that helping each other through rough times is one of the most important things they do. Labuda encourages his buddies to visit one member, a "tough old bird" who is recovering from having two toes amputated.
Most of these men are retired Bethlehem Steel employees. Some divide their time between the Odd Fellows and other groups like the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Annual dues are $24, $10 of which goes to the national headquarters.
The North Point Odd Fellows own their lodge building, but their dues are not enough to cover expenses. So members run bingo five nights a week at a nearby hall and give the proceeds to the lodge.
About a third of the lodge's 74 members regularly attend meetings. The lodge is the envy of the state because it attracts new members, Labuda says. "We let the younger guys take the ball and run with it," he says, organizing events such as car shows and cookouts.
The North Point members don't insist on elaborate formality. Still, the chat over scrapple often turns to some of the esoteric elements of the group, the grips and passwords, the rituals and medallions.
On a chalkboard by the door someone has scrawled the words, "What you see here, what you do here, you leave here."
A bundle of sticks
Ruth Newman, a member of the North Point lodge, believes that women will revitalize the order.
"Believe me, there's a lot of things the men can't organize," she says. "You need fresh blood."
For example, there was the time the ceremonial robes fell apart after Labuda, her cousin, took them to the dry cleaners. Newman sewed new ones from crushed velvet. "They're all wash-and-wear now," she says.
Along with her husband, Darlene Parker owns a small seafood restaurant, Fresh Fresh Seafood, located on the first floor of the Towson lodge building. Parker, whom members call "an angel," caters events for the Towson lodge. At 51, she is one of the youngest women in the lodge, as well as its only black member.
In May, the state will induct its first female leader, Shirley Sell, 63, who will replace Labuda as grand master. Like Labuda, her goal is to recruit new members. "My heart breaks at the loss of membership, but if I'm honest, when I look around, I see it's a different world," she says.
Smith's 22-year-old grandson, Mike Ambrose, says that he joined the lodge to please his grandfather. He's not overly optimistic about the future. "If it's still around, I'll be a member," he says.
Smith worries that one day his group, which has met for so long in the Towson building with the hand and the bundle of sticks on the roof, will vanish.
He praises the foresight of the lodge's founders for creating three retail spaces on the first floor. However, the rent from those businesses - a sporting goods shop, a vintage clothing store and Parker's restaurant - barely covers the lodge's property taxes and expenses, he says.
"It used to be a real privilege to join the Odd Fellows," Smith says. When he bought a lumberyard half a century ago, his lodge members sent business his way. Coming from diverse professions, the members relied on each other for medical, legal and financial advice, he says.
Smith explains the symbols that rest on the roof of the building where he has spent so many hours. The hand cupping the heart represents the Odd Fellow extending friendship to all, he says.
And the bundle of sticks?
"You could take one stick and break it, but give you a bundle of sticks and you can't," he says. "As long as the Odd Fellows stick together, you can't break them."
Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.
Organization Founded peak ................ up to 1997
4-H 1901 1950 -26%
American Legion 1919 1945 -47%
B'nai B'rith 1843 1947 -75%*
Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts 1910-12 1972 -8%
Jaycees 1915 1975 -58%
NAACP 1909 1944 -46%
Odd Fellows 1819 1920 -94%
Parent-Teacher Assn 1897 1960 -60%
Red Cross (volunteers) 1881 1956 -61%
(WWII spike in Red Cross volunteers has been excluded from calculations about peak and rate of decline)
Odd Fellows motto
A motto of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows from The Red Blood of Odd Fellowship, by Elvin J. Curry, published in Baltimore in 1903 :
To meliorate the sorrows of mankind,
Relieve the poor, the sick, the maim, the blind;
Lift up the drooping heart, the widow cheer,
And wipe away the helpless orphan's tear.
To form of men one widespread Brotherhood
Linked only in the bonds of doing good.
[From Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert D. Putnam]