Alexandra Masonic Lodge #158 as it appears today.
Founded in 1863, Alexandra Masonic Lodge occupies a unique corner in the history of the Village of Oil Springs as well as the development of the Masonic fraternity in Lambton County. Like the village itself, Alexandra’s foundation was coincidental with the birth of the Canadian Petroleum industry.
By the mid nineteenth century small amounts of petroleum had long been gathered by the native peoples from the surface of the gum beds of Central Lambton County. The First Nations people were early in recognizing petroleum’s unique qualities and had probably utilized it for centuries for a broad range of uses including its function as an illuminating oil, building material and even for some medicinal purposes.
The modern petroleum industry was given birth in 1858 when James Miller Williams began distilling and selling illuminating oil from a dug well near a settlement then known as Black Creek.
This was an area of LambtonCounty described by a journalist at the time as a “swamp so vile and smelly” it had been completely avoided by early settlers who were primarily in search of workable farm land.
Little did Williams know that his new business enterprise would secure him a place in history and later earn him the title “The Father of the Canadian Petroleum Industry.”
His discovery soon began to attract others in search of riches and the settlement of Black Creek began to grow exponentially. The settlement by them was becoming known as Oil Springs or Olicia. To some it was mockingly known as the “City of Grease.” In the decade 1851 to 1861, Oil Springs grew from having a few log cabins to a village of several hundred persons.
However, it wasn’t until the arrival of a man named Hugh Nixon Shaw that the village would see its greatest transformation. Shaw was to strike Canada’s first oil gusher in the early morning of 16 January, 1862, and that event set off a land rush frenzy eclipsed only by the California Gold Rush.
The dream of riches enraptured hundreds of prospectors, land speculators, bankers, merchants, tradesmen of all descriptions, and as legend has it, more than a few charlatans and scoundrels, and they were all to ascend on the little Village of Oil Springs. People arrived in droves from across Canada, the United States and Great Britain, all with visions of instant riches.
Almost overnight, Oil Springs was transformed into a boom town with the population soaring from about 200 to nearly 7,000 persons. Among these diverse individuals were a considerable number of Freemasons, many of whom were Americans.
As fortune would have it, Oil Springs first municipal clerk was a himself a Freemason and took it upon himself to convene a meeting to gather together those diverse brethren, many of whom had expressed an interest in constituting a lodge in their newly adopted home of Oil Springs.
After much discussion and co-operation among the brethren, not to mention considerable negotiation with the Grand Lodge of Canada, it came to be that the Most Worshipful Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Canada, Thomas D. Herrington, granted a dispensation to constitute a lodge at Oil Springs, Ontario on 29 October, 1863 to be known as Alexandra Lodge No. 158 on the registry of the Grand Lodge of Canada.
There has been much conjecture as to why Alexandra was adopted as the name of the new lodge but the most plausible explanation appears to be that it was given in honour of the wife of King Edward V11, who had as one of her several names, Alexandra.
The officers and brethren of this newly constituted lodge ranged in age from 23 to 42 andn among their ranks they duly elected Wor. Bro George Jarvis as their first master. Wor. Bro. Jarvis’ occupation is recorded in the minute book as that of an oil refiner, whose mother lodge was Victoria 56 in the City of Sarnia.
The brethren first met in the village’s school house but their meetings were often interrupted by some of the more rowdy element in town, of which there was said to many in those days. Some of these early citizens were known to carouse at late hours imbibing of the grape in celebration of their newly found wealth.
This, of course, caused considerable anguish among the brethren so it was decided to meet for a time in a rented room in one of the local hostelries.
The registry of this hotel has been preserved and is today at the Oil Museum of Canada. In it one will notice that that the brethren often distinguished themselves as Masons by adding a square and compass, the well-known symbols of Masonry, at the end of their signatures.
It soon became apparent to these brethren that they needed a lodge building of their own. A request went out to other lodges in the province for financial assistance and in the true spirit of Masonic benevolence, a sizeable donation was soon received from a lodge in Ottawa.
By 1867 a parcel of land was purchased on Oil Springs’ main street from the aforementioned James Miller Williams for a grand some of $30. (Williams name has never appeared on any lodge minutes but is quite possible he was also a member of the order.) Shortly after, a new and ornate brick structure was erected on that site which duly served the fraternity until nearly the end of the 20th century.
It should be noted that this stately old edifice served many functions over the years. While the lodge rooms were maintained up stairs, the lower hall served the community in many capacities as time and circumstance would dictate.
In the early years it was used as a meeting place for the village’s first council. It also became a place of worship for the Presbyterians before they were able to erect a church. The lower hall was said to have had one of the best hard wood floors in the country and served as the venue for many dances, card parties, banquets and community events during its long tenure.
Throughout the war years it was often used as a centre to sell victory bonds and about the time of World War 11 it was even used as a roller skating rink. It was building that served an entire community in good times and in bad.
However in the late 1980s the brethren of Alexandra saw that the years had taken a toll on nthe old lodge hall and saw fit to erect a beautiful new building on an adjacent street.
And so it was that on 9 March, 1991 the Grand Master, the Most Worshipful Brother David C. Bradley officiated at the dedication of the new building. The old building served as an antique store several more years but was razed in 1999. Nevertheless her memory remains in the hearts of those faithful Masons who knew her.
Over the years it has been no secret that Alexandra Lodge has faced its share of challenges and adversity. Throughout the 1860s as the American Civil War continued to rage and as was previously noted, many of the early brethren were Americans and of them felt the need to come to the defense of their home land. Hence, during this period many left their oil fields and industries to serve a cause they felt just.
In doing so, many of the brethren made the supreme sacrifice and failed to return to their families in Oil Springs. While looking through the lodge records one will notice a significant number of demits in the year 1864 in consequence of this despoiling conflict.
In addition, by 1866 the oil that had once gushed from the ground so freely was beginning to slow to a trickle. Both these events has perilous ramifications for both the population of Oil Springs and the membership of the lodge., as did the Boer War, The Great War, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and World War Two.
Events such as these have at time thrust the lodge into financial difficulty but through the perseverance and the dedication of its brethren, Alexandra Lodge has weathered many a storm and stand today as a solvent and burgeoning institution—the heart of Masonry in Lambton County.
For more than 130 years the membership of Alexandra Lodge has represented a broad cross-section of Southwestern Ontario society. Among its membership are those who have listed their diverse occupations as farmers, oil men, bankers, police officers, physicians, ministers of the gospel and many others.
In addition, Alexandra Lodge today can count among its members more Lewises (second generation members) than any lodge in the district. It can boast many families with second, third and fourth generations as members. Special mention could be given to the Jaques family which can attest to five generations who have been members of Alexandra.
Alexandra Lodge has now spanned three centuries and continues on its way----an ancient order flourishing in a modern world. It stands today in all its glory, a monumental testament to the enduring quality of a noble fraternity.
Wor. Bro. John J. Phair
Secretary, Alexandra Lodge No. 158
27 April, 2001.