FAIRMONT - On the 200 block of Downtown Plaza, next to an empty storefront formerly occupied by the Salvation Army thrift store, is a locked door bearing the words "Masonic Temple."
What lies beyond that door is a mystery to many, as is the fraternal organization that meets there once a month.
"When the Masons first formed, it was back when the church had so much power," said Eric Luetgers, secretary for the local Freemason lodge. "That's why they met in secrecy, way back in medieval times, and it just kind of stayed that way."
Eric Luetgers stands at the top of the stairs leading to the third floor of the Chain Lake Lodge in Fairmont, where local Masons meet once a month.
Photographs on display at the lodge show past Grand Master Masons, who include many former Fairmont leaders.
It was 1867 when Chain Lakes Masonic Lodge in Fairmont was chartered, at a time when almost every community, big or small, had its own Freemason group. Over the years, many of those lodges have merged, and the secrecy that once shrouded the society has dissipated.
Recently the order held a spaghetti dinner to raise funds for the college scholarships it awards to local high school seniors. Improving educational opportunities is the local lodge's primary mission. (Shriners, an offshoot of Masons, focuses on affordable health care.)
"The basic belief of Masonry is that every person holds value, no matter what their place in society - it was really the beginning of democracy," said member Rick Lunz.
Luetgers and Lunz readily agreed to a Sentinel interview and tour of the lodge, which comprises the second and third floor of the Downtown Plaza building. While the group no longer distinguishes itself as a secret society, some aspects of the organization are private, including the Freemason's official meeting room, where pictures were not allowed.
Members of Chain Lakes Masonic Lodge consider themselves "Accepted Masons," in contrast to Ancient Masons, men who were renowned for their skills in the art of masonry.
According to the Grand Lodge of Minnesota website for Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, www.mn-masons.org, "The skills and architectural genius of these craftsmen and their commitment to the highest standards of moral and ethical values were universally applauded, and unlike other classes of people, they were allowed to travel freely from country to country. Thus, during this period, the word 'free' was prefixed to the word mason, and these craftsmen, and the generations of masons who followed, were referred to as Freemasons."
The Masonic symbol of the compass and square reference its founders' architectural professions, but more significantly these tools represent the character of its modern-day members.
"We are men who believe in a Supreme Being, but may call Him by many names: God, Allah, Yahweh, Jesus or the Great Spirit," the state website states. "Religious tolerance has been a hallmark of Masonry from its inception."
But the Masons were not always tolerated by those same religions. In 1917, the Roman Catholic Church's Code of Canon Law explicitly stated that becoming a Freemason would result in automatic excommunication.
Among the historical documents in the Chain Lake Lodge are photographs of the organization's past Grand Masters. Among them are some of Fairmont's most distinguished leaders - men after whom parks, streets and buildings have been named.
As time has passed, the numbers at the lodge have waned. There are still 94 members, but only 30 are from Martin County. Twenty-five are from Faribault County, while the rest live outside the area. The monthly meetings are no longer held in the official third-floor meeting room, but instead inside a small, humble space on the second floor that is easier to access and cheaper to heat in the winter.
"Some lodges have had a lot of success with new members, but for a lot of years, the Masonic story was not out there as much," Lunz said.
But thanks to the History Channel and the Internet, the group is receiving more attention. Just recently, two young men petitioned the lodge for membership.
"I wish I'd joined when I was a lot younger," said Luetgers, who followed in his father, grandfather and great-grandfather's footsteps when he became a Mason.
"Ultimately, to be a Mason, you have to believe in a greater power. People say we're not God-fearing, and we are," he said.
Some day, the lodge may sell the building and move to a more accessible site for its older members, but for now, since the Salvation Army recent relocation, the first floor of the building is available for rent. That rental revenue is what has funded the local lodge all these years.