Editor’s Note: Nevada 150 is a yearlong series highlighting the people, places and things that make up the history of the state.
“At the turn of the 20th century, it was IN to be a Pythian.”
— Masonic Museum of PhoenixMasonry.org
Justus Henry Rathbone was a well-read college graduate. The musician and actor was working as a teacher in Michigan in the late 1850s when he wrote the ritual for a new fraternal order. Already a member of the Royal Arch Masons and the Order of Red Men, he was inspired by the story from Greek mythology of Damon and Pythias. Exemplifying the values of true friendship — each man was willing to give his life for the other — it had found renewed fame because of a play by Irish poet John Banim, first performed in London in 1821.
But, if you remember your American history, things were sort of heating up in the United States during the late 1850s; by 1861, North would be pitted against South as the Civil War began to take its terrible toll. During the war, Rathbone was in the hospital service, and his last posting was in Washington, D.C.
By 1864, he felt the deep divisions between the North and South and thought his new fraternal order could go a long way toward mending the breach. And so, with the war still raging, the Knights of Pythias came into being. It was the same year the state of Nevada was battle-born, and the order would play a prominent role in the lives of the first Nevadans, with chapters springing up all over the new state.
By 1901, there would be chapters in Austin, Battle Mountain, Carson City, Delamar, Elko, Eureka, Hawthorne, Lovelock, Reno, Tuscarora, Verdi, Virginia City, Wadswoth, Wells and Winnemucca, some of which now are ghost towns. The banner from the lodge in what is now a well-known Nevada ghost town — Shoshone No. 31, in Rhyolite — hangs in the Boulder City chapter’s lodge. There once were 45 chapters in Nevada, with 2,000 to 2,500 members.
But first, the Knights of Pythias would have to become a reality.
“Rathbone went to Abraham Lincoln,” said Gerald Deitch, a member of the Boulder City lodge and supreme chancellor of the Knights of Pythias, which means he reigns over all members worldwide. Rathbone presented the outlines for the new organization; its guiding principles, which would be represented in the order’s insignia, were friendship, charity and benevolence. It would be nonsectarian and apolitical.
Lincoln agreed, and on Feb. 19, 1864, the Knights of Pythias became the first fraternal organization to be chartered by an act of Congress. (The founding site, at 914 E. St. NW, today is noted with a plaque on the side of the J. Edgar Hoover Building of the FBI.)
To say the Knights of Pythias were an instant hit would be an understatement. By the beginning of the 20th century, there were a half-million members. The order spread to Canada at about that time.
Three U.S. presidents were members. Franklin D. Roosevelt was knighted in 1936 in the Oval Office of the White House. William McKinley and Warren G. Harding were the others.
Other prominent members have included U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, three-time presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, Vice Presidents Hubert Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
The organization initially was open only to men — the “knights” — but the Pythian Sisters came into being in 1888. There also are junior offshoots.
Philanthropy has been the driving force since the beginning, with an estimated $200 million donated to various charities over the years. The supreme chancellor gets to choose the main charity; Deitch followed the example of several of his predecessors in choosing the American Cancer Society.
“Every lodge has its own way to do it,” Deitch said of fundraising. “Some do bingo.”
“We do Adopt a Highway and things like that,” said Larry Winter, supreme representative.
They go to the annual Relay for Life and sell water and flags. They also support St. Jude’s Ranch and Special Olympics.
The Pythians were known for their homes for the aged and infirm, many of which were grand architectural masterpieces, as were many of their lodges.
Fraternal organizations, whose memberships burgeoned during the 1950s and ’60s, have dropped in popularity over the past couple of decades; Nevada’s 45 Knights of Pythias chapters have dwindled to three, with lodges in Reno and Wells as well as Boulder City.
“We have a very active lodge for the size of our lodge,” Winter said. With 36 members, they usually can count on 25 making it to twice-a-month meetings.
The Boulder City lodge was re-formed in 1996, with most of its members retirees, knights from Brooklyn, N.Y.
“We’re all from New York,” Winter said.
“Except for me,” said the guy sitting next to him. “Dad just pulled me in.”
Yes, the guy next to Larry Winter was his son, Neil, 44, who has been a member for 10 years. He represents one of the younger demographics in most fraternal organizations these days, but he said he was inspired by his father and his friends.
“It was the strength of the friendships involved,” Neil Winter said. But he concedes that he’s something of a rarity.
“For people my age, it’s more family-based than anything else,” he said.
And that’s one of the Knights of Pythias’ great strengths. Deitch is a fourth-generation member, joining when he was home on leave during World War II. Richard Bale, who is grand secretary, supreme tribunal recorder and deputy supreme chancellor, said his grandsons are members and are past chancellors, which is sort of like the president of the lodge.
The knights also reach out to members of the military, sending care packages all over the world; among the recipients was Winter’s grandson, who served two tours in Afghanistan. Servicemen returning home are offered free dues for a year.
“They know about us,” Deitch said.
And they’re furthering the cause. Twenty-five veterans recently came together to form a new chapter in Ontario. Another new chapter just formed in Montana, which hasn’t had once since 1930.
Right now the members of the Boulder City lodge are getting ready for their biennial convention in Las Vegas. It’s set for August at the Riviera, and they’re expecting 250 to 300 members to attend.
“Some people,” Bale said, “like to join lodges like ours, to give meaning to their life.”
Contact reporter Heidi Knapp Rinella at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0474.