By Max Lorber, Staff Writer
Tucked away on the corner of Chestnut and Congress Street is an unassuming set of glass doors, with a small glass pane overhead reading Portland Masonic Temple. First you have to ring a doorbell. After a minute or two, Jim Dufresne, a Freemason and the founder/director of the Maine Masonic Civil War Library & Museum, will be there to let you in. The elevator that brings you up to the third floor is identical to the elevator installed in the Titanic ocean liner. The motor and cab and most of the finish is original, installed in 1910 when the building was constructed. Dufresne confidently pilots the cab with a lever.
On the third floor is a large collection of books on the Civil War and several historical exhibitions of Civil War history. Joshua Chamberlain, the colonel of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment and himself a Freemason, is celebrated by several exhibitions for his heroic charge down Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg. The momentum of the entire battle shifted after the 20th Regiment, without any ammunition, routed the Confederate soldiers.
The 54th Massachusetts Regiment, made famous by the movie Glory, is celebrated in an exhibit next to Joshua Chamberlain. This was a heroic African-American regiment that saw extensive combat throughout the entire conflict and served with distinction.
An original 1861 Springfield model rifle, used by both Union and Confederate soldiers, sits behind a glass case next to an original powder horn and bullet mold. As explained by the guide, tapping his cane on the ground for emphasis, soldiers would oftentimes make their own ammunition in the field, melting down lead and molding the bullets before battle.
After the tour of the Civil War Library & Museum, Dufresne is happy to show off the rest of the Masonic Temple. Back down the elevator to the first floor, there is a beautiful grand ballroom. The United Service Organization entertained American soldiers there during World War I and II. There are also the original lockers where soldiers would stow away their belongings in suitcases. Today, events such as weddings, proms, corporate functions, even beer tastings, are held in that same ballroom. There is a little closet where the Freemasons store their uniforms towards the back.
On the first floor is a lounge area for Freemasons to congregate, play pool, relax and socialize. Portraits of prominent local Freemasons that represented Maine on a national level, men like Edward Preble and Charles Deering, hang on the walls. Founded in 1762, the Triangle Lodge, the name of this particular Mason Lodge, is the oldest in the state of Maine and one of the oldest in the entire country.
The current Worshipful Master, the equivalent of a president to the Lodge, is Alex Bresler, a graduate of USM, from the class of 2012. Chris Camire, the current secretary, was the student body president of USM, class of 2014. Both had joined the Freemasons while students.
There is a common misconception that the Freemason fraternity is a dubious and guarded organization, occultist by design and cynical by nature. There are rumors that they control the world with the Illuminati, that they have antagonized revolutions throughout history and that they are secretly communicating through symbology on the American dollar bill.
The Freemasons is the oldest fraternal organization in the world, tracing their roots back to the end of the fourteenth century.
They believe in equality for all men and women, education, charity and spiritual development. The Triangle Lodge, which meets at the Portland Masonic Temple, supports charities like the Boys and Girls Club, Wayside Food Programs, The Center for Grieving Children and Good Shepard Food Banks.
“In these books here,” Dufresne says as he gestures towards some publications in his library, “you can actually see the different degrees, signs, and everything else involved with Masonry. So you see, we are not really a secretive organization.”
The secrecy of the Freemasons is similar to the secrecy of any fraternity: secret handshakes and initiation rituals.
“A lot of people call Freemasonry a secret society, but it’s really a society with secrets,” Chris Camire said while lounging in the living room on the second floor. When asked what the benefits of joining are, he said, “You learn a lot from being a Freemason. It’s a very educational journey.”