2014-07-04 / Community

A Window on the Past

Red Men’s Hall
By Craig Skelton
South Portland Historical Society


Patty Van Tuyl and husband Bob Ketzer took this photo before renovations to the building began in 2001. (Courtesy photo) Patty Van Tuyl and husband Bob Ketzer took this photo before renovations to the building began in 2001. (Courtesy photo) I wanted to learn more about the Red Men’s Hall, so I spoke recently with Ralph Cary, a South Portland resident and member of the local Red Men’s Hall for more than a half century, to learn more. The Red Men were a group of colonists that spun off from The Sons of Liberty in 1765. Their origins share a moment in time with the likes of the Minute Men and the midnight ride of Paul Revere; however you won’t find the Red Men listed in any history book. Had their identities been known, they would all have been hung for crimes against the British Crown.

The statute of limitations surely has run out and I don’t think Ralph was in any danger of telling me that a group of Red Men disguised themselves as Mohawk Indians and dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston Harbor. That little gathering was on December 16, 1773, and serves as a benchmark of the organization’s desire to openly defy English dominance. The Tea Party was the final straw following England’s failure to respond to all other colonists’ protests on the issue of taxes imposed on English tea.

Members of the secret society took up arms and joined the Continental Army. Following the Revolutionary War, secret societies continued as brotherhoods or fraternities and many of those organizations merged into what is now known as “The Improved Order of Red Men.” The common bond bringing them all together was a pledge to high ideals of freedom, friendship and charity.

David Lintz, director of the Red Men Museum and Library in Waco, Texas, told me that the Madockawanda Tribe No. 100 of South Portland was instituted on May 19, 1905. I think the local club borrowed the name from a story about Chief Madockawanda who reportedly unified the Penobscot Nation.

Over the years that followed, the Red Men Museum records indicate the local Red Men held meetings at the Knights of Pythias Bayard Hall, then located at 53 Preble St., and also held meetings at Arey’s Hall, which I believe to be the meeting place for an organization better known today as the Eagles. When I asked Ralph about using other organizations’ meeting halls, he said it was known as a visitation. It wasn’t until 1925 when visitations ended and the Red Men held meetings at their own lodge on School Street.

Ralph handed me a manual given to new members and as far as I could tell, it was written in a whole other language. He also handed me his greeting card and after his name it said, “Past Great Sachem.” Without the manual, you would not be able to decipher he is a past president. New members were tested in this way, he says. They would have to learn the language and were asked random questions at meetings. A member could not advance through the tribe otherwise. At this point, I was ready to have him write the article because I was fast becoming overwhelmed with the vast amount of information he was offering.

“I think it important that people know we took care of our own.” He stressed that the Red Men were particularly concerned about taking care of orphans. He gave me a copy of “Early History of Redmenship” covering the first 100 years of the organization in Maine; it is obvious that their focus was on orphans. Specifically, their goal was “that no son or daughter of a deceased Red Men be sent to an orphanage.”

Certainly there were other worthy causes, and Red Men raised money to purchase ambulances for military hospitals during World War I and over the years for such causes as the blind, the cancer society and efforts to eradicate polio. Locally, Ralph said they raised money through raffles, bingo and dances held at the hall. The funds were put toward local efforts to provide turkeys and chickens to those in need during Thanksgiving and Easter.

Fast forward to today and I can tell you the former Red Men Hall has been transformed into a lovely home. The current owners, Patty Van Tuyl and Bob Ketzer, gave me a tour, highlighting the changes while they shared some stories about the two-year renovation. This was a project no one else would have attempted, they said. From what they shared, they both deserve praise for turning the old hall into a beautiful home as well as being part of what has been a wonderful revitalization of the Ferry Village neighborhood.

The thing mentioned most often by visitors who stopped by to check out what was going on, was their memories of dancing there. During three quarters of a century, thousands of feet must have padded across that floor. For anyone that might share that sort of memory, I can assure you that Bob and Patty did a wonderful job of saving the floor and preserving your fond memories for decades to come.

Craig Skelton is a guest columnist and member of South Portland Historical Society.

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