PORTLAND, Maine — Independent Order of Odd Fellows Fraternity Lodge #6 Vice Grand Joel Demers untied the tangled knot of white rope wrapped around the wooden newel post in a tiny back staircase on Thursday.
Demers then let out some slack, hand over hand.
The cord creaked through a series of pulleys embedded in the ceiling over the stairs as a wooden drawbridge groaned into place. The hinged structure spanned the gap between the stairwell landing, leading to a secretive door just big enough for an average-sized person to sneak through.
The tiny, ancient-feeling office used to house the lodge secretary’s office and is just one of many architectural quirks embedded in the massive, triangle-shaped 1897 Odd Fellows block on Forest Avenue at Woodfords Corner.
The public will have a chance to get a rare peek inside the historic — and still active lodge — on Friday when the Odd Fellows and Friends of Woodfords Corner host a public tour of the building at 5 p.m.
“The fire department said we couldn’t use the office anymore,” Demers said, raising the mini drawbridge again and tying off the rope.
The Odd Fellows are a fraternal order founded in England in the 18th century. American Lodges first began springing up in North America in the early 19th century. In 1851, the Odd Fellows began admitting women, making them the nation’s first coed fraternal organization.
The order’s stated purposes are to, “visit the sick, relieve the distressed, bury the dead and educate the orphan.”
Currently, there are 71 active Odd Fellows lodges in Maine. Demers said about 40 members attend meetings in Portland.
In addition to serving the Odd Fellows, the building has also been home to many businesses and organizations in its 125-year history, including a bank, an antique store, a Mason’s Lodge and Deering’s City Hall during the neighborhood’s brief run as an independent city.
In 1871, the town of Saccarappa split into Westbrook and Deering. At the time, Portland only spanned Stroudwater to Munjoy Hill and Commercial Street to just about where Hannaford supermarket now sits on Forest Avenue.
Everything west, beyond that, was Deering.
In 1892, Deering incorporated into a city and then established its city hall inside the grand new Odd Fellows block in 1897.
However, Deering’s run as an independent municipality was short. On a winter’s day in 1899, the whole city disappeared from the map, eaten up by its hungry neighbor, Portland.
Politics and trolleys were behind the vanishing act. Portland needed Republicans.
After the Great Fire in 1866, trolleys came to town, making it easy for folks to live out of the city, in Deering’s leafy suburbs a few miles away, and still commute into Portland for work.
Like the state Legislature, Portland’s elite and well-to-do Yankees were solid Republican voters. However, they were leaving Portland for Deering in droves because they had the money to do so.
Deering’s official municipal motto was: City of homes.
Meanwhile, working-class, Irish and Italians — allied with the Democratic Party — were making political gains on the peninsula. In an effort to retain control of Portland’s City Council, Republican city leaders set their sights on annexing Deering.
On March 7, 1898, Portland voted overwhelmingly to do just that. The next day, Deering voters rejected the same proposal. Portland lawmakers then looked to Augusta for help, and got it.
Three rings representing friendship, love and truth shine inside the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Fraternity Lodge #6 at 643 Forest Ave. in Portland on Thursday, April 21, 2022; Elaborate, ceremonial collars hang inside; A large medallion hangs high above the sidewalk on the Odd Fellows Block. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
The Republican Legislature in Augusta passed a bill giving Deering to Portland. Gov. Llewellyn Powers signed the bill into law on Feb. 6, 1899. Deering’s municipal courts were then dissolved, its city offices rendered redundant and its high school was taken over by its biggest local rival.
Portland, long squeezed into its narrow peninsula, gained 9,381 acres and 7,500 tax paying residents in the deal.
But that was a long time ago. There is currently not much evidence left inside the Odd Fellows block to remind visitors of its municipal past — except the jail cells.
Deep in the building’s bowels, well below ground, there are still a few old jail cells, presumably used by Deering’s police force back in the day. The steel doors are gone but some of the bars remain.
Demers said he’s not sure if the cells will be included on the public tour.
But it couldn’t hurt to ask.
The April 29 tour is limited to 25 people. Those wishing to take part must register in advance here.