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The IOOF and Knox County Kentucky

 

Kentucky History and Genealogy Network, Inc.

 

Kentucky History and Genealogy Network, Inc.
Tombstone in Lincoln County (Crab Orchard) showing the Odd Fellows Emblem on the stone

 

The IOOF, The Three Link Fraternity

My legs feel like rubber bands as I climb the side of a huge mountain in Bertha Hollow in Knox County, in search of another abandoned cemetery where one of my family line is reportedly buried. The undergrowth is thick as I come upon a freshly cut road that circles through what first appears to be old stumps covering the area above and beyond me. As I get closer I see the road has actually been cut through what is an old cemetery, pretty much lost in time. What first appeared as stumps begin to show themselves as old tombstones faded with age and covered with lichens. Some of the stones are broken, some crumbled while others are almost entirely covered with the leave debris that has accumulated over the many years of being neglected.

Dragging myself through the mess, I begin to take down information and record it in my diary from the stones as they come before me. I immediately recognize the names as past citizens that worked, lived and died while working for the North Jellico Coal Company, one of Kentucky’s largest coal corporations that began in the late 1800’s and operated into the early 1900’s. An almost forgotten name from the past, at least for this area, began this company and is a name I have been researching for some time now.

North Jellico Coal Company
1898 Receipt from North Jellico Coal Company at Bertha and Wilton.

The late James Breckinridge (J.B.) Speed started the North Jellico Coal Company to fuel a major market for coal needed for steamers, heating, electricity and the huge railroad markets. The J.B. Speed College of Engineering at the University of Louisville carries his name as well as Speed Hall at Union College in Barbourville. The tombstones here at this neglected cemetery are all that remains of an area that comprised several thousand citizens and would later be made into the North Jellico voting precinct in the early 1900’s. The town would include a white and colored school, several churches, a sawmill and a mining company. There was also a fraternity located there that at one time surpassed the Masons in membership many years ago.

As I continue my recordings of the burials, I notice strange markings on a couple of stones that are foreign to me at the time. I would research these later when I complete the work here today. Many of the tombstones we run into have symbols and markings that have a huge impact on researching our past. One of these symbols is IOOF and a number sometimes listed below it (for instance 367.) Almost always is a carving with three chain links connected making an individual chain of three links. Three letters sometimes are placed individually into each link, F, L and T. The letters stand for Friendship, Love and Truth. The numbers that are sometimes listed below the symbol would have been the lodge number the deceased was a member of.  The three chain links came to the fraternity being recognized as the Triple Fraternity or Three Link Fraternity. The fraternity was first began in 1851. The symbols on the stones were important during their time because it identified an individual as a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

The IOOF would provide services to its members such as burials, helping the sick as well as the care of orphans and various other necessary basic humanitarian needs. These services were not a part of our social fabric during these early years because of the lack of life insurance and public programs that are in existence today brought on by the Great Depression. Early settlers and citizens struggled at best to provide for these services and many would be left out if not for the early fraternities, The IOOF being one of these main contributors. Funerals, the care of widows and the education of orphans were services few people were capable of supplying.

Independent Order of Odd Fellows Tombstone
Tombstone with IOOF symbol in Corbin Ky.

The IOOF pooled their funds from memberships and dispersed these funds for expenses as well as time donated by their members. Many women were involved as well. The fraternity was one of the first to admit women. The female portion of the fraternity came to be called the Rebekah’s and belonged to the Rebekah Camps, another part of the IOOF.  Many of the cemeteries and orphanages were owned and operated by the IOOF with some still in existence today, especially in Western Kentucky. Pineville, in Bell County,  had one at one time.

Bertha, in Knox County, had an IOOF Lodge that began in about 1894 until it closed in the early 1900’s. A deed recorded in Knox County shows J.B. Speed heeding the top floor of a building to be used for the fraternities lodge. The deed stated that if the lodge closed the property would revert back to J.B. Speed. When members of the IOOF would pass away, a declaration was made, almost always in local newspapers. It would also be recorded into the lodge records. Many articles can be found that witness the work done by the organization. One article relates a fourth of July parade in Barbourville (1915) that describes a few thousand people who attended the parade that year.

At the turn of the century, the Odd Fellows was the largest fraternity in the United States, surpassing the Masons in membership. During this period the Odd Fellows would often combine their lodge in conjunction with the Masons. This was what happened in Barbourville in the Lawson Building. An article in the newspaper relates the story of a time capsule that was placed in the cornerstone of that building. The capsule contains records from both the Masonic Lodge and the Odd Fellow lodge as well.

IOOF Past Officers
Past grand sires of the grand lodge of the United States L.O.O.F. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The beginning of Social Security and life insurance began to take away the importance of the Odd Fellows and the fraternity began a period of downsizing for many years. This was brought in large part due to the Great Depression and the inability of many members to pay dues. Although the Odd Fellows are now in a state of growth, many people do not know what they did in the past, and in most instances don’t know that the Odd Fellows even exist. The IOOF played a large part in creating the idea of what Social Security and life insurance would become today.

The Independent Order of Odd Fellows was created in Baltimore Maryland when Thomas Wildey and four other gentleman from the English Order, establishing the Washington Lodge 1. The organization was formed to help in what was then a huge yellow fever epidemic. It was set up for visiting the sick, burying the dead and the education of the orphans left behind in the epidemic. The Odd Fellows started as a mutual organization which meant each member owned what was donated from themselves. In the event of liquidation the members received what they had initially put into it. That is one of the reasons why many lodges have very little history to find. When the lodges shut down the original owner would regain the title in the property.

A memorial stands in Baltimore to Thomas Wildey to honor his accomplishments. The monument has a set of orphans playing at its feet. Thomas Wildey had grown up as an orphan himself and gave back to those less fortunate through his works. Many guilds hold members of certain crafts. The IOOF was a guild of odd or different crafts. From a compassion of the betterment of humanity came forth an organization that would give hope to many where no hope existed. It is this drive for compassion that drives the IOOF int the future.

Author Marty Wyatt


{Did you know? Kentucky’s shortest serving governor was William Goebel.} Goebel served four days after being shot by an assailant.


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