LIMA — “In 1901,” the Detroit News observed in an Oct. 10, 2015, article, “one in five (men) over the age of 21 belonged to one or more ‘secret societies,’ as they were commonly called, whether they were clubs, fraternities, orders, mystical worlds, friendships, tabernacles, temples, nests, lodges, hives, tents, aeries, covens or dens.”
Elks and Eagles and Moose as well as Knights of Columbus, Knights of Pythias and the Tribe of Ben Hur found fertile ground in Lima and, as Christmas 1907 approached a newcomer sought a foothold. The group, “which has nothing but truth and honesty as its safeguards, has been instituted in the city and the membership starts at 100 and is rapidly forging forward,” the Lima Daily News announced Dec. 22, 1907.
Two days later, on Christmas Eve, the News was a little more forthcoming. “Although the Independent Order of Blue Owls was organized but a short time ago, it has grown with wonderful rapidity and at present three local chapters exist. No hall for meeting has been arranged for, as it is feared none in the city is large enough to accommodate future members.”
The Order of Owls was founded three years earlier in South Bend, Indiana, by John Talbot, whose name appears in November 1907 ads in the News as a contact for anyone interested in forming a local chapter. According to the group’s literature its purpose is “to assist each other in obtaining employment, to assist widows and orphans of our brothers, to give aid to our brother in any way that they may need, and assemble for mutual pleasure and entertainment.”
In Lima, the Owls, unlike the Moose, Elks and others, would have a brief history, forming, disbanding and reforming several times before disbanding for good in 1916. Case in point, despite those optimistic early reports, the Order of Blue Owls apparently ceased to exist sometime in 1908.
But a new nest soon was on the scene. “The newly organized Order of Owls, Nest 1080, held a second initiation last night at the Odd Fellows rooms in the Central building,” the Lima Times-Democrat reported April 13, 1909. A little more than a month later, on May 18, the Times-Democrat noted that the new nest “has a large membership and has been holding very interesting sessions since the organization some weeks ago.”
Just how interesting was revealed in the next day’s Times-Democrat, which reported, “John Maxwell, the well-known proprietor of the Pabst Depot, was the victim of a peculiar accident Monday evening …” According to the report, Maxwell was with a group from Lima which had gone to Delphos to initiate a nest there. As part of this, Maxwell “was to start a ‘rough house’ in the progress of which a new mechanical ‘spanker’ was used, which was arranged to explode a blank cartridge at the proper time. In the explosion the wad from the cartridge struck Maxwell in the left leg between the knee and the hip, inflicting a flesh wound an inch deep and an inch and a half in diameter.”
On July 22, 1909, about the time Maxwell had finally recovered from his wound, the News reported a man in Muskogee, Oklahoma, “was shot in the right hip with a blank cartridge” while being initiated into the Owls.
Talbot, the group’s founder and supreme president, was not immune from the spate of gun-related incidents that year. An Oct. 16, 1909, article in the News noted that a woman was found not guilty of assault with intent to kill after she admitted “firing a revolver in the corridor leading to Talbot’s” South Bend law office. The woman, the story added, “said the shots were intended only to frighten the attorney.”
Like its predecessor, Nest 1080 soon disappeared only to be replaced by another nest, which was announced in the News with the usual optimism on Feb. 29, 1912. “William G. Southwell, of Cleveland, general organizer of the Order of Owls and his able assistant, William Wolfschmidt, of Riverton, New Jersey, are in the city for the purpose of organizing in Lima a ‘nest’ of Owls and they have set the charter list membership at 900.”
The newest group was designated as Nest 1655 and soon set up a permanent headquarters. “The regular meeting of the Lima nest of Owls will be held this evening,” he Daily News reported May 22, 1912, “and after the business session the evening will be enjoyed in an informal way, marking the opening of the handsome club and lodge rooms on the third floor of the Gazette block” on East High Street.
Living up to the Owls’ stated purpose, members of the new nest soon began to assemble “for mutual pleasure and entertainment.” A June 1912 wrestling match pitted Johnnie Daniels, “Lima’s exponent of the mat game,” against a Toledo wrestler identified as “Matsuda, the Jap,” who won. After watching wrestling, the News reported June 8, 1912, “Music was furnished by the Owls orchestra while William Daley sang several songs that pleased the audience.”
When not being entertained in their East High Street club rooms, members often traveled to nearby towns to visit other nests. On Nov. 1, 1912, 60 members from the Lima nest visited the “flourishing nest” in Wapakoneta. “Many of the members were garbed in unique Hallowe’en costumes, and with blaring trumpets and voices that seemed never failing, woke Wapak citizens up to such an extent that several hundred gathered on the streets to watch the parade …,” the Daily News wrote.
A more somber parade was held in June 1913 when nest member Lester Robinson died of appendicitis. “On Sunday,” the News noted June 19, 1913, “the Lima Nest of Owls, No. 1655, marched from the hall to his home (in the 1000 block of Reese Avenue) and there held one of the most impressive and solemn services over the remains, surrounded by banks of flowers, long to be remembered by all those who were present.” A Feb. 8, 1914, article in the News explained that the Owls paid a $100 funeral benefit, a $6 week sick benefit and the services of a doctor for free. Members paid dues of 75 cents a month.
In December 1913, the local nest split over plans to buy the Armory building on South Main Street for a club house. “Part of the lodge has decided to reorganize and the others have, it is understood, joined the Order of Larks, a branch of which was established here last Sunday,” the News reported on December 6.
And then it got worse. An organizer brought in to help bolster the local nest’s membership was arrested after being accused of helping himself to some of the nest’s money. He eventually was sentenced to 60 days in the Toledo workhouse and fined $25.
On March 3, 1916, Nest 1655 members voted to surrender their charter. “The remaining members will make application to enter the Eagles lodge as a class,” the Lima Republican Gazette reported, noting many of the remaining 50 members — the membership had once been 800 — apparently didn’t give a hoot about attending meetings or paying dues.
On Nov. 20, 1921, Talbot, the group’s founder and occasional target of angry women, was sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted of violating the Mann Act for “inducing Pearl Ragley to come from Topeka, Kansas, to South Bend for immoral purposes.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at TLNinfo@civitasmedia.com.