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A trip to the Little Ovens

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I left Friday afternoon for the monthly meeting at Mariposa Masonic Lodge No. 24.  I stopped for the night in Madera, just north of town near the airport.  When I got out of my car at the hotel parking lot at 5:30PM, it was 105 degrees.   

I found the room air conditioner was not on and the room was over 90.  I turned on the air conditioner and just kept pushing the temperature down button.  I unpacked and went to dinner.  On my  return the room was a tolerable 80.  I fell asleep just after midnight with the air conditioner laboring away.  The sound of the air conditioner shutting off woke me just after 530AM.  It was very cold.  In my haste to turn on the air conditioner I had set it to 57 degrees and it had faithfully worked through the night to attain that temperature. 

In addition to the Monthly meeting this Saturday morning in Mariposa, we also had scheduled “Officer’s School of Instruction” (OSI) for that afternoon.  California Masonic Lodges are organized into Districts.  Every District has an inspector who convenes a monthly OSI to teach the Masonic Ritual. Well, a better description may be that the Inspector observes the Brothers preforming the ritual in order to ensure they have been taught correctly.     This Saturday’s OSI involved Brothers from Mariposa, Merced and Hornitos.  And, Hornitos was the host Lodge. 

After the meeting at Mariposa most of the Brothers retired to the Miner’s Inn across the road from the Lodge.  The Miner’s Inn is a motel, restaurant and bar located at the intersection of State Highway 49 and State Highway 140.  We didn’t go there for a room or to eat.  Someplace to pass the time until we had to leave for Hornitos. 

At 1PM we left the Lodge for Hornitos.  I followed several Brothers in a pick-up truck.  They’re locals.  They know the way.  Okay, they know their way.  Just past the Mariposa/Yosemite Airport you turn onto the Old Toll Road.  The word “Old” is an apt description.  My car has racing tires – they are not appropriate for very old, somewhat paved, mountain roads.  We made the 13 mile trip and dropped into Hornitos. 

Hornitos is Spanish for “Little Ovens.”   Founded around 1848 by Mexican miners,  it grew rapidly to over 6,000 people in the mid-1850s.  By the mid-1870s, over 15,000 people called Hornitos home.  Then the gold ran out.  By the middle of the Depression less than 75 people lived there.  Today, less than 50. 

It is the quintessential California Gold Rush Ghost Town.  Chocked with ruins, an old jail, church and requisite graveyard.  The town holds stories of fame, fortune, loss and murder.   Decades ago, I walked around the town.  Today it was straight to the Lodge.  Hornitos Masonic Lodge is the smallest operating Lodge in California.  It just under 18 feet wide by under 30 feet long.  I parked out back and watched everyone going through a back door I did not know existed. 

It was a small passage that went down and under the Lodge.  You pass down into a small, well-lite room that has the feel of a bomb shelter and ship’s galley.  It is extraordinary clean and well-organized, yet upon closer inspection you can see that the well-maintained fixtures are decades old.  We had hot dogs and chips under the low hanging roof. 

In addition to being California’s smallest Lodge it has the additional historical significance of having the longest serving Master of the Lodge.  From 1872 to 1901 Worshipful William I. Adams held the position of Master of the Lodge for 30 consecutive years.  He then went on to serve as Secretary for the next 20 years.  In addition to being Master, Adams served as County Corner, Public Administrator, Justice of the Peace, Blacksmith and Wagon Master.  Clearly, he held the Lodge together during the declining years, but it sounds like the town, also.  I suspect he stopped serving as Secretary in 1921 because he died at the age of 88.   

The interior of the Lodge is simply a museum of California Gold Rush Masonry.  An amazing living museum.  Still in use today, the OSI was held in the Lodge room and we practice the Third Degree of Masonry.  For my Masonic friends, it defines the term “local conditions” as you move around the room and re-enact the Legend.   

The building didn’t start out as a Masonic Lodge.  In 1855, it was built by Italian Stone Masons who worked in the nearby mines.  For the building’s first 20 years it housed a number of businesses; from a jewelry store to saloon.  In 1873, the Masons bought the building and have held meeting in it from 1875 to the present.   

OSI wrapped up just after 5PM.  Down the mountain, through Cathy’s Valley, La Grange and then onto the 99 South.  Nice evening drive.

About the Author:

Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.), MPA is the author of 11 books including Police Technology (Prentice Hall, 2004) and Leadership: Texas Hold 'em Style.  More information can be found about Raymond at Police Consultant.

Israeli expert on security, protection, operations and prevention of criminal and terror acts; and, Dr. Reuven Paz, Ph.D., an Israeli expert on militant and radical Islam and Islamist movements.


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