The Secret Hand That Helped Build Fort Wayne

By Eric Olson

May 2, 2013 Updated May 2, 2013 at 12:00 PM EDT

FORT WAYNE, Indiana--Many centuries ago the medieval stonecutters who built all those beautiful cathedrals formed a sort of club to keep professional standards high and stonemasonry in good repute. They called themselves Freemasons and adopted symbols of their trade, like the square and compass representing the Divine geometry of the Universe. There were secrets, too...handshakes and rituals that bound this brotherhood together and made others, like the Catholic Church, very suspicious.
Three centuries later and half a world away a new country was being born. Its Founding Father was a Freemason as were thirteen signers of the Declaration of Independence. The Freemasons had evolved into something like a professional men’s social club that championed faith, responsibility and good works. A town’s most prominent citizens were always members. So as Fort Wayne grew from frontier outpost to modern city, its principle architects would be Freemasons.
“They laid the foundations of a community that we have built upon over the years,” says historian Walter Font, “and sustained the economy of their time, made it a prosperous town.”
The movers and shakers who built Fort Wayne are enshrined on the walls of its once secretive Masonic Temple and there are a bunch of them…names familiar today…Shoaff, Calhoun, Rudisill, Hanna, Creighton, Bass…all town founders… all Freemasons. Henry Rudisill arrived in 1829 as an agent for land speculators. He platted the original town of Fort Wayne, and brought hundreds of Germans over from Europe to man Fort Wayne’s growing industries. Sam Hanna started as a fur trader with the Miami Indians…he helped bring the Miami Erie Canal to Fort Wayne and built plank roads connecting Fort Wayne to other growing towns.
“When the new technology of transportation related to railroads came in in the mid 1850’s,” Font says, “he’s very much involved in that too, very instrumental in seeing that railroad came to Fort Wayne.”

When Sam Hanna died in 1866 he owned 45-thousand acres of land…86 square miles…worth about 55-million dollars then. Among Hanna’s personal artifacts preserved at the History Center are his writing desk and an original invitation to his funeral presided over by his brother Freemasons. And then there was John Bass who came to Fort Wayne in 1853. He built the Bass Foundry and Machine Works and got rich making rail car wheels during the Civil War…he built steam engine and power plant castings, employed 25-hundred workers at his immense factory. The stone walls of his home, the palatial Bass Mansion are watched over by gargoyles, a tribute to Masonic brothers who built all those fabulous medieval cathedrals.

By the time Fort Wayne was being built the original stonecutter’s guild of Freemasons had evolved into a progressive social club, its motto ‘Making Good Men Better’…a sort of early Chamber of Commerce where businessmen networked, devised plans for the town and enlisted each others help seeing them through. It’s the men who joined this club, not the club itself, we have to thank for our city’s character. But Freemasonry bound them all together, and its ritual and its history inspired what they did.

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