Editor's note: The veil of secrecy surrounding Masonic lodges, their activities and the meaning of their square and compass logo was lifted recently for Times Staff Writer Ken Kosky. The Dunes Lodge in Portage was made available for a tour and the lodge's outgoing Worshipful Master Erik Burkhart answered questions along with other Freemasons.
One problem with being a secret society is that rumors spread about what really goes on behind closed doors.
The Free and Accepted Masons -- known for the square, compass and letter G logo on their windows, signs and jewelry -- shared the truth -- and many secrets -- during a recent tour of their lodge.
Erik Burkhart, outgoing worshipful master of the Dunes Lodge in Portage, granted The Times access to dispel myths and educate the public about Masons. He was joined by Mike Stedman, worshipful master of the Glen Park Lodge in Valparaiso.
"What Masons do is take good men and try to make them better," Stedman said.
"You have to believe in God to be a Mason."
Through the years, members have been accused of devil worship and of physically or mentally hazing new members, but local lodge leaders say such talk is "bogus," "comical" and "gobbledygook."
Burkhart said the time Masons spend together is focused on self improvement, fellowship and doing good in the community. The list of charitable causes -- including financially supporting hospital care, assisted living and help for dyslexia -- is lengthy.
Stedman said the Masons are just like any fraternity -- and secret handshakes, signs and passwords are part of that. Burkhart said the advent of the Internet means there are few secrets (although much of the information online is inaccurate, he says). Still, individual Masons take seriously their oath to protect their secrets.
Burkhart did share the meaning of the Mason's logo. He said the G stands for both geometry and God. The square and compass represent the keeping of men within precise standards of morality and excellence.
In the Dunes Lodge meeting room, which features an altar surrounded by padded benches and special chairs for leaders, there are two stones, a rough one and a smooth one. The stones represent the creating of polished building materials in ancient times and the making of polished men today.
Stedman said he belongs because of "the camaraderie between men and to make yourself a better man."
Stan Mills said belonging to the Dunes Lodge has made him a better man, and he'd like to see others turn away from television and computers to seek knowledge and friendship.
"If they did, it would enlighten their life," Mills said.
The men gather for monthly meetings and to socialize. They also have fraternal rituals and ceremonies.
The list of Masons throughout time includes George Washington, Paul Revere and John Hancock. Today, a person needs only to be a male at least 18 years of age with no felonies. And they must be recommended by an investigative committee of Masons. If accepted, a man must spend about three months undergoing three degrees of education.
Once the education is complete, members can become further active in groups such as the Shriners and York Rite of Freemasonry.
In the past, Masons were not allowed to approach people they thought might make excellent Masons. They had to be approached before sharing information about the Masons. Now, they not only share the Mason message, they recently had open houses in the region -- something they say was a first in this area.
Stedman said television and Internet portrayals of Masons often are inaccurate.
Stedman and Burkhart said the Masons are growing, with 280 members in the Dunes Lodge, 150 in the Glen Park Lodge and, statewide, more than 17,000 men in 420 lodges. The average age of members, which once was 55, is now in the low 40s, Burkhart said.
For more information about Masons or for an application to join, contact Erik Burkhart, ex-worshipful master of the Dunes Lodge in Portage, at (219) 808-7897.