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Master Mason’s apron (c. early 20th century)

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Walter Cary Wilcox, “The Mason’s Boy”

In October, 1878 Walter Cary Wilcox was about 4 ½ years old, alone and orphaned.  His mother was dead by yellow fever, and his father had died a few years earlier when Walter was five months old. By some reports it was the fever that consumed him; by others he died from injuries sustained in a steamship accident (it was the latter scenario that Walter would remember as the most likely possibility and with research would be confirmed). During the final years of the 1870s, New Orleans, like most of the South, was ravaged by the epidemic. While Walter contracted the fever and eventually recovered, his mother lost her battle.

Walter’s late father, Henry E. Wilcox, had been a Mason in New Orleans, but it was his mother’s employed care of a dying man, James Pratt, in Florida that endeared the family to the Masons of a Chicago lodge that was later to play a hand in assisting Walter during his trip west. Discovering that Pratt was a Mason, she personally arranged for his remains to be sent back to his mother lodge in Chicago for a Masonic funeral service. For this, his lodge, Garden City No. 14, sent her a gold watch in gratitude. However, misfortune was to overtake the tragedy-stricken family after returning to Louisiana. A mother was dead and her child bereft. Those who were arranging for the mother’s burial discovered the watch and its Masonic-related engraving and directed the case to the Masons in New Orleans and their grand lodge.

Now it was October 3, 1878, and Walter sat on a train with a packing ticket tied around his small neck inscribed with a message entrusting him to the care of the brotherhood and perfect strangers while he made his way from Louisiana via Louisville and Chicago, and then on to Oakland in order to live with his grandmother, Mrs. Hannah Cary:

New Orleans, October 3, 1878
The bearer of this is Walter Wilcox, who has been orphaned by the epidemic which has pervaded this city. He is scarcely five years old and is now en-route to San Francisco, via Louisville and Chicago. He has been forwarded from this point by the Masonic Relief Board, and is the holder of a through ticket—No. 251, New Orleans to Chicago, via Louisville…and funds have been placed in the hands of Conductors to defray the necessary expenses which may be incurred on his account. He will be received at Chicago by parties representing the Masonic Relief Board of that city.
I bespeak for him, on the part of Railroad men between New Orleans and Chicago, every possible attention, looking to his comfort and protection. 
(Signed,)   F. CHANDLER
Gen’l Passenger Agent, Jackson R.R.

After a few days of much-needed rest in Chicago, during which Walter was a guest of the deceased Mr. Pratt’s own Garden City Lodge, he again boarded a train westward with an additional tag hanging by his nape:

Chicago, October 22, 1878
The bearer of this, is Master Walter Wilcox, an orphan son of a Brother Mason. He was orphaned by the yellow fever in New Orleans, and is en route to Oakland, Cal., to join his grandmother (Mrs. Cary), who will meet him at the depot. He has been forwarded by the Masonic Fraternity, and is the holder of through tickets, and funds have been placed in the hands of the Conductors for incidental expenses. (Signed.)
H. Holcomb, P.M.
Garden City Lodge
{Seal of Lodge}

Upon his arrival in Sacramento the youngster was met by a large contingent of Masons including the Grand Master of Masons in California, Nathaniel G. Curtis, who reportedly hand-carried the road-weary and weakened Walter from the train. The crowd met their interest with an outpouring of gold coins intended for his immediate welfare. Walter was thence conveyed again by locomotive to Oakland accompanied by William Knox and Mrs. William Petrie [wife of William Petrie, Past Grand Commander of California, Knights Templar and then-Grand Bible Bearer] with another identification tag placed around his neck bearing the seal of Sacramento Commandery No. 2, Knights Templar.  Meanwhile, Alexander Abell, Grand Secretary of the Masonic Grand Lodge, had been in previous communication with Walter’s grandmother. He arranged for the boy to become a ward of the Grand Lodge of F. & A.M. of California, and to receive a sum of $600 for his first year in California with portions to be disbursed $25 monthly. His previous plight and new presence in the state was well noted and hundreds of his posed photographs entitled “The Mason’s Boy”, or “The Mason’s Orphan” became extremely popular amongst the fraternity. In addition, articles in newspapers and Masonic publications, along with the California Grand Lodge Proceedings, told his story. 

His journey was not to end there: in 1880 Walter became seriously ill with the measles and had to leave the state with his grandmother in order to be cared for by friends. However, her means were extremely limited—even for travel on an “emigrant train” [sic]. The efforts of Nathan W. Spaulding [Grand Treasurer from 1885-1892], appraised A.N. Towne, General Superintendent of the Central Pacific Railroad, of the boy’s continuing dilemma and he generously donated two first class tickets for Walter and his grandmother, along with ensuring their return trip by notifying his colleagues in the Union Pacific, Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroads. During Walter’s recovery in Ohio in 1881, Abell wrote to him:

…I am glad to see you write that you are a “Mason’s Boy”, and I hope that when you grow up to be a man you will be a good Mason and try to help other Mason’s little boys.  With much love, your affectionate friend…

Grand Lodge records and personal letters attest to the annual disbursals for Walter’s care until his grandmother died in 1888. Naturally Walter had made life-long friendships with the men who ran Grand Lodge, and it was Nathan Spaulding who would formally adopt Walter and raise him as his own son. During a period in American history with so much insecurity and pain, it is always refreshing to witness a happy ending. Walter grew up well-adjusted and loved because of the efforts of the Grand Lodge and the love of the Fraternity. Through Masonic connections he procured work in the auditing department at Wells Fargo & Co., and upon reaching majority age was made a Freemason, eventually taking his very well-attended third degree on May 11, 1895 at Oakland Lodge No. 188 [now known as Oakland-Durant-Rockridge Lodge No. 188]. Later, he pursued a career in dentistry and held a practice in Stockton. In 1901, both he and his wife, Jeanette, were listed as members of Homo Chapter No. 50, Order of the Eastern Star in that city, although his later years were spent in Modesto and Tuolumne County where he died on December 11, 1952.


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