David Purcell was surprised when a co-worker found items stashed on the top floor of a Freeland building they are renovating.
To Purcells knowledge, that portion of the 632 Centre St. building was empty. But squirreled away in a cubbyhole accessed only by a closet was a Freeland Paint Co. tin, a moonshine jug and a stack of letters, receipts and other items from a secret fraternal organization.
As a history buff, Purcell was most curious about the 19th century papers.
I kept seeing the name Red Men on the correspondence, said Purcell, who owns the building. And so I thought it must be some kind of Indian tribe.
As it turns out, the letters, notes and postcards were from the Improved Order of Red Men, a group that used the buildings third-floor meeting hall. The material dates as far back as the 1870s and the papers are mostly intact. The writing whether in ink or lead remains legible.
I knew people met up there, Purcell said of the space above what was last Woodies Fountain and Luncheonette. But I hadnt heard of the Red Men.
Most of the letters were written on stationery of the Machemleck Tribe of Upper Lehigh. Correspondence from other Red Men tribes, or groups, was also plentiful.
Purcell learned that the order traces its roots to 1765 and is an offshoot of the Sons of Liberty.
They are the ones who were in the Boston Tea Party, Purcell said.
David Lintz, a historian at the Red Men Museum and Library in Waco, Texas, confirmed the ties to the Sons of Liberty.
Through his records, Lintz found that the Machemleck Tribe of Upper Lehigh was established in 1875.
Fraternal organizations were very popular in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century. One of every three men belonged to some sort of fraternal organization, he said. It helped your status as a businessman or if you were running for office or trying to influence anything in town. You wanted to belong. You wanted to be popular. That was important.
When the patriotic group began in the late 1700s, members concealed their identities and worked underground to establish freedom and liberty in the early colonies.
It patterned itself after the Iroquois Confederacy and changed its name to Society of Red Men after the War of 1812 and to the Improved Order of Red Men in 1834, according to information from the museum.
Because it modeled itself after the Iroquois tribe, Lintz said the order keeps Native American traditions. For example, members wear Native American regalia during some ceremonies, and officers may wear costumes at public affairs.
And letters arent dated by the Julian calendar. Instead, the tribes use sun and moon dates. Moon months include Traveling Moon, Plant Moon, Snow Moon and Hunting Moon, for example. Meeting quarters are referred to as a wigwam and a leader is a chief.
In one letter, the Great Chief of Records of Pennsylvania invites the Upper Lehigh tribe to a meeting. The special fire ... will be kindled on the sleep of the 27th Sun, Hunting Moon, at the eighth run, thirtieth breath, G.S.D. 401, in the wigwam of Neoskaleta Tribe, Philadelphia.
Another letter, also received from Philadelphia, thanks the Upper Lehigh tribe for its contribution of five fathom of wampum for the Yellow Fever Sufferers fund.
I trust that the great spirit will increase your prosperity and happiness, reads the thank-you note.
Much of the correspondence details the benefits paid to sick members to those who were unable to work, or hunt, according to Red Men terminology.
Another note this one an 1893 telegraph received from Wilkes-Barre simply states, Father is dead. Burial Wednesday 2 p.m. Notify the others.
A lot of them joined for benefits for medical benefits or funeral benefits, Lintz explained. Remember, this was before Social Security and before your employer paid your insurance. You paid in and you got benefits back if you were laid up. Plus your widow had death benefits.
Meeting and dues notices are part of the records, as are receipts for items purchased. In 1884, the tribe bought $11.40 in cigars from Wm. Schwartz/Cigar Factory, 10 E. Broad St., Hazleton, and paid for a subscription to the Semi-Weekly Progress newspaper of Freeland.
The tribe also filed letters and notices from other tribes, including the Kiowas Tribe of Hazleton, Paxinosa Tribe of Wilkes-Barre, Winola Tribe of Pittston and the Mahanoy Tribe from Mahanoy City. Tribal letters arrived from other parts of the state, as well as Delaware, Washington and Montana.
The 1920s was the Red Mens heyday, Lintz said. Around that time, the organization had 500,000 members hailing from every part of the nation. Philadelphia alone had 114 Red Men tribes.
There were 80,000 members in Pennsylvania, he said. The commonwealth has 13 tribes now, including the Taghneghdoarus Tribe of Shamokin, Northumberland County.
Lintz said the order often shared space with other fraternal organizations.
The goal was to have your own meeting facility. It meant you had arrived, he said. If that wasnt possible, the tribes rented spaces.
According to information on Charlotte Tancins History of Freeland, Pa. website, the Red Men met Thursday evenings in Room 2 of the Patriotic Order Sons of America building.
There were a number of these patriotic organizations that were apparently popular in the Freeland area in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Tancin said. For example, Milton H. Hunsicker, listed as proprietor of the Central Hotel in the 1895 directory, was a member.
The place for early Red Men meetings was owned by Joseph Neuburger, according to a 1895 Barrys city directory on Tancins website, www .andrew.cmu.edu/user/ct0u /freeland.html.
Other organizations that met at the property included the Patriotic Order Sons of America; Junior Order of United American Mechanics; Daughters of Liberty; and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
Carol Jones, secretary for the Freeland Historical Society, said members hadnt heard of the Red Men until Purcell turned over the correspondence.
Like Purcell, members initially believed they were dealing with Native American correspondence, she said.
They sorted and filed the records by origin, and will decide what to do with them during their August meeting.