After the George Washington Masonic National Memorial broke ground on June 5, 1922, American Freemasons began to anticipate a grand Masonic cornerstone ceremony and celebration.
During the Memorial Association’s February 1923 meeting, the membership approved $500,000 to clad the entire 333-foot structure in granite. Also, President Watres proposed November 4—the anniversary of George Washington’s initiation as Entered Apprentice Mason in the Lodge at Fredericksburg, Virginia— for the cornerstone ceremony.
While coinciding with Washington’s initiation anniversary was desired, the Association’s decision was based on additional factors. Foremost was securing the necessary men and materials, along with sufficient fair weather, to properly prepare the Memorial and grounds for the ceremony.
The Association also had to negotiate a time that would work for everyone in the context of an extremely busy American Masonic calendar. Between Labor Day and St. John the Baptist’s Day, numerous grand jurisdictions held annual meetings. Freemasons in Washington, D.C. were already preparing for the Shrine Imperial Session in June and the Scottish Rite Supreme Council’s biennial session in October. There was also the availability of key state and federal government officials to consider. With all those factors in mind, Thursday, November 1, 1923, was selected.
The Association’s Executive Committee appointed a local Freemason, John Elmer Winfield Timberman (1876–1962) to chair and coordinate all the day’s events. He was a close friend of Charles H. Callahan, the driving force behind the creation of the Memorial. Timberman, a pharmacist and owner of a well-known local drug store, was active in his church and a wide variety of civic organizations. He joined Andrew Jackson Lodge № 120 in 1898 and served as its Master in 1903. After serving as the High Priest of Mt. Vernon Royal Arch Chapter in 1907, he was elected Grand High Priest of the Grand Chapter of Virginia in 1917. Later in his life, in 1953, he would receive perhaps the highest and rarest Masonic honor—attending the dedication of a Masonic lodge named for him—at Elmer Timberman Lodge № 54.
Besides being well-connected, Chairman Timberman had several advantages working for him. The celebration would include a parade comprised of Military units and American Freemasons. Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Freemasons had conducted parades and cornerstone ceremonies since well before President Washington laid the cornerstone for the U.S. Capitol in 1793.
Additionally, the main railroad line from Maine to Florida passed through Alexandria at the foot of Shuter’s Hill where the Memorial was being constructed. The Washington Southern Railroad maintained a large freight yard north of town that could accommodate scores of passenger and sleeper cars. The Washington to Mount Vernon trolley lines could also transport hundreds of local citizens. Ferries could bring hundreds more from up, down, and across the Potomac River. Lastly, if any problems arose, he could call on his brother Masons, U.S. President Warren G. Harding, Virginia Governor E.L. Trinkle, and Chief Justice (and former President) William Howard Taft, for help.
Between February and August 1923, the Association’s Executive Committee discussed several important issues surrounding the November 1st event. Two different invitations would be printed: one for Masons and one for non-Masonic officials. Reduced ticket rates were secured from major railroad passenger associations. Reproductions of the trowel used by President Washington in 1793 were ordered at $15 each. Attending Grand Masters would receive a souvenir trowel, with remaining copies to be given to attending high government officials and Memorial Association officers.
Another topic was the actual cornerstone. Harvey Wiley Corbett’s original design included the Masonic square and compasses emblem but omitted the “G” in the center. A final design was settled upon in mid-October, including the Letter G.
In June 1924, the Executive Committee hired Bro. A.P. Johnson to promote the great event. Recommended by consulting architect S.E. Osgood, Johnson specialized in advertising and publicity. For $13,000 plus expenses, Johnson would do four monthly mailings of information and invitations to the more than 15,000 American Lodges in hopes of reaching the nearly three million American Master Masons. His campaign was important not just to encourage attendance at the event, but to build greater support from the public and Masons alike as construction continued in the years ahead.
However, Johnson’s work met with some disappointment. A careful reading of the Executive Committee’s minutes reveals that Johnson took great liberties, both in the means of promotion and in the advertisement copy. From his pen came erroneous stories that George Washington once owned Shuter’s Hill and that it was Thomas Jefferson’s first choice for the site of the U.S. Capitol. But there can be no mistaking Johnson’s exuberance when he promised that the Memorial would “be the most wonderful monument ever erected in honor of any man.”
In the midst of the growing excitement, U.S. President and Brother Mason Warren G. Harding died on August 2. Initiated in 1901 at Marion Lodge № 7 in Marion, Ohio, Bro. Harding suffered a heart attack while on a speaking tour in San Francisco.
Vice President Calvin Coolidge of Massachusetts was not a Freemason, although his wife Grace was a member of the Order of the Eastern Star. Fortunately, President Coolidge did agree to honor the invitation to attend the cornerstone ceremony, but on the condition he would not be asked to give a speech. “Silent Cal” resolved to remain silent in the first few months of his administration. The November 1st celebration was one of his first presidential appearances.
By the first week of October, Chairman Timberman had all the details resolved and the program set. The U.S. Army Signal Corps would set up an electric amplifier system with the necessary loud speakers to reach an audience of 100,000. Washington, D.C. radio station WCAP would broadcast descriptions of the parade and ceremony as well as the speeches given at the ritual and the evening’s banquet.
The last few days before the great ceremony all the pieces came together. On October 29th the Executive Committee met at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. Besides continuing to oversee the ongoing construction, they made final adjustments to the schedule and ceremony. After the meeting they visited the job site to inspect the physical preparation—including the spreading of cinders around the hill to protect the grounds from the huge crowds and alleviate any mud, should it rain.
That day, The Alexandria Gazette reported the arrival of the first train load of Freemasons. To fully accommodate the oncoming crush, the city encouraged vendors to sell food and drink on the street, before, during, and after the parade. Alexandria businesses closed and there was no mail delivery, but the Post Office remained open to accept mail. Schools were also closed, giving the students a chance to watch the parade.
The final schedule of events went as follows: at 10:00 a.m. the Grand Lodge of Virginia would open in Alexandria-Washington Lodge № 22’s meeting room in City Hall. At 10:30, the parade would begin promptly from the intersection of King and Fairfax Streets. The Cornerstone Ceremony would begin at 12 noon and finish by 1:30 p.m.
First to arrive to the celebration from Norfolk was the U.S. Navy’s new light cruiser, the U.S.S. Richmond (CL-9). It steamed into Alexandria on October 29th with its complement of 500 sailors ready to march in the parade. The Richmond later served in the Caribbean through the 1930s. During World War II it earned two battle stars in action against the Japanese Imperial Navy in the North Pacific and near the Alaskan Aleutian Islands.
The parade consisted of seven divisions with 22 marching bands totaling over 18,000 men. Divisions assembled on the side streets off of King Street. Leading the parade was a US Army cavalry troop, a company of infantry, two platoons of engineers and “Pershing’s Own” marching band. Behind the Army came a company of U.S. Marines and the Marine Corp Band, and lastly the Richmond’s 500 sailors. U.S. Army biplanes circled above the crowd.
The second division contained automobiles carrying government officials and other civilian dignitaries and guests. The third division consisted of Masonic Knights Templar with their marching bands, and the fourth division contained officers from every U.S. Grand Lodge and brethren from many Lodges from around the country.
The fifth division contained Virginia, Maryland, and District of Columbia lodges, chapters, councils, and commanderies. Honored among these were Washington’s mother lodge, Fredericksburg Lodge № 4, Alexandria-Washington Lodge № 22, and Potomac Lodge № 5. The sixth division contained numerous Shrine marching bands, drill teams, and choirs.
The last division contained the Memorial Association’s Officers and Board Members and the Grand Lodge of Virginia’s Officers. Also included in this division were the heads of the General Grand York Rite Bodies, the Sovereign Grand Commanders of both Scottish Rite jurisdictions, and the Shrine Imperial Potentate.
Two and a half hours after stepping off, the last division took its place within the arc of spectators assembled around the north and east of the Memorial. Later estimates claimed nearly 50,000 people had enjoyed the spectacle on that brisk and sunny day.
With President Coolidge and Governor Trinkle, many government officials, and the Grand Masters of the United States assembled near the cornerstone, Acting Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Virginia Charles Callahan stepped up to the microphone to begin the Masonic ceremony. His dreams were coming true after 13 years of relentless planning and indefatigable labor.