Louis A. Watres (1851–1938), Past Grand Master of Pennsylvania
First called to labor in 1910, The George Washington Masonic National Memorial Association formally organized on Washington’s 178th Birthday in 1911.
In the succeeding six years, President Thomas Shryock and Local Committee Secretary Charles Callahan had made impressive strides in planning the construction of the great Masonic Memorial that we know today. Two events during that time, however, brought significant challenges to bear on the Association’s mission. The first was global and the second local. On April 6, 1917, Congress declared war on the Central Powers and joined the Allies in the First World War. In its first two years, the fighting had already cost millions of lives. Now, with the commitment of American forces, the Great War would rightly demand the nation’s material and manpower.
The second hardship came just twenty-four days before the Memorial Association’s annual meeting of 1918: on February 3, Most Worshipful Brother Shryock died of pneumonia at his Baltimore home. He had served as Grand Master of Maryland for over 30 years, was an esteemed business and civic leader. In three short weeks, the Memorial Association would need to elect a worthy successor.
First Vice President James Johnson (1962–1944), Past Grand Master of South Carolina, became the Acting President during those crucial days. He was a coal merchant in Charleston, an alderman and active in every level of the Fraternity. His first action was to consult with his fellow officers.
Second Vice President James Dillon (1859–1927), Grand Master of Michigan in 1911, was a pharmacist in East Tawas. He was widely respected within the Fraternity. In 1912, Lodge № 466 in Messick, Michigan, was named in his honor. In 1914, he inspired his Michigan brothers to make the first significant contribution of $5,000 to the Association.
Third Vice President George Schoonover (1880–1961) was an Iowa banker. Installed as Grand Master in June 1918, he helped establish the National Masonic Research Society and assisted in publishing The Builder, one of the best Masonic magazines ever published. In November 1918, he would go on to assist in the formation of the Masonic Service Association (MSA) at Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Last, but never least, was Fourth Vice President Melvin M. Johnson (1871–1957), Grand Master of Massachusetts from 1914 to 1916, Dean of Boston University Law School, and arguably the most influential Freemason of the twentieth century. He played significant roles in the Memorial Association, the MSA, and the Order of DeMolay. He would later serve as Sovereign Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite Northern Masonic Jurisdiction from 1933 until his death.
Supporting these men were Secretary Lawrence Lee (1867–1938), Past Grand Master of Alabama, and Treasurer John Cowles (1863–1954), Past Grand Master of Kentucky. Brother Lee was an attorney, state representative and the Reporter of the Alabama State Supreme Court. Brother Cowles was a successful businessman and Spanish-American War veteran who would later serve for thirty-five years as Sovereign Grand Commander of the Scottish Rite in the Southern Jurisdiction.
There were many great Freemasons among these brethren. Their task now was to select a new President, a man with the ability to guide the association through times of global war, yet possess the energy, skills and wisdom of Brother Shryock.
By the opening of the eighth annual meeting of the Association, the choice had been made. Acting President Johnson nominated a Past Grand Master of Pennsylvania, Right Worshipful Brother Louis A. Watres (1851–1938). Brother Watres had not yet held any office or committee appointment in the Association, yet the assembled brethren unanimously elected him President. His biography helps us understand why.
Louis Arthur Watres was born near Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1851. He left school at age ten and worked as a coal-picker. He married Effie Hawley in 1874, and together they had four sons, including U.S. Congressman L.H. Watres (1882–1964). Self-educated, he read law in a judge’s office and was admitted to the Lackawanna Bar in 1878. He was an extraordinarily energetic man who pursued interests in business, military, politics, philanthropy, and Freemasonry with great success.
After founding Scranton’s trolley lines, Watres founded the Spring Brook Water Company, which eventually had forty-four subsidiaries. He became president of a number of smaller concerns, including banks, trusts, coal, lumber and railroad companies as well as publishing two local newspapers.
He served as Judge Advocate of the Pennsylvania National Guard and later as colonel of the 13th Infantry Regiment. A Republican, he served in a variety of local, county and state offices, including State Senator (1883-1891) and Lieutenant Governor (1882-1890).
Watres’ equally extensive charity work included founding a junior college, financing a South American research expedition, and donating land for the creation of city parks. He served on the board for Scranton’s Home of the Friendless, Salvation Army, Boy Scouts, YMCA, and symphony orchestra.
He was initiated into Freemasonry in Peter Williamson Lodge № 323 in 1872, and served as its Master in 1877. He served as the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Pennsylvania in 1916 and 1917 and was a member of the Masonic Home Committee, 1908–1917 and 1920–21.
Some may well ask why a sixty-six year old man, even with such accomplishments on his record, would undertake the daunting task of leading the Memorial Association during such a difficult time. After all, it became his duty to ask over two million American Freemasons to build a stately Memorial to George Washington during a world war and amid great social upheaval.
President Watres acknowledged these challenges and responded with solutions and a call to action:
If we had not begun it [the Memorial], that would be one thing, be we have begun it, and Masonry having put its hand to the plow never looks backward. I believe that now is the time to raise money and put up this Memorial. . . . I believe when this war shall have ended, our building should have been well begun. I am inclined to think that there never was a better time to appeal to the Masonic spirit than now. We ought not to wait to organize. Organize, organize, organize this Association in every Grand Jurisdiction of this country and if we do that it will take no seer to see what will follow as a result.
Watres’ first action was to suspend all fundraising efforts for the next twelve months. This would give him time to adjust his life and assess the Association. It would also encourage individual Masons to perform national service.
Second, he recommended organizing the fifty Grand Lodges under ten administrative divisions. As a middle level of management they would strengthen coordination between the Executive Committee and Grand Lodges. They would also foster friendly competition among Grand Lodges and divisions. In this way, Watres set himself apart from his predecessor Shryock. Although also born in 1851, Watres was not a nineteenth-century Grand Master, but a twentieth-century industrialist. He boldly inspired the Memorial Association to solicit needed support from the Grand Lodges of the United States.
Throughout 1918, as Watres reorganized his affairs and consulted his directors, the Great War reached its crescendo. With more than four million Americans under arms, the great battles fought along the Somme, Lys and Marne Rivers caused over 40,000 deaths and 100,000 casualties. Training, supplying and transporting this vast army transformed the American “home front.” Finally, after four years of unprecedented conflict, victory came with the Armistice on November 11, 1918.
In September, while the war raged, Watres held a meeting at his estate, Pen-y-Bryn, overlooking the city of Scranton. The Association’s officers and the Ways and Means Committee members attended. After discussing and perfecting the new delocalizing ten division plan, they agreed to establish an Advisory Committee consisting of prominent Freemasons. Brother John Wanamaker (1838–1922) agreed to chair the committee. One of the great American merchants, Wanamaker built famous department stores in Philadelphia and served as Post Master General under U.S. President Benjamin Harrison.
On February 21, 1919, the Association again assembled in the Alexandria-Washington № 22 lodge room. Where in the previous year there had been war and uncertainty, now there was peace and confidence.
In his address, President Watres outlined his new organizational plan and set a vision for the future. He affirmed the Association’s commitment to build a memorial for not less than $500,000, with an endowment of at least $250,000.
The Association approved all of Watres’ initiatives. There were ten divisions: New England, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Gulf, Central, Great Lakes, Corn Belt, Southwestern, Northern Pacific, and South Pacific. And an eleventh was added: a “Flying Squadron” of Association officers would travel to any grand jurisdiction communication to bolster support. Watres appointed the vice presidents and other Masonic leaders to head the divisions and made them members of the Ways and Means Committee.
The Advisory Board chaired by John Wanamaker was filled by U.S. Vice President Thomas R. Marshall (1854–1925), Speaker of the House of Representatives Champ Clark (1850–1921), U.S. Senators George E. Chamberlain (1854–1928) of Oregon, Thomas S. Martin (1847–1919) of Virginia, and Francis E. Warren (1844–1929) of Wyoming. Army General and Medal of Honor recipient Nelson A. Miles (1839–1925) along with Navy Admiral George W. Baird (1843–1930) finished the appointments.
In twelve months, Watres transformed the Memorial Association from a collection of supportive Masonic leaders into a modern enterprise of national scope. Directed by the President, through Vice Presidents, division chairs and state chairmen, with an Advisory Committee of highly respected Masonic leaders, the Association was poised for a new era of post-war prosperity. Watres’ genius sensed this age dawning, and wisely organized to meet the rising sun. The next article will examine the Association’s labors and rewards in the 1920s.