116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS - Hidden in plain sight at 813 First Ave. SE are world-class collections of books, artifacts and art. The Iowa Masonic Library and its museums are not advertised on a sign out front. Instead, the facade says 'Grand Lodge of Iowa, AF & AM.” It might sound off-limits to non-Masons, but the treasures inside are there for everyone.
The white Vermont-marbled edifice was dedicated in 1955, replacing the original library building that occupied the same spot. The original building was the first Mason-specific library in the world, built in 1884 and eventually replaced when its collections grew too large.
Librarian/curator Bill Krueger has given tours and guidance to Masons, historians and anyone curious enough to walk in for nearly 22 years. There are 150,000-plus volumes of literature, many of which predate the country's founding. Among the artifacts are Babylonian tablets, a suit of samurai armor and a Civil War battle flag.
I asked Krueger to identify the five most significant items in the building, a difficult task for a historian who sees value in every scrap of paper. Here's what he said he'd prioritize grabbing in the unfortunate event of a fire.
The Sargent Table
Built in the early 1900s by Cedar Rapids Mason Philip J. Sargent, this stunning marquetry table features 37,000 tiny pieces of inlay from 100 kinds of wood.
The wood is said to be from a significant collection of sources - among them, the first dam built across the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids, the Old Capitol Building in Iowa City, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello home in Virginia, the elm tree George Washington stood under in 1777 when taking command of the Continental Army and the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem.
The functional drop-leaf table features many well-known and secretive symbols associated with Masonry.
The First Three Degrees of Masonry by Grant Wood
In 1921, early in his short tenure as a Mason, Grant Wood accepted a commission to illustrate the first three Masonic degrees. Executed as an allegorical triptych, the work borrows from famous sculptures to show the creation, utility and decline of the Temple of Solomon, a story many Masonic rituals are based on.
Symbolism abounds in Wood's depiction of the progression from youth to old age. The painting left Iowa for the first time last year when it appeared in a Grant Wood exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
Benjamin Franklin's Constitutions of the Freemasons
Despite having an original 1723 copy of James Anderson's seminal text of Freemason history and rituals, the library is especially proud to own a rare 1734 copy of the book reprinted by Benjamin Franklin, a Mason himself. Known as 'The Franklin Edition of the Constitution,” the artifact was one of the main attractions in the library's recent exhibition celebrating the 175th anniversary of the Grand Lodge of Iowa.
T.S. Parvin's Diaries
Theodore Sutton Parvin founded the Masonic Order of Iowa and served as the state's Grand Lodge master and grand secretary. In 1842, just six years after arriving as territorial governor Robert Lucas' private secretary, Parvin started the Iowa Masonic Library with a $5 gold piece that yielded the library's first batch of books, magazines and pamphlets.
Parvin would become a District Court clerk, a district attorney and a probate judge. He literally helped shape Iowa as the state's first land office registrar. He launched the first official state library as well as the Iowa State Historical Society. He also was one of the first trustees of the University of Iowa and taught natural history there for 10 years.
Joseph Smith's Ledger
Known more for founding the Mormon religion than being a Mason, Joseph Smith helped found a lodge in Nauvoo, Ill., where he ran a store.
This ledger, or daybook, is the very register he was keeping at the time of his assassination by a mob in 1844 in Carthage, Ill. Hundreds of accounts of goods bought and sold are documented in what could be Smith's own handwriting.
The artifact is a snapshot of what things cost in Nauvoo from 1842 to 1844, which is why an economic historian was recently at the library poring over the artifact's many details. Mormon pilgrims from across the country also have stopped by and found familiar names in it.
Krueger described Masonry as an education-focused 'self-improvement society” and delighted in the notion that Masons are all around doing good things without hoopla.
'There's more around us than what we actually know,” Krueger said, drawing on the connection to the treasures in the Iowa Masonic Library.
See them yourself, they're hidden but in plain sight - just like Iowa's Masons.