William J. Ellenberger, 32 K.C.C.H.
Escondido, California

The Acacia Fraternity is not well known despite its Masonic origin and its 40 chapters in the United States and Canada.

Freemasonry is the world’s oldest and best known fraternal organization, but among men’s college Greek letter societies the sole non-Greek letter fraternity, Acacia, is not well known despite its Masonic origin and its 40 chapters in the United States and Canada. It was founded at the University of Michigan in 1904 by 14 members of the Masonic Club.

At the beginning of the 20th century, only a small fraction of our male population went to college. Many who did were mature men seeking more general education or professional training. Some of these college men, members of our Craft, formed Masonic Clubs as a place of meeting for men with a common interest.

Acacia is not the oldest, largest, or most famous college fraternity; however its origin is distinctive, and many of its sons have achieved high distinction in Masonic activities, in business, and in the professions. Brother Charles Sink, our last living founder, recalled the events leading to “formation of a new and different fraternity.”* It was in the fall of 1903 while he was studying in the university library that William J. Marshall came to him with the proposal that they reorganize the university’s moribund Masonic Club on a fraternity basis. Over the next few days, they continued their discussion. Thus Acacia was conceived in the library at the University of Michigan.

During the winter and spring of 1903–04, a small group of kindred spirits met in a house owned by Edward Gallup in Ann Arbor, and on January 31, 1904, a committee was formed “to ascertain the legal requirements for forming a fraternal organization to be national in scope.” In addition, Masonic authorities were informed so there would be no misunderstanding regarding the nature of the organization. These matters being concluded satisfactorily, the articles of incorporation were filed on May 12, 1904. “Thus Acacia’s founders established a fraternity on a new basis. Membership was restricted to those who had already taken the Masonic obligations, and organization was to be built on the ideas and principles inculcated by the vows already taken in the lodge room.” During the spring semester of 1904, the fraternity adopted its constitution, colors, and a badge. Originally the colors were dark blue and old gold, later changed to black and old gold. The badge is in the form of the right triangle of Pythagoras, well known to all Freemasons.

Newspaper reports of the fraternity for Masons brought Acacia to the attention of college Masonic Clubs across the country. Within a year, Acacia Chapters were chartered at Stanford, Kansas, Nebraska, and California. The first national conclave was held at Ann Arbor in June 1905.

During the second year, Ohio State, Dartmouth, Harvard, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Wisconsin were added to the chapter roll. The founders paid little attention to the fact that some newly made Brethren were already members of a Greek letter fraternity.

Needless to say, this led to the problem of dual membership, debated for a long time at national conclaves. “The membership of those early chapters was in some sense a conglomerate group held together mainly by their love and veneration for the Masonic institution. The idea that the organization should be separate and distinct from all other college fraternities was not considered essential. Consequently, chapters were composed not only of men whose sole allegiance was to Acacia but also of those who already had Greek affiliations.”

“Our Masonic heritage is still very important to us and one which we try to nurture whenever possible.”
Darold W. Larson, Executive Director, Acacia Fraternity, 1995

“Meanwhile, the Interfraternity Conference had been organized in 1909. When Acacia was asked to become a member of that organization, one of the stipulations laid down by that body was that membership would be accorded only to those national fraternities that had no dual membership. Many of the older fraternities had already ruled against permitting their members to assume other fraternity affiliations.”

“Acacia’s desire to have a part in this association of fraternities, together with the unceasing cry within the fraternity succinctly stated by the Michigan chapter that ‘No man can serve two masters!’ led to the break with the traditional principles of the founders.” Finally, in 1921 Acacia ruled that it would no longer accept as a member anyone connected with another Greek fraternity.

By 1916, another 16 chapters had been added. Then came WWI and the response of Acacians to military service emptied the chapter houses. The fraternity operated on a standby basis for the duration of the war. Following the war, there was an influx of war veterans to the colleges, but when they graduated, they were replaced by younger men not yet 21 years of age.

This brought the second great problem to Acacia, the requirement of Masonic membership as a precondition for initiation. In my case I could not join until I was a senior at college due to the age/Masonic requirement.

The decade 1921–31 was one of struggle on the part of some chapters to keep going and on the part of the national organization to preserve the integrity of the fraternity and its fundamental law. At the Conclave at Estes Park, Colorado, in 1931, an unsatisfactory compromise was reached whereby a percentage of the members were to be sons of Masons. Two years later, the chapters voted to dispense entirely with the Masonic requirement. This opened the fraternity to full competition with others on campus, but first it was necessary to reactivate lost chapters, rehabilitate others, and overcome the “wounds of alumni interest.”

The next major problem, common to most fraternities, was the economic depression of the 1930s when we suffered the loss of chapters. In contrast to the older Masonic members of the fraternity, the new generation of younger college men and members lacked the training of the Masonic institution.

Acacia’s Coat of Arms

The first pledge manual was published in 1933. Later, regional leadership training conferences were organized, and a greatly revised chapter manual was issued. In 1942, the first national headquarters was set up in Chicago, and the positions of Executive Secretary and Field Secretary were created. Later, the fraternity moved it headquarters to Boulder, Colorado. Now it is located in Indianapolis, Indiana (8777 Purdue Road, Suite 130, Indianapolis, IN, 46268).

The postwar generation that flooded the college campuses brought renewed health and vigor to Acacia, and growth continued. Changes in the American social climate following the depression and the war also brought changes to the fraternity. Since 1904, Acacia had prohibited the use of alcoholic beverages in its chapter houses. At the time the founders adopted this rule, drinking and the behavior that went with it had been a stain on the reputations of college fraternities.

The social climate of the 1950s led many schools to relax their policies prohibiting drinking. Several Acacia chapters suffered in seeking members while maintaining their own prohibition. After heated debate at more than one Conclave, Acacia liberalized its policy to the extent of permitting each chapter to govern itself according to the regulations or customs of its own campus.

“In 1954, the Supreme Court’s decision on racial discrimination led to a broadening of Acacia’s membership selection policy. The only restrictive feature of Acacia’s membership was a clause barring ‘adherents of organizations that prohibited their membership from affiliations with Masonic organizations.’” In 1960, Acacia repealed its “adherence” clause.

Chapter growth between 1965 and 1970 came to a sudden halt, and along with Greek letter fraternities, Acacia suffered a decline in membership during the period of campus unrest and student disinterest in fraternities. By 1970, at least half a dozen old-line chapters were forced to close their doors, and many others were weakened, particularly on large metropolitan campuses. Acacia found stronger interest in Greek affiliation on smaller campuses and among the newer, rapidly growing state institutions across the country. Where the climate seemed promising, Acacia continued to add chapters. The last half of the 1970s decade, highlighted by the celebration of Acacia’s 75th anniversary at the 1978 Conclave, was a period of greater stability and progress.

The evolution of Acacia, now approaching its centennial, has resulted in a fraternity considerably different from what the founders originally envisioned, but the changes enumerated above to meet new conditions have permitted the fraternity to grow in reputation, influence, and strength.

In the 1980s, chapters were chartered at the University of Western Ontario and Carleton University in Canada. Consequently, at the 45th Conclave, the delegates voted that henceforth we would be referred to as an international fraternity rather than national as formerly.

May 12, 2004, the centennial year of the Acacia Fraternity, is not far away. “The challenges of change are mighty, but our capacity to respond is endless. Today’s agenda is indeed the fraternity of tomorrow.” Much has been written regarding the decline in Masonic membership, and numerous suggestions have been made to counter the decline. At the risk of it being just one more proposal, I’ll put forward the following. There are now Acacia chapters all over our country, and there are Masonic Lodges everywhere. A Masonic Lodge could easily “adopt” a nearby Acacia chapter and invite its members to non-tiled meetings where Lodge members’ families are present for social programs. This would expose Acacians to Masonry. A special meeting once a year for Acacians only would provide the opportunity to remind Acacians of their Masonic origin and the Masonic origin of their Pythagorean right triangle badge. While there are not many of us left who joined the fraternity under the Masonic requirement, there are Acacians who joined later. They would be a great asset in liaison with Acacia chapters. Now I can hear an objection: “Why should we expend lodge effort on these students, most of whom will graduate and return to their home elsewhere? They will not join our Lodge?” Communication is the answer. Form a roster of graduating Acacia seniors, especially those who have shown interest in Masonry. Send their names and addresses to the Lodge nearest their home. The Brethren of that Lodge could continue the effort to interest them in petitioning for the Degrees.

Here is an essentially untapped source of membership. Instead of lamenting membership loss, let’s do something about it!