Janice Ranton first joined the Pythian Sisters Temple 12 in Black Diamond when she was 16 years old. In a time before commuting, the Internet, cable television and even fax machines, lodges were the primary social function for people in town.
They also served as a source for fringe benefits and philanthropic opportunities.
Both of Ranton’s parents were members of a lodge. Her father belonged to the Knights of Pythias.
The Pythian Sisters was the first lodge to open in Black Diamond in 1896. To become a member, girls had to be 16, English speaking and hold a belief in a Supreme Being, which was easy for Ranton, whose family attended St. Barbara Catholic church.
When Ranton became old enough to join, her mother brought her to one of the meetings along with other girls her age. As part of her initiation, Ranton had to memorize the different offices and the speaking parts. Their enthusiasm for the fraternity was evident, she said, as soon as they joined.
“We learned the reciting parts before they did,” she said.
It was easy, Ranton said, to become excited at the prospect of joining. In a small town like Black Diamond, few sources of entertainment were available outside the lodges. For Ranton, as well as the other girls, it gave them the rare opportunity to dress up and attend dances, complete with a band and orchestra.
“There were women there dressed fit to kill,” she said. “We didn’t see (ourselves in) mink coats, but it gave us an opportunity to dress up.”
The fraternal lodges like the Pythian Sisters also acted as more than sources of entertainment and socializing. Among its other purposes was to provide a sort of health insurance for the women. When one got sick, the entire fraternity would help cover medical expenses through their dues. The fraternity would also travel to different lodges in the state, in addition to dinners and fundraising.
At the time, Ranton said, Temple 83 shared its headquarters with the Knights of Pythias and was around 50 members strong in a town of 1,000.
In the 1960s, however, changes in society and technology dramatically impacted the lodges, Ranton said. Commuting made it possible for residents to drive to other cities for entertainment. The rise of health insurance providers via the workplace stripped the lodge of one of its purposes. Thus, it became harder for the lodge to attract newer, younger members.
Now, 50 years since Ranton first joined, the Pythian Sisters is one of the few fraternal lodges left in Black Diamond. It’s headquarters is still in the same building, but it is now owned by the Free Masons after the local Knights of Pythias chapter folded. The members still have original copies of the lodge’s first minutes from May 1896. Although times have changed, the lodge still does philanthropic work in the community, such as providing clothes and shoes for needy children and paying visits to the other seven lodges in the state that have survived.
In the long run, however, it seems as though the chapter will fold too unless it can recruit new members, something which Ranton said has been very difficult to do. One of the problems lies in demographics. None of the 21 members are under the age of 50. Additionally, people’s social and work schedules often conflict with lodge events.
“You can’t get members like they used to,” Ranton said. “It’s hard getting people interested and I don’t know why. We are always out looking, but times have changed. My mother says I’m going to join and I’m like ‘OK.’ I tell my daughters and they say, ‘I don’t think so.’”
Past Grand Chancellor Gwen Rhodes, who lives in Renton, put it succinctly.
“We aren’t the heart of their social activities anymore,” she said.