Although the Odd Fellows building has not operated as an orphanage for over 50 years, many local residents still associate it with this function. This is entirely justified, for the structure played a prominent role in the lives of “misfortunate children” (an old term for orphans) in the region for nearly 100 years.
Initially, in 1870, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) decided to create an orphanage for the families of recently deceased members. A rooming house (and property) adjacent to Allegheny College was purchased in 1874, with the assistance of Meadville’s first Mayor, William Reynolds. An estimated 5,000 people attended the building’s dedication. This event recognized the world’s first fraternal orphanage, with children coming from families of IOOF members in Northwest PA. Seven similar Odd Fellow orphanages were eventually developed across Pennsylvania.
The IOOF financially supported the program and even adopted rooms in the building. Also assisting were the Rebekahs, the organizations’ new female members. Children attended local schools and helped operate an on-site farm, though there was much local produce donated. By 1913, the original home was occupied by 100 children and had been outgrown. The IOOF decided that a self-sufficient campus or “village” should be built to provide all necessary services and amenities. This was a revolutionary thought at the time, but fully supported by the organization. The “New Home” and present structure was completed in 1926 and included, aside from living quarters, a bakery, laundry, pool, dentist office, chapel and gymnasium. The complex also hosted a 36-acre farm. With the construction of a separate infirmary building, the overall “village” price tag was $251,000.
However, the IOOF lost many members with the onset of the Depression and New Deal social programs lessened the orphanages’ role. The Home began to accept applications from private and public agencies, enabling children to be placed by the courts. The IOOF sustained this approach until 1972, when the organization found it to be no longer financially feasible.
In summary, for nearly 100 years, the Odd Fellows buildings provided shelter and support for an estimated 1,200 children. It should also be noted that the organization also supplied continuing higher education assistance to many residents, who in turn became professionals and other productive members of society. However, the IOOF still owned the property in 1972 but had discontinued its primary community-based mission. Our next article here will explore how the organization repurposed the building in a manner consistent with the IOOF ringed symbol and motto of “Friendship, Love and Truth.”
Light in Odd Spaces
devised by the Company
directed by Beth Watkins
January 27-29, 2023
Friday and Saturday: 7:30pm
Tickets available here
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