Ancient Echoes from the Forest

If you were setting out to explore something abandoned in Ogemaw County, Michigan, you might make a beeline for the Hecla & Portland Cement Co. ruins in the ghost town of Marl Plant, and there might be the potential for finding remnants of Grousehaven, the once up-north retreat of Detroit auto baron Harry Jewett. There is also the "Lost City" of Damon, which was the site of a logging camp in 1878. In 1912 the second-growth forest was being logged, but by 1925 the city abruptly ceased to exist, most of the buildings having been disassembled and their material reused elsewhere. Famous Michigan author James Oliver Curwood visited in 1911 and wrote The Lost City of Damon in his book Green Timber. Not too surprisingly there isn't much left to see of the original Damon today, so I instead chose a much more challenging mark to shoot for...

Long ago I'd read about the ancient aboriginal earthworks in northern Michigan, and wanted to find some of them, since I would be remiss as a Michigan ruinographer if I did not include an exposition of them in some form. It took a long time before I finally figured out where exactly to go look. And even then, they were so well hidden that I didn't realize I had found one until I was standing ten feet from it, even with the leaves off the trees. And I only found one out of the four or five that make up the group in Ogemaw County that I was focusing on.

Ogemaw County was set off in 1840 and organized in 1875, according to David M. Brown's Michigan County Atlas. The first settlers and lumberjacks started arriving by 1871. The name "Ogemaw" comes from the Anishinaabe word ogimaa, which means "speaker," or "chief." The county was named after Chief Ogemakegato (or Ogemaunkeketo) of the Saginaw band of Ojibwa, who was the principal speaker during the 1819 Saginaw Cession and Treaty, which ceded another huge swath of the Mitten to the U.S., including what would later become Ogemaw County. Chief Ogemakegato later was awarded a medal by President VanBuren for his speech before Congress in 1837. He is buried in Roosevelt Park in Bay City.

Three old Ojibwa footpaths converged in the county according to a book by the Rose City Area Historical Society, and served as the genesis of the modern-day state roads M-76, M-55, and M-30. The population of Ogemaw County today remains sparse, and it is covered by a surprising amount of farmland for being a northern forest county. The Au Sable State Forest covers about a quarter of the county.

The ancient earthworks in question were mostly scattered around the village of Selkirk. Brown writes that "it is said" that Selkirk was named after an "old Indian" who sold "Indian wares" at a store near there, and that the town was originally named Selkirk Sands from 1887 to 1955 when it had a post office.

In the 1890s, there was a bit of a media sensation when mysterious artifacts of a supposed ancient race began to be "discovered" in Gratiot County and Montcalm County, which I talked about in my older post, "The Traverse City Code".  Though there were plenty of real artifacts being plundered from real burial mounds, that entire ordeal was found to be an elaborate hoax, but it reflects that there seems to have been a deep fascination, and perhaps awe or fear, with which white settlers held the strange and little-understood elder "Indian" culture that had lately been displaced from this land in those days. No doubt the discovery of these strange mounds and rings in the deep dark forest by the lumbermen only a few years before had stoked the fires of rumor and fable, which in turn passed by word of mouth for years to come.

There was even a large placard in front of the Selkirk village hall that said "OGEMAW COUNTY: ANCIENT EARTHWORK CAPITOL," and went on to describe what they were, with a diagram of a typical example. The placard did not discuss where the earthworks were located however, probably because they are mostly on private property and they don't want people with shovels going treasure hunting, or new-age weirdos trying to hold rituals there. As such, I will respect the code of silence and not disclose the locations of the mounds either. By my count there are five near Selkirk, and at least one seems to be visible on Google Maps, but it is literally in someone's backyard and apparently kept mowed by the homeowner.

In the early thaw season with at least a foot of soft snow still on the ground, I was concerned that I might not be able to find anything in the deep woods that was only maybe about two feet high, and whose profile had been worn extremely dull during the past thousand interceding years. Nonetheless, I brought my snowshoes and set out. I originally planned to hike along a certain section of the frozen Elfir River to see if anything was visible from there, since at least one or two of the earthworks are supposed to be right on it. Walking on the frozen river proved much easier than tromping through the dense snowy woods, but this unexpected warm weather had begun to seriously compromise the strength of the ice.

Now, maybe you aren't quite as excited as I am about finding a two-foot-high pile of dirt out in the woods, but perhaps you don't realize just how old these things are...most of the earthworks in Michigan are dated from about 1,000 to 2,500 years ago, which makes them about the same age as the Roman Collosseum or Greek Parthenon. The only difference is that the Greeks and Romans recorded their histories, and there is a wealth of their art and cultural artifacts to study, whereas we know almost nothing about the Michigan mound-builders other than what shovels, radiocarbon dating, and a lot of speculation can tell us.

These fading ruins might represent the absolute oldest phase of human occupation that can still be seen in the great state of Michigan, a lost time period whose lore was forgotten centuries ago. This is the eldritch stuff of myth and fantasy whispered about in the campfire tales of pioneers who first began exploring westward into that great pagan expanse beyond the original 13 Colonies, when Native Americans were feared heathen savages, and nothing was known about the history of the vast lands they inhabited or what ancient cities might be hidden beneath the eternal canopy of the great primeval North American woodland.

Among the few sounds I heard in this silent sylvan domain aside from the sound of my snowshoes crushing the wet snow was the occasional clattering of ice chunks in the current, jostling down the narrow opening in the river. It wasn't long before I decided that walking on the ice just wasn't going to work for this mission, and up into the tangled woods I went.

I was looking for a certain fork in the river, where another branch fed into this one upstream; there I knew was supposed to be at least one mound.

According to the scholarly book Michigan, A History of the Wolverine State, there were once over 1,000 burial mounds identified in Michigan around the time of white encroachment, most of them in the southern Mitten. Great vast "garden beds" were once common in Lower Michigan, usually discernible by a raised earth mound enclosing a recognizable geometrical shape many acres in size, usually a rectangle, but one shaped like a spoked wheel or compass was reportedly found near Kalamazoo. It has been theorized that these shaped enclosures were for irrigating crops.

Though "Indian mounds" are common throughout the Midwest, the garden beds are almost exclusively a Michigan phenomenon, with only a handful reported in Wisconsin and Indiana. So far I've noticed that Michigan has three general classes of ancient earthworks: burial mounds, the aforementioned garden beds, and "earth ring" forts or enclosures. There are also the mysterious stone walls in Negwegon State Park, which I discuss in another post. It was the "earth ring" type that I was out in the woods looking for today.

In the 19th century incoming white settlers began finding these earthworks, but the Anishinaabe (Potawatomi) people of southern Michigan told them that the garden beds were not made by the "Indians" themselves; they were built by long-dead ancestors who the Potawatomi called Yam-ko-desh, or the "Prairie People." They warned the white people to beware of harming the mounds because the spirits of the Yam-ko-desh still guarded them. As late as 1956 one archaeologist, Clair Reynolds, was still issued this warning by a tribal elder who refused to guide him to a mound site for study. Naturally, since we Americans were so respectful of native cultures, there were almost no mounds left to study in southern Michigan by the 20th century.

While the garden beds of southern Michigan were discovered by the first farmers, more burial mounds, and the "earth rings" were discovered in northern Michigan by lumberjacks as its towering primordial forests of virgin pine were felled. The presence of so many burial mounds indicates that the Yamkodesh were a populous people at one time, but it has been speculated that the culture suffered from a rapid extinction, possibly due to some disease. Another theory states that as the ancestors of the Anishinaabe tribes (Ojibwa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Wyandot, etc.) migrated into the Great Lakes, they found the Yamkodesh already there, "thicker than the leaves on a tree," according to Ottawa legend. Some say that the Anishinaabe tribes formed an alliance to exterminate the Yamkodesh.

Typical garden bed patterns (photo from Detroit Techno Militia)
These "earth rings" near Selkirk however were neither burial mounds nor gardens, and have been theorized to serve other purposes, from fortified outposts for battle, solar compasses or calendars for agriculture, sacred places for conducting trade or religious ceremonies, pens for livestock, traps for driving game animals to the kill, to magical nodes indicating planetary leylines, or even simply to create a windbreak so as to prevent drifting snow from burying the winter settlements of the tribespeople.

A 1997 article in the Detroit News by Vivian M. Baulch entitled "Michigan's mysterious Indian mounds" quotes a University of Michigan professor, Dr. W.B. Hinsdale, who surveyed Michigan's Lower Peninsula in 1925 and listed the mounds that he found. At that time seven counties had more than 20 mounds; there were 57 in Clinton County, 25 in Macomb County, 12 in Wayne County, and two in Oakland County. According to Baulch, Hinsdale also studied pottery and carvings found in the 22 mounds located in Sanilac County, and found a skull "that showed evidence of successful brain surgery." Hinsdale published his work in the book Primitive Man in Michigan, and wrote that as of 1925,
There are fully 600 mounds still to be seen in the state and at least 500 more must have been destroyed within the last 150 years. The enclosures, usually known as "Indian forts," but probably having no connection with military usage, are also vanishing rapidly. It is the duty of the state to locate, measure, photograph and chart these structures before they disappear entirely.
In Detroit I know that there were about 19 burial mounds shown in the vicinity of Delray when the U.S. Army surveyed and mapped that area for the construction of Fort Wayne in 1841; four of them were on the grounds of the fort itself, near the famous "Sand Hill at Spring Wells," which gave the village of Springwells its name. Today only one of the Fort Wayne mounds remains, the result of two mounds being bulldozed together, and it is viewable by the public from behind a fence.

The mounds that once lined the Rouge River are all gone, even the massive one that stood near where Zug Island is now. In Grand Rapids there is the Norton Group of 13 mounds, which according to Michigan State University once numbered as many as 40 mounds, and are "perhaps the best preserved Hopewell mounds in North America," protected by National Historic Landmark status. It surprises me that we would have anything in Michigan that is considered the "best preserved." In all of Michigan, I would estimate that there are only about 25 earthworks still left that are discernible today.

Apparently, I had already reached the fork in the river; the main branch was still totally frozen-over upstream of here, while the tributary was melted through and running strong. Along the mile or more that I had hiked so far, I had seen nothing up in the woods on either bank that indicated the presence of earthworks, so it was time to start exploring back in a downstream direction more thoroughly, moving in a zig-zag pattern further up into the woods from the water. This would consume most of the rest of the day, so it was good that I had carried food with me.

I have read that while the Ottawa or Potawatomi people called the mound-builders "Yamkodesh," the Ojibwa called them "Muskodesh" (though neither word appears in my copy of the Concise Dictionary of Minnesota Ojibwe for what it's worth). This ancient race is better known to us Europeans now as the Hopewell Culture, because "Hopewell" was the surname of the Ohio landowner on whose property the first mounds were excavated and evidence of this elder culture was discovered.

The Hopewell are a prehistoric culture about which still very little is known, other than they were the first humans to successfully attempt agriculture in the Great Lakes region according to Michigan, A History of the Wolverine State, and that they built mounds for their dead. They flourished from about 500 BC and went into a rapid decline by 700 AD, as the historic tribes we know today such as the Anishinaabe began to migrate into the region.

The beings of the Hopewell Culture were not necessarily the ancestors of the Native American tribes we know today; the two cultures were distinct from each other but it is commonly agreed upon that the Anishinaabe tribes looked upon those who built the mounds of Michigan as ancient ones, a people so old as to be considered like an almost mythical elder race to them. By the time the French voyageurs began arriving in Michigan in the 1600s and keeping diaries of who and what they saw, the Hopewell were already a fading memory of the distant past, and their structures already lost in the towering primordial forests.

Other than hunting, fishing, and mound-building, we know that the Hopewell knew how to make decorated pottery, jewelry, woven fabrics, musical instruments, smoke tobacco, and farm crops.  What is perhaps most strange is that the Hopewell Culture seems to have been more advanced than the Native American culture that supplanted them, and the objects they made often consisted of materials found in areas as distant as the Rocky Mountains and the Atlantic coast, indicating that the Hopewell had an extensive trade network.

It has also been speculated that the complex patterns of some of the garden beds indicate that the Hopewell possessed some level of sophistication in mathematics. Some archaeologists believe that the Hopewell had a high level of intelligence, and traded with the Aztecs and Mayans. I'm sure some of those History Channel "experts" would tell you that the Hopewell also had help from aliens, but that just goes to show you what the History Channel is about these days.

It is theorized that the Hopewell were identical to, or related to, the ancient aboriginals who began mining copper in Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula around 3000 BC. This was the first instance of metalworking by humankind in the Western Hemisphere, and it coincided with the beginning of the Bronze Age in Mesopotamia. I spoke of the ancient copper miners in a couple older posts ("Manitoti, the Copper Magnet""The Entrance is Guarded by A Giant Snake", "Ultima Thule").

This type of earth ring that I was after is not only found in Ogemaw County by the way, there is also a group of them in Missaukee County, not far to the west of here. According to a story from Doug Masselink in the book Weird Michigan, by Linda S. Godfrey, the Missaukee earth rings have some similarities that provide strong evidence that the four mound groups were associated with one another in some way; they have openings or "gateways" in their enclosures at 340° and 250°, which also line up with each other and are separated by identical distances, such as 6.21 miles or 24.8 miles (which is four times 6.2).

I'm not sure I ascribe as much amazement to these findings as Masselink however; just because we need compasses and GPS units to figure all this out does not necessarily mean that those who made the mounds thought of their construction as some incredible feat, too.

An interesting analysis occurs in the book The Archaeology of Michigan, a scholarly work written by archaeologist James E. Fitting in 1970. He said that the Ogemaw County earthworks represent "one of the more mysterious archaeological manifestations in eastern Michigan," because they are accompanied by "very little cultural material." In other words, few artifacts such as arrow heads or pottery fragments were ever found in the excavations that were done here.

Mr. Fitting's book also usually refers to the earthworks as "forts," which is no longer the current accepted theory on what purpose they were built to serve, but certainly this type of construction with a raised berm formed from an excavated surrounding ditch or moat is identical to the very same type of fort construction that was taught to European military engineers from medieval times up until the late 1800s. Fitting lists those of his forebears who made written accounts of the "forts" along the Elfir River, starting with M.L. Leach in 1885, Cyrus Thomas in 1894, W.B. Hinsdale in 1924 and 1925, Fred Dustin in 1932, Harold Moll and Eldon Cornelius in 1958, and G.A. Wright in 1966. He also described their varying sizes and shapes as reported by Dustin, who observed three out of the four to be oval.

The first earthwork was 208 feet long by 188 feet wide with walls two feet high above grade, but surrounded by a ditch up to five feet deep. Dustin's informal diggings produced a few flint chips, and over a hundred pottery sherds belonging to probably five vessels. The second earthwork Dustin observed was 314 feet long by 280 feet wide, with its walls varying from two feet to five feet above grade, with the surrounding ditch ranging from three to seven feet deep. It had four gateways with causeways around its circumference. He found sherds from seven vessels, chert flakes, a roughed-out celt, and other objects.

The third earthwork was near the river and a spring, and measured 180 feet by 139 feet, with walls three feet high and ditch up to seven feet deep. There Dustin found sherds from six vessels, a cache of sandstone abraders, three projectile points, several scrapers, more chert chips, and other materials. The fourth earthwork that Dustin observed was actually horseshoe-shaped as opposed to oval, being 216 feet long and about 120 feet across. Fitting notes that both Dustin and Hinsdale believed this earthwork to be unfinished, as almost no artifacts were found there.

The Walter-Linsenman Earthwork elsewhere in the county was excavated in 1958 and 1961, and much of the area inside the enclosure was stripped at that time in an attempt to find house patterns. Post molds were discovered below the surface, which presented strong evidence that a palisade of sharpened logs may have once existed around the area, and I'm sure this is what bolstered the idea of these earthworks being defensive fortifications. The patterns of 19 different lodges were also discovered within the supposed stockade.

There were "refuse pits" found as well, but again, relatively few cultural artifacts were found at the Walter-Linsenman Earthwork; fewer than 50 pottery vessels. Fitting said that the artifacts at that site were radiocarbon dated to about the year 1350 AD, give or take 75 years, which to my mind shows that the mounds either were not in fact built by Hopewell ancients, or that if they were they may have been repurposed by the Anishinaabeg who came later.

Despite the seemingly high interest that the presence of ancient mounds in northern Michigan presumably held, they went largely unstudied for decades. However, a collection of papers published in 1998 under the title Ancient Earthen Enclosures of the Eastern Woodlands contains a chapter by Claire McHale Milner and John M. O'Shea, which asserts that some, if not all northern Michigan earthworks date to the Late Woodland Period, when the Hopewell civilization was in decline. The Late Woodland Period lasted from 450 AD to 1000 AD, or essentially just after the fall of Rome and roughly concurrent with the Viking Age. This was also toward the end of the Mayan civilization.

Milner & O'Shea go on to say that most researchers historically assumed that all Michigan "enclosures" were forts. In 1983 University of Michigan scholar James J. Krakker argued that the presence of such forts in Michigan indicated that there was an increase in raiding amongst the indigenous population, especially after 1350 AD, due to population growth and an increase in agriculture. However no material evidence of battle (such as weapons or bones) has ever been found near these earthworks, and a later DNR study posited that these were "winter villages" used by people who were "horticulturists," and who "lived near Lake Huron or perhaps in the Saginaw Valley in warmer seasons."

So far I was having no luck in my own search for any signs of unnatural land features that might speak to the presence of ancient earthworks, despite having trudged back and forth through the wet snow for a few hours. The sun had decided to come out however, and lit up the forest with the hope of the coming spring.

I probably hiked about three or four miles with all the zig-zagging and overlapping circles that I did to make sure that I covered every inch of ground, from multiple directions. The pace I kept was also very slow and methodical, taking plenty of time to scan the terrain for any clues that might reveal an ancient past. The elder cedars stood mute, unwilling to divulge what old memories they may have witnessed in this valley.

After some time I did indeed come across some irregular shape protruding from the background static of endless trees, but it was no earthwork. A rudimentary miniature log cabin took shape as I neared:

It appeared to be a hunting blind, used fairly recently. I have to admit I was jealous of these quarters, as my own deer hunting perches have been much less commodious.

Soon after leaving this blind I realized that I had already made it back to my starting point, and that if this earthwork was indeed still out there then I must have passed right over it without noticing.

Fairly discouraged and frustrated, I headed back to my truck for a rest and to regroup. I still knew of a couple other spots where earthworks might be, so I drank some water before walking up the road a ways and diving back into the woods. Sadly, the likelihood of finding these other mound sites was much lesser, by my estimation, than the one I had just exhausted. I got the feeling that I would be heading back home to the drawing board empty-handed once again.

When I came into a stand of hardwoods I was almost positive I was in the wrong area, but I kept going, partially because it was just such a nice day for a walk in the woods.

I wandered around casually, following the many deer paths that criss-crossed these woods. I had already been doing this for much of the day, partly because it was easier than trudging through the deep snow, and partly because something in my mind told me that the deer might find some use for the earthworks as a shelter for sleeping, and that the paths might lead straight to one of them.

As I meandered in an uphill direction, I suddenly detected what I thought looked to be a moat-like depression in the ground ahead of me to the left:

As I came closer I noticed that it continued to my right as well, and there was a slightly raised berm immediately behind it:

Holy &*@#, this could be it! There was only one way to verifiy it however--I had to walk around it to see if it went in a complete circle.

I crossed the berm and looked back behind me to see that the "moat" feature was indeed well-pronounced:

Having walked the woods of Michigan since I was old enough to leave the house on my own, and counting myself as fairly experienced in reading terrain, I immediately had a very strong and exciting feeling this ditch was no naturally occurring change in topography--that it was indeed man-made. However, I kept my objectivity in tow as I continued to investigate.

I decided to begin by walking in a clockwise direction along the top ridge of the raised berm and keeping an eye on the ditch...if I was able to do this and return to the point where my tracks in the snow began, then I could officially say that it was in the shape of a circle and that I had found one of the ancient earthworks. I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't a little pumped up at this point.

An interesting new hypothesis is explored in a more recent paper by Meghan C.L. Howey and John M. O'Shea, published in the April, 2006 volume of American Antiquity, entitled "Bear's Journey and the Study of Ritual in Archaeology." Howey & O'Shea suggest the premise that the earth ring enclosures in northern Lower Michigan are structures that were built for ritual purposes, in a slightly later time period than originally thought (~1200 AD), and present strong evidence that they were part of the Midewiwin ceremonies of initiation and teaching. The Midewiwin teachings are one of the most guarded components of Anishinaabe culture. I talked about the Midewiwin in an older post.

Here you can see the shape of the berm curving off to the right:

Howey & O'Shea claim that recent University of Michigan studies of the Missaukee County Earthworks provided data that "parallels the tale of origin and the delivery of the great mystery of Midewiwin." Specifically, the relationships between paired earth ring enclosures, their respective openings or gateways, other nearby natural land features, and the discovery of new artifacts found buried on site fit into a theory that the earthworks would have been part of a ceremony that mirrored the origin myth of the Midewiwin, where initiates actually traveled along a sacred path to these sites as they reenacted Bear's travels with the mide pack. The two "twin" enclosures represented the "two Earths" along Bear's journey, and other similar earthworks such as those in Ogemaw County too served the same purpose.

The article further concludes that because of these parallels between archaeological evidence and the dating of materials found on site, that the Midewiwin part of Anishinaabe culture actually predates European contact...and I find myself wondering now if this means that these earthworks were in fact not built by the Yamkodesh but rather the early Anishinaabeg themselves, in a time period where they coexisted with the Yamkodesh? At any rate, Howey & O'Shea's article is very interesting and theirs is the best explanation of the enclosures' purpose that I've heard so far.

I kept following the righthand curvature of this wall, and it was quickly evident that if it was indeed a complete circle or oval, it enclosed a very large area. It occurred to me that after I made the full trip around it, I should also try walking directly across it while counting my paces, to see if the dimensions matched up with what I had read they should be.

I also made a simple offering of some of my food to the four directions, out of courtesy and respect to the spirits of this place.

It looked like I might be approaching one of the gateway openings in the wall:

I stepped off the berm to get a different perspective from the side, and sure enough, here was a gap in the wall that also provided a bridge across the moat...

...and apparently I was correct in thinking that the deer paths might lead me to my goal--they seemed to go directly to the gateway! The raised wall continued on the other side of the gateway just as it had before, with extraordinary uniformity:

Considering how quickly our mightiest architectural achievements such as the Packard Plant or the skyscrapers of Detroit fall into decay once they are left abandoned to the elements for a couple years, it is almost impossible to conceive of how a simple hill of dirt out in the woods can last for millennia and still retain its shape like this. One must take profound pause at just how much change has occurred on this landscape since the earth rings were built; entire forests have grown up and been cleared away by either fire or axe many times over the centuries, all the while adding their layers and layers of fallen leaves to the carpet of soil; billions of rainstorms, snows, and thaws have in turn sculpted the ground. The Elfir River itself is likely to have meandered its changing course widely over the ages, eating away old landforms and creating new ones. The trees that are growing now on top and inside of the earth ring are mostly young I would say, probably none of them over 60 years old.

Looking back over my shoulder, the difference here between the top of the wall and the bottom of the ditch was very pronounced, and every bit of seven feet:

Judging by the shadows, I was standing at about the northernmost point of the earthwork.

These fallen logs laying across the moat help illustrate how much of a topographical variance there is.

It looked like I was approaching another gateway:

By the shadows of the trees I figured that I was nearing the eastern end of the ring now:

Another gateway...there were about three distinct gateways in all that I was able to discern:

And once again, the deer tracks led right through it:

As far out in the woods as I was, I was surprised when I came upon a sort of memorial to a deceased person here:

It was a statue of a fawn (with an ear broken off), and a bottle of Crown Royal (in the blue velvet bag).

It wasn't too much longer before I came back to my starting point where my footprints first came up on the mound, confirming that this earthwork was indeed a complete circle. It was an incredible feeling to have found this very special place after so long, to confirm that it was genuine, and to know just how old it is and feel the ties to our elder Michiganian ancestors. I then walked across the breadth of the earthwork, counting my steps to measure it, which came to 130 paces across (over 200 feet).

After a few more moments of basking in the glory of this discovery, I began the long walk back to my truck. If you should happen to find yourself in one of these places while Up North, I hope that you would treat it with respect and reverence. Baamaapii.

Michigan County Atlas, Second Edition, by David M. Brown, p. 138-139
Michigan, A History of the Wolverine State, Third Rev., by Willis Dunbar & George May, p. 10-12
The Archaeology of Michigan, A Guide to the Prehistory of the Great Lakes Region, by James E. Fitting, p. 172-173
Ancient Earthen Enclosures of the Eastern Woodlands, edited by Robert C. Mainfort, Lynne P. Sullivan, p. 181-185
Ogemaw County, by the Rose City Area Historical Society, p. 7
Strange Michigan, by Linda S. Godfrey & Lisa A. Shiel, p. 180
Weird Michigan, by Linda S. Godfrey, p. 35
Mystic Michigan, Vols. 1, 3, & 5, by Mark Jager
"Michigan's mysterious Indian mounds," by Vivian M. Baulch, Detroit News, June 6, 1997 (retrieved from

A Masonic Conspiracy

October, 2006.

Looking at Freemasonry with a distrustful eye is nothing new...they are a so-called "secret" society, historically having been mostly comprised of rich white men who hold positions of power, such as bankers, politicians and industrialists, and those on the outside have regarded them with suspicion since at least the 1820s. They have secret handshakes and ancient religious rituals that they perform in strange costumes, they have those weird symbols on the trunk-lid of their '85 Chrysler Fifth Avenues. Or at least those are the stereotypes anyway, but there's a little more to it.

And they hang out in buildings like this:

A massive medieval stronghold that has always loomed quietly on the outskirts of downtown, the mysterious and imposing Detroit Masonic Temple is one of those places that the average person never expects to see the inside of, other than the occasional show at its theater. I found out they started offering tours at some point, so I decided to see what it was about.

A couple of my friends had snuck around this place on a limited basis in the past, but I wanted full access--and someone to explain what I was looking at. Since this temple is one of the most enigmatic and least-visited structures in the state of Michigan, I will dedicate this long and detailed post to unraveling some of its complexities. This is literally the largest Masonic temple in the world, so I think it deserves a thorough going-over.

The three figures seen here above the main entrance are King Hiram of Tyre, King Solomon, and Hiram Abif, the grand master builder of Solomon's Temple. These men represent the three Grand Masonic pillars of Strength, Wisdom, and Beauty. Architect (and Masonic brother) George D. Mason's likeness also appears in the facade of the temple he designed (lower left), clutching a carven image of the temple itself.

According to All Our Yesterdays, one of my favorite Detroit history books, Freemasonry took root here in the fertile peace that followed Pontiac's War in 1764. With military officers finding more free time on their hands again, they turned to social pursuits and organized a Masonic lodge, known as the Zion Lodge No. 10, by seeking a charter from the Grand Lodge of New York.

Civilians were permitted to join, and its ranks were filled out by some of the more prominent French family names that had settled here. According to the book, the Detroit Zion Lodge is the oldest Masonic organization west of the Alleghenies.

Michigan, A History of the Wolverine State corroborates this, and further states that a "wave of anti-Masonic feeling" swept the West in the late 1820s, which drove the lodges in Michigan underground until about 1840, when a convention was held in Mount Clemens to revive the Masonic order. Three of the old lodges surfaced again, and by 1844 they had established a Grand Lodge of Michigan. By the year 1900, there was a lodge in almost every town in the state.

The Detroit Masons built their first grand temple at the northeast corner of Lafayette & First Street from 1893 to 1895, but by 1908 membership in the brotherhood had grown to such an extent that they began to consider either enlarging their existing temple or building a new, larger one.

They ended up planning a massive new temple out on Bagg Street (now Temple Avenue), anticipating downtown's unstoppable expansion. Soon after it was completed, the Hotel Fort Wayne went up immediately next-door to it--built by another fraternal order, the Knights of Pythias.

This new temple was built on land that had originally been owned by Lewis Cass, Michigan's first Territorial Governor. He was also Michigan's first Grand Master Mason. The park across the street from the temple is named Cass Park after him, and Cass Technical High School is also nearby.

According to the book Detroit's Masonic Temple by Alex Lundberg & Greg Kowalski, the two ballrooms in the basement were completed early so that they could be used to host events to raise funds for the rest of the construction. The total amount spent on building this monumental structure was around $6.7 million, or roughly half of what the Book-Cadillac Hotel cost to build. According to its own website, ground was broken for this new temple on Thanksgiving Day of 1920, and on September 18, 1922 the building's cornerstone was laid, using the personal trowel of George Washington himself, a hallowed Masonic relic that was also used to set the cornerstone of the United States Capitol building:

The "AL 5922" part stands for the Masonic "Year of Light," or anno lucis. The formal dedication of the building took place on Thanksgiving Day, 1926, in another grand ceremony attended by thousands of Detroiters. I'm not sure what was so Masonically significant about Thanksgiving, maybe it was simply that Detroit Lions football hadn't filled in that Thanksgiving entertainment gap yet.

Once again, this is the largest Masonic building in the world. I would never have guessed that, but it has indeed held that title for almost a century, and among all other buildings it stands as a monument of opulence that is rarely paralleled outside the houses of royalty. That really says something about how prosperous Detroit used to be, when an organization as massive and ancient as the Freemasons builds the grandest monument of their entire history here.

There used to be 55,000 masons in Detroit, but as of 2006 there were only about 3,300, and they have been staving off bankruptcy for some time now, just barely able to keep the lights on. In recent years a generous donation from White Stripes vocalist Jack White gave the Masonic Temple a stay of execution after it was in the news that bankruptcy was finally imminent.

Kathryn Bishop Eckert writes in her book Buildings of Michigan that the Detroit Masonic Temple is unique because it holds all the fraternal branches of the Freemasonry Order under one roof (of which there were 47 in Detroit at the time), which had never been done before. This temple holds more than a million square feet of space--which is about 1/3 the size of the Packard Plant, and it seems as though not an inch of it was wasted, judging by how much they have crammed into the joint. It was also designed as an entertainment venue open to the public for social and cultural events such as performances by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Sesame Street Live, and more recently, an Insane Clown Posse concert.

Again, the architect of the temple was also a member, Brother George D. Mason, who employed the assistance of iconic Detroit sculptor Corrado Parducci in designing many of the finer details, including carvings, statuary, reliefs, decorative arches, medallions, plaster decorations, and the building's magnificent lobby, which was an adaptation of the interior of a castle Mason had visited in Palermo, Sicily.

According to the AIA, the aptly named Mr. Mason was the major architect of note in Detroit after the passing of Gordon W. Lloyd, and besides this temple he also designed the notable First Presbyterian Church, Trinity Episcopal Church, Gem Theater, Broadway Exchange Building, and even the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.

Parducci was a renowned master stonecarver imported to America largely through the sponsorship of Albert Kahn (which is serendipitous, since Kahn was brought up under the tutelage of George Mason). Parducci has left his mark on Detroit like no other city, and perhaps the Masonic Temple is the best single collection of his work. Near the top turrets of its 14-story "Ritual Tower" are four statues of Crusader knights, carved by Parducci; the 20-foot-tall giants leer sternly down at the city, having not spoken a word nor blinked an eye since they began guarding this keep almost a century ago, and are thought to be the largest statues in Detroit.

The temple is hewn out of Indiana limestone blocks, with a steel skeleton. The choice of the Gothic style in the temple's design was to reflect the Order's past in constructing all the great old cathedrals of medieval Europe, and their intent for both the Order, and the structures they raised to endure for all time. It consists of three buildings--the 14-story Ritual Building, the 10-story Shrine Club (Shrine Mosque), and the seven-story Auditorium Building that connects them in the middle. The Shrine Club contains offices, guest rooms, billiard rooms, and gymnasiums. There are 40 unique stone motif carvings representing each of the orders.

Like everyone else I had heard all kinds of rumors about the inside of this soot-blackened fortress, like how it allegedly has secret levels between the regular floors, how there were secret passages and god knows how many basements, and how the Masons even had tombs hidden in the floors, to be used in rituals. The other rumor was that they had a special "marching floor" above the theater that "floated" on cushions or springs so their legs wouldn't get tired when they practiced parade drills.

One fairly unlikely-sounding story about the place goes that the architect, Mr. Mason, eventually went bankrupt during the long process of constructing this new temple, and his wife left him. "Overwhelmingly depressed about his financial and personal circumstances, Mason jumped to his death from the roof of the temple," the story says. "Security guards claim to see his ghost to this day, ascending the steps to the roof."

I doubt any of that is factual seeing as George Mason lived until 1948, over two decades after the temple was completed. But the temple's general manager, Steve Genther, also told a story to the Free Press of how he was the only person in the building one night and an elevator took off by itself, but that was the extent of his "ghostly" experiences. Having been an electrician once, I can see how that could very easily be ascribed to an errant spark jumping across old, worn switch contacts.

Anyway, do you notice anything...weird...about this carved grotesque of an entered apprentice (seen at right)? Look at where the thumbs are. I felt that something about this statue was odd so I took a picture, and after a while of looking at it I noticed that he has two right hands. And I have no idea what he is pointing at.

Since medieval times, the "apprentice" was the lowest order of tradesman; and as such they were the people doing the grunt work, and heavy lifting. Hence the analogy that the first degree, the Masonic apprentice, "bears on his shoulders" the weight of the Order. There would have been a statue on the pedestal he is supporting, but I assume that is one of the many features of this building that were never completed.

There are six Masonic lodge rooms housed inside the Ritual Tower (as well as one small lodge room and one chapter room) where Masons hold their meetings, which have always have been closed to women. In fact, Masonic ritual dictates that all lodge meetings have a man assigned as door warden to stand guard with a sword to ensure that no women or uninvited persons enter the meeting.

The lodge rooms are designated according to their architectural style: Greek-Doric, Ionic, Greek-Ionic, Corinthian, Tudor, Egyptian, Romanesque, and Red Cross of Constantine. In fact, the Tudor Lodge room was the filming location of the courtroom scene in the famous 1961 movie, Judgement at Nuremberg.

On top of all that there is also office space, a cafeteria, dining rooms, a barber shop, 16 bowling lanes that have supposedly not been used since 1930s, and even a powerplant that once generated electricity for the temple. There is a total of 1,037 rooms in the temple. Lundberg & Kowalski write that giant tunnels were dug under the streets to bring city steam heat and other utilities into this monstrous building. The tunnels were 34 feet below street level (which probably means that the boilers were in a third-level basement), and were 10 feet wide, coming from both Temple Street and Second Avenue.

The order for the light fixtures in this building was the largest ever placed in the country up to that time; they were also designed by Corrado Parducci, and supplied by Sterling Bronze Co. The handmade furniture was designed specifically for this building, and most of what's in there today are the original pieces.

The first place we went to was the Corinthian lodge room...sorry for the dim lighting in these photos, I didn't realize I would need a tripod. Anyway, in the center of any Masonic lodge room is a small altar surrounded by three symbolic candles:

During lodge meetings, the altar would hold an open book of "divine testament," be it a Bible, Torah, Koran, just has to be a holy book containing the written word of God. The Masons are supposedly open to all religions, considering all of them to be worship of the same One true God, and are not concerned with minor denominational details, since their only goal is true Free Thought and Enlightenment for the advancement of mankind.

Obviously such plurality is a concept that is utterly repugnant to today's world mindset, so it's no wonder that the Masons have remained behind their closed doors with their "secrets." You'll notice that none of the lodge rooms have any windows of any kind...this is to ensure privacy of their ceremonies (many of the windows seen in the building are false).

The Worshipful Master's chair sits against the east wall, as is so with any Masonic lodge room, and to his left and right are the seats of the Senior Deacon and Lodge Secretary. Above them is always a lighted medallion with the letter "G" in it, to signify God (the Great Architect), Geometry, and the East being the source of Light (i.e., Enlightenment).

Off to the side is always the Junior Warden's chair, against the south wall. Next to every lodge officer's chair sits a small podium of ashlar, used for banging a gavel to bring order to meetings:

Above the Senior Warden's chair on the west wall of the Corinthian lodge room is a small panel that opens to reveal a projector. If I recall correctly what was said, all of this panelling in the Corinthian lodge was salvaged from the old Detroit Masonic Lodge on Lafayette and reinstalled here, so as to remind Masons of their past:

The next "lodge room" we came to was the lodge that Henry Ford was once a member of, the Greek-Ionic lodge room. Yes, even Henry Ford was a Mason. In fact he attained the 33rd Degree in the Scottish Rite, which is apparently something higher than being a "Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret."

Other mandatory features of a Masonic lodge room include globes of the known world on one side, and a globe of the celestial sphere on the other, representing knowledge and truth, or something like that. My guide was a 33rd Degree as well, and he hit me with so much info at once that it was hard to contain it all.

Our guide explained at length many of the symbolic features of the room; besides the thrones, altar, and globes, you'll notice that in every lodge room there is the "Winding Stair" leading to the balcony behind the Worshipful Master's chair, and that the steps are grouped in flights of 3, 5, and 7. These are the first three odd prime numbers, and represent the first three degrees of Masonry; the five classical orders of architecture (Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Roman); and the seven liberal arts (Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Astronomy).

1, 3, 5, and 7 are the only numbers that cannot be divided, which makes them the building blocks of all other values. Odd numbers, especially those divisible by 3, have been considered magical numbers since ancient times. Recall also that Freemasonry started as a brotherhood of tradesmen who built the stone cathedrals of the medieval world by hand, with arduous manual calculations.

If the builders did not possess a fluent working knowledge of mathematics, a minor calculation mistake in the foundation of a structure could translate to a catastrophically magnified and compounded error by the time the building reached its heights. Masonry--the trade of laying stones--must therefore be based on a good, solid foundation of sound and equitable geometry. More explication of the symbolism behind the Winding Stair can be found here.

The building itself is shaped like a gavel to represent order, and civilization. There is not a single inch of this gigantic building that has not been breathed-on by numerology or symbolism. Think about how much cryptic stuff is worked into a one-dollar bill. Now imagine that dollar bill being the size of half a city block, and 14 stories high. That's a big twinkie. This is the Winding Stair from the Corinthian lodge room:

Our guide finally addressed the strange panel in the center of the floor that everyone had been staring at, and that yes, it was someone's grave (sorry about the blurriness):

He sorta glossed over exactly what that was all about, but said it had something to do with advanced-order ceremonies, which incidentally were responsible for the common (but often misused) phrase, "giving them the third degree." There is a latch on the panel that allows it to be opened for the rituals. The guide did not say whose grave it was--that is one of their secrets. My money is on Jimmy Hoffa.

This is one of the alleged secret passageways, that is in between the walls of two lodge rooms...the coat-hooks I presume are for brothers to hang their secular articles on while participating in the costumed meetings.

To add to the bewildering size and complexity of the temple, our guide escorted us through the building in the most inexplicable fashion imaginable, from the 1st floor to the 4th floor, to the 1st floor again, to the 5th floor, and so on. I have no idea why, other than he wanted to put some mileage on the elevators, or was going senile. Take a look at this elevator dial:

The floor numbers with the "M's" attached to them are the "secret," or "mezzanine" floors, the ones that are in-between the regular floors. I have no clue what the moon and stars are for...? Maybe they're just magically delicious. Anyway, the total is 13 floors above ground, though I think there is a 14th ("7M") that is not accessible by elevator. Either way, the number is a "magical" number--13, or 14 (which is twin sevens).

Here's what a phone booth looked like in the world of 1920s Masonry:

Again, all woodcarving in the temple was by Harcus of Detroit. And I think they may actually have still been using these until just recently:

Still running the old visible fuses too:

Here is an example of where they keep their fire hoses:

The original hand-operated elevators were still in use as well, with the 1920s-style folding doors instead of the modern ones that retract:

I am used to seeing antiquated fixtures in buildings, but...this is the first time I have seen them in a building that hasn't been abandoned for 20 years. To see these sorts of things all lit up and still working was kind of magical, as if it were still 1926.

The Masonic Temple is also something of an art museum, and casually houses a collection of rare and one-of-a-kind art pieces, such as Emmanuel Leutze's portrait of George Washington wearing his Masonic robes, which the Smithsonian has sought permission to borrow and display (so far unsuccessfully).

They also have a portrait of President Ulysses S. Grant that is one of only two that were ever commissioned of him in his Army uniform (the other one resides in the White House). According to our guide it was given to the Detroit Masons by Grant when he was in office, and that the "art community" thought this piece had been lost to the ages until recently when a random art dealer saw it here and nearly wet himself when he learned that it was not lost, but had been hanging in a side lobby of a Masonic temple in Detroit for 80 years. After a full inspection of the rest of the building, the dealer allegedly commented that the Detroit temple contained more priceless art pieces than most art museums.

Another bewildering feature in the bowels of the building was the endless hallways of nothing but locked doors with cryptic things inscribed on them in goldleaf was like that scene in Donald Duck in Mathemagic Land or something.

Our guide kept disappearing from the rear of the group and reappearing at the head of the group all day; he'd just pop out of some random door or side hallway. He said he had been a Mason here for decades, and has seen "most of" the 1,037 rooms in the temple.

There were many parts that were unused and showing signs of decay, making it seem like I was exploring in a regular abandoned building, especially in some hallways with no lights on. Lucky I had brought a pocket flashlight. I had brought it in hopes I might sneak off and find something cool, but I quickly lost all inspiration to do anything that crazy in this labyrinth.

Note the menorah depicted in the stained glass window above; a Jewish symbol indicative of the aforementioned religious plurality of the Masons. Elsewhere can be found Muslim and Christian icons. Next was the Egyptian lodge room:

Note the Winding Stair and the two globes again:

Next was the Asylum parlor, which was the ante-room to the Commandery Asylum, home of the Knights Templar:

Supposedly this was one of Henry Ford's favorite sitting rooms. These suits of armor were made in England especially for the Temple:

We stepped through a very ordinary, unsuspecting doorway into the Commandery Asylum itself... was like they just put it in a broom closet, almost as if to hide it. The Asylum is done in replica of the asylum in the Tower of London where knights of old took their oaths before heading out to the Crusades. The stone floor of the Asylum was made to show a worn texture in order to signify the worn footpaths taken by centuries of armor-clad knights shuffling off to the Crusades, to remind the Knights Templar of today of their knightly duties and moral expectations.

The light-up cross was placed at the exact geometrical center of the entire building, which signifies that God must be at the center of every Mason's well-balanced life...

...I suppose it also signifies that despite religious plurality, the Christian cross still trumped the symbols of other religions when it came down to it, at least in Detroit.

The Asylum contains one of the building's three pipe organs, an original Aeolian-Skinner, which supposedly attracts famous musicians worldwide to come and play it. The organ in the main theater is a Wurlitzer. Again, the stained glass windows here are false, and are electrically backlit. They were installed by Detroit Art Glass Studio.

An Olympic-sized pool has been sitting unfinished on the Detroit Masonic Temple's 6th floor since the building was opened in 1926. They "ran out of money," if you can believe that. It may be the first suspended pool of its size in the world. The steel trusses in the floor supporting it are a monstrous 18 feet deep. One of the strange structural innovations used to support the pool was brick-filled steel beams, though I'm not sure what that's supposed to do...perhaps it's a secret Masonic building technique.

A second swimming pool was planned for the basement of the temple according to a recent Free Press article, but it never went past the drawing stage. The ceiling here again was designed by Corrado Parducci:

Elsewhere in the building is a large unfinished gymnasium and vast shower rooms decorated in Vermont marble that, similarly, were supposedly never turned on:

This is the Greek-Doric lodge room:

The huge marble column seen above is actually hollow. Inside, it contained sacred scrolls of some sort--possibly the lodge's charter--further reminding the Masons of the roots and the duties of their Order.

From there we went into a cavernous, completely pitch black room. I set my camera down, opened the shutter for the maximum of 15 seconds, fired my flash, and still had to lighten it in Photoshop to get an image out of the dark cavernous space:

It is the 1,600 seat Scottish Rite Theater, designed for Scottish Rite degree ceremonies. Lundberg & Kowalski write that it was popular with musical acts such as the White Stripes in more recent times, but our guide said that it hadn't been used for anything in years. The guide led us backstage and through some weird passage, down some stairs to the gigantic kitchen and back up again, and we popped out here, on the stage of the 5,000-seat main auditorium:

Each chandelier in this theater weighs one and a half tons. This stage is the third-largest stage in America I'm told, at 100 feet wide by 55 feet deep, with 90 sets of rigging lines. According to the temple's website, the opening of this theater was celebrated during a concert by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ossip Gabrilowitsch on February 22, 1926--George Washington's birthday.

The top floor of the tower holds a third theater that was never finished for lack of funds, which unfortunately we did not get to visit. According to the temple's website, it is sometimes used by movie production crews.

In the second basement level below the main auditorium is the 750-seat Crystal Ballroom, which is surrounded by balconies...the room was in use for an event and kind of crowded, so this was the only shot I could get:

Next to the ballrooms are five dining rooms. One basement level above the Crystal Ballroom is the Fountain Ballroom, which reminded me a little of the Lounge Bar in the Statler Hotel:

We went back upstairs to the Drill Hall. As it turns out, the rumor about the "floating marching floor" is true too. It is one of three ever built in the U.S. with felt-cushioning to absorb shock, and reputedly professional ballroom dancers and ballerinas come from all over the world to practice on it. Today, however, it is a convention hall when not being used by the Detroit Derby Girls.

The temple also played host to some of the early Detroit Auto Shows. Cranes lifted cars up to the auditorium roof, where they were then driven down a ramp into the Drill Hall for display. It also served as a berthing area for aircraft mechanics during WWII, and is the unofficial practice space of the Radio City Rockettes when they're in Detroit.

Somewhere in the building, one of these square-&-dividers medallions set into the stairway banisters was installed upside-down...why that was done is beyond me, but I know that it is probably a detail that is hard to find:

In 2009 I was putzing around a website compiled by David Spitzley, who researched all kinds of lesser-known topics relating to the occult in Detroit, or some of the better known legends associated with this area such as Le Nain Rouge. At any rate the first thing that caught my eye was his section about Aleister Crowley's connection to Detroit.

I'm sure most of us know who the infamous Aleister Crowley was, at least from the classic Ozzy Osbourne song "Mr. Crowley," about a nutty British mystic (or conman) who dabbled in numerology and the occult in the early 20th century, penning several books on the topic. But it seems as though in one of his many nutty endeavors Crowley once visited Detroit, from April to December of 1919, trying to forge alliances and push his agenda.

Now I know some of you are already reaching for your tinfoil hat jokes, but I've found no real reason to be abnormally suspicious of the information, which seems to stem from a paper by a Freemason named Martin P. Starr, that appears in at least two places online, at least one of which is an official Masonic lodge website, and is well footnoted (

The information regarding Crowley's work in Detroit comes from his personal correspondences with cohorts here. It is also mentioned in books by Henrik Bogdan and Martin P. Starr, while another book by Richard Kascynski, PhD, entitled, Panic in Detroit: The Magician and the Motor City, apparently spends 166 pages talking about it (but proved a bit harder to track down).

In his pursuit of occult knowledge Spitzley says, Aleister Crowley began associating himself with Masonic orders all over the world. He gained de facto control of the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), a secret fraternity similar to Freemasonry, and used his position in that organization to make inroads on the ranks of the Masons. Crowley even had a loyal follower who was already a Mason in Detroit, a magician named Charles Stanfield Jones, who acted as a mole by gaining the confidences of a few of the Scottish Rite members here. One of them was Albert W. Ryerson.

Spitzley writes that Crowley came to Detroit in 1919 "with an eye toward conquest." Keep in mind that the Detroit Masons were still housed in their old building on Lafayette at that time, and construction of this new temple had yet to be completed.
[Crowley] made connections with Detroit Masons, and convened a "Supreme Grand Council" to negotiate a trade of Masonic degrees (in the various fringe branches over which he had control) for positions on the Supreme Council of the regional jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite Masons. According to a newspaper story written in 1948, during Crowley's time in Detroit, he "announced plans to build a headquarters patterned after the sun temples of the ancient Chaldeans, with exotic furnishings, fountains spraying jets of perfumed water amid burning jars of incense, silken divans for the faithful to "worship and recline on."

This "Supreme Grand Council" business sounds like the same basic concept that Detroit's new temple was supposed to accomplish--that is, house multiple regional Masonic orders under one roof. I wonder if the idea to build the world's largest Masonic building here in Detroit has any genesis in Mr. Crowley's alleged scheme? It is tempting to ponder whether his proddings may have inspired the idea of making Detroit the shimmering world capitol of Freemasonry with this gargantuan building. Ground was first broken on the project less than a year after he left town.

Spitzley makes note of the fact that Mr. Crowley also had other motivations for coming to Detroit.
In 1918, again according to his Confessions, Crowley apparently consulted with Parke, Davis in Detroit in their development of a concentrated mescaline preparation.
Parke-Davis, & Co. was founded in Detroit and became the world's largest and foremost pharmacological company, credited with building the first industrial pharmaceutical laboratory as well as innovating methods for producing drugs, standardizing doses, and developing methods for testing new drugs. They developed the first bacterial vaccine, and the first treatments for diphtheria and epilepsy. Phencyclidine (PCP) was also first developed in 1926 by Parke-Davis.

Crowley came to Detroit not only to make inroads with the Masons, but to also visit Parke-Davis to stock up on mescaline, which he had reputedly used to drug audiences during the Rites of Eleusis, the theatrical stunt by which he gained much of his public notice. Martin Starr mentions in his book The Unknown God: W.T. Smith and the Thelemites, that Mr. Crowley had visited the Parke-Davis laboratory to get mescaline as early as October 1915.

The aforementioned paper Aleister Crowley: Freemason, by Martin P. Starr provides deeper insight on what Crowley was scheming here in Detroit. It quotes several of his letters to Charles Stanfield Jones, including this one from February 19th, 1919, with instructions on how to begin infiltrating the Masonic ranks:
With regard to the O.T.O., I take the liberty of advising you to get hold of the 33° man [Frank T. Lodge] in private. Sound him very carefully with regard to the principles of the 7°, and if you find him worthy, affiliate him to that degree. Your mental attitude should be, if I may dare say so, to regard the 32° people as so many pieces of rather nasty dirt. ... I am then determined to revise the rituals of the O.T.O. in such a sense that they will not conflict in any way with the Masonic ideals, and I suggest that you should arrange a conference between myself and these Masons, in which the rituals should be submitted to them for approval in this particular sense.

Another letter from Crowley to Jones in April of 1919 contained instructions to "Affiliate Frank Lodge but rub it into him that even our eighth degree wipes its arse with the thirty third. ...We cannot admit that anyone soever is higher in Masonry than ourselves." Nice guy, eh?

Crowley was indeed invited to Detroit by Frank Lodge, but predictably, it was not long before the Detroit Masons grew weary of his bullshit and saw him for a conniving cornball, so Crowley finally took his ball and went home after they remained unmoved on the idea of merging with the OTO.

Starr writes,
Crowley only completed a revision of the first four rituals of the Ordo Templi Orientis when the 'Great Lakes Council VII°' fell apart in a swirl of divorces and bankruptcies, ending with Crowley's departure for England in December 1919. It was the last attempt Crowley made to align the Ordo Templi Orientis to Regular Freemasonry in any manner. Although Stansfeld Jones was made a Regular mason in Detroit, his petition to the Valley of Detroit was rejected, leading Crowley to conclude that 'Freemasonry in the States is one of the most evil organizations that has ever existed'.
Charles Stansfeld Jones (also known as Frater Achad) continued corresponding with Crowley for some years after the latter had fled the city, even as this new Masonic Temple was being built. There was also a Dr. J.P. Kowal, who lived on Chene Street in Detroit, who "appears to have archived a variety of Crowley's writings, including diaries, and may have been connected with theosophical doings in the 1920s."

Spitzley writes that besides his Masonic maneuverings, Crowley "appears to have had a few other things to occupy his time"...
While the Supreme Grand Council was underway, Crowley was apparently able to convince Albert W. Ryerson, a 32nd degree Mason and manager of the Universal Book Company, to publish an issue of Equinox, Crowley's irregularly produced journal of occult speculation. This issue in particular is notable for including The Manifesto of the O.T.O. Based on Crowley's own recollections in The Confessions of Aleister Crowley, this apparently didn't go too smoothly.
This Ryerson guy was in the "Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite, Valley of Detroit" and, according to Clarence Burton, had other fraternal affiliations as well, including the Detroit Commandery No. 1 of the Knights Templar, and the Moslem Temple of the Mystic Shrine. The Universal Book Co. was headquartered in his building, the Ryerson Block at 57 Grand River, Burton notes.

Publishing Equinox was part of Crowley's scheme to enlist Ryerson and his colleagues in creating a "Supreme Grand Council" of Masonry, a body that would "reorganize" Masonic rites, with the ultimate aim of making Masonic degrees subordinate to those of the OTO, and that Crowley "spun visions of a luxurious temple that would make Detroit the Midwestern Paris of esotericism."

Equinox (which sold for $6.66 a copy) also laid out the theatrical ceremonies that made up the body of the OTO's ritual under Crowley, which just so happened to be rather heavy on sexual innuendo by 1920s standards. As it turned out, his OTO rites involved a lot of orgies.

The stockholders in Universal Book Co. apparently sued Ryerson and stripped him of his control over the company when they found out that $35,000 had been spent printing the book, which they called "unspeakably vile." The Aleister Crowley Scrapbook by Sandy Robertson goes into more detail on the Equinox court case--which happened to be prosecuted by none other than Assistant U.S. District Attorney Frank Murphy, who during the proceedings remarked that Equinox was "the most lascivious and libidinous book ever published in the United States."

The Equinox court case was reported in the February 26, 1922 Washington Times, and made sensational news columns as far away as Australia. "A Sensuous Libel on Civilised Morals", was the headline on page 5 of the September 23, 1922 Mirror, a tabloid in Perth. The story made it out as if the court case unexpectedly exposed plans to establish a new religion by a "coterie of men of evil reputation," and explained that there had also been several divorce cases stemming from marital strife between men and women whose spouse had participated in the OTO's sexual rituals.

They included prominent members of society; doctors, lawyers, and even a clergyman. Ryerson himself saw his business, reputation, and marriage all ruined by the scandal. The rituals were described as secret meetings at "secret fortresses," where the novitiates participated in orgies. All copies of Equinox that had not yet left the printer's were seized by federal officials, and the publicity of the case effectively resulted in the dissolution of the OTO.

On the witness stand Mr. Ryerson told of a meeting at the Detroit Athletic Club in November 1910 where Stanfield Jones and six other men planned to make Detroit the headquarters of the OTO, and elected the "Supreme Grand Council." Ryerson refused to identify the other six, other than to say that they were among the "leading men of this city."

Martin Starr however names six men in The Unknown God besides Ryerson and Jones who Crowley had affiliated in the OTO--William H. Bogrand, Dr. Frank E. Bowman, George Jarvis, Dr. Cedric Putnam Sibley, Charles Yale Smith, and Albert A. Stibbard. 

Starr also claims that Crowley had racked up a bit of a tab that went unpaid at the Detroit Athletic Club, and that once he had decided that he no longer liked the Detroit Masons, he referred to them as the "demoniacs of Detroit" who tried to exploit his overtures of goodwill, and told Jones that "everyone in Detroit can kiss your arse in my absence." Another witness called in the trial, Lady Jean Hooper, who for a time lived in the Ryerson home at 381 W. Grand Boulevard, testified that Aleister Crowley visited there often, and "knew the method of administering hashish," which he told her helped him to "control other minds."

Before the suit went to trial however, Crowley managed to flee to Cefalu, Sicily, where he started up yet another cult and was eventually deported by Mussolini, according to Robertson. Seems to have been the continuation of a recurring theme.

It probably goes to show that some people just have trouble written on their foreheads if a bigoted nutcase such as Henry Ford can make it into the Masons' highest ranks, yet Aleister Crowley manages to get the cold shoulder. Perhaps Crowley would have had better luck approaching the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo with the merger idea instead?

In all, my first tour of the imposing Detroit Masonic Temple lasted about four hours, and I felt like I had covered just vast expanses of its considerable bulk...but the thoroughness with which it seemed that I had explored it only led me to feel that I knew less about it than ever. It is definitely among the most voluminous, enigmatic structures I have ever had the pleasure of wandering around in--and I've been through a few.

Photo by a friend
Here's hoping that with the arrival of the new Red Wings stadium development project on the Masonic Temple's doorstep in the next couple years that its economic prospects will improve. As far as I know the Temple still does tours through the Detroit Historical Society. The Ryerson home at 381 W. Grand Boulevard that Crowley was known to frequent had apparently been demolished in favor of an apartment building in the 1920s.

I explored a smaller Masonic lodge on Detroit's west side, in another post entitled "33° Below Zero."

Detroit's Masonic Temple, by Alex Lundberg & Greg Kowalski
Detroit Architecture AIA Guide, Revised, by Katherine Mattingly Meyer & Martin C.P. McElroy
Michigan, A History of the Wolverine State, by Willis Dunbar & George May, p. 103, 603
All Our Yesterdays, A Brief History of Detroit, by Frank & Arthur Woodford, p. 64 & 173
Buildings of Michigan, by Kathryn Bishop Eckert, p. 83-84
The Unknown God: W.T. Smith and the Thelemites, by Martin P. Starr, p. 87, 95-103
Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism, edited by Henrik Bogdan, Martin P. Starr, p. 238-239
Secret Agent 666: Aleister Crowley, British Intelligence, and the Occult, by Richard B. Spence
The City of Detroit, Michigan, 1701-1922, Vol. 3, edited by Clarence Monroe Burton, William Stocking, Gordon K. Miller, p. 242