By Nick Baptista
One of west Calaveras County’s most significant pre-1900 structures was reduced to rubble Saturday morning by fire.
Firefighters were dispatched to the Keystone Lodge No. 161 of the Free & Accepted Masons in Milton at 8:41 a.m., but were unable to save the building dating back to 1870s.
When the first unit arrived at the scene, firefighters saw fire on the second story and heavy smoke coming from the eaves, Calaveras Consolidated Fire Chief Jason Robitaille said.
Based on the extent of the fire, the building’s older construction and possibility of walls collapsing, it was deemed unsafe for an interior attack and a defensive strategy to keep the blaze from spreading any further was selected, the chief said.
Another hindrance in fighting the fire was lack of a local water supply. Five water tenders were dispatched to the scene and they had to refill at the Jenny Lind fire station approximately nine miles away.
The five water tenders came from Farmington, Copperopolis, San Andreas and two from CalCo. Engines from CalFire, Linden-Peters and San Andreas also came to help CalCo, while the Clements Fire District provided backup for the rest of the CalCo’s district calls.
According to Sal Manna, president of the Society for the Preservation of West Calaveras History, the lodge held its first meeting in 1862 in Copperopolis and moved to Milton in 1881 “where the Keystone Lodge has gathered each month since in what remains the most prominent historic building in that once bustling town.”
Back in 2012, the society announced the Masonic hall had been selected in an online poll as one of the “Historic Dozen,” a list of the 12 most significant pre-1900 structures or ruins in west Calaveras.
According to Manna, the lodge purchased the large Milton building that had served as the town hall since the early 1870s from Nathaniel Ward Hendricks, the hotelkeeper who also owned the Milton Hotel across the street, for $600. The Masons’ idea was to use the second floor for meetings and rent the first floor for profit. In 1885, the lodge also acquired the nearby Milton Cemetery for $200 from Benjamin Franklin Foster and German-born blacksmith John Henry Ollrich, a Mason. But the first floor rental proved controversial. In 1888, New York-born farmer William Charles “Bulldog” Smith opened a saloon in that space - at one point the town had five of them - and a couple of years later boxing matches were held there. This apparently did not please lodge members who, according to the minutes of an April 1890 meeting, ordered the janitor “not to let the lower Hall for the purpose of any sparring or boxing matches in future.”
The saloon would subsequently be owned by capitalist Foster (after whom Fosteria, today’s Paloma, was named) and then by William “Billy” Bear after he borrowed the necessary funds from Tom Mead, owner of a Milton livery stable. In the early 1890s, Peter Sterling Robertson, the Scottish-born Master of the Keystone Lodge when it relocated to Milton, became the proprietor of the Milton Hotel and Hendricks’ son Lee became the bartender at Bear’s saloon. But Milton’s heyday had passed.
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