John W. Nelms Lodge of F. & A.M. No 323 of Smyrna, Georgia

On September 4, 1985, officials of the State of Georgia along with Georgia Masons reenacted the ceremony of the laying of the cornerstone for the State Capitol, which took place on September 2, one hundred years and two days prior. Corn was scattered representing plenty and oil was poured over the stone signifying peace, in the tradition of the laying of the cornerstone of the original King Solomon's Temple at Jerusalem with Masonic ceremonies.     

Captain and Brother John W. Nelms may well have been in attendance at the laying of the Capitol cornerstone, he and other Masons and dignitaries perspiring heavily under celluloid collars and wool suits of the time, since he was a member of Fairburn Lodge #180. Brother Nelms appears to have moved to Fairburn, Georgia from places unknown, where he affiliated with Fairburn Lodge #180 on July 10, 1873. He then relocated to Cobb County near Smyrna and was affiliated with Kennesaw Lodge #33 in Marietta on September 3, 1886. Brother Nelms together with other local Masons then became desirous of establishing a lodge in their own locale.

In those days of severe economic distress in the aftermath of devastation caused by the War Between the States and the Reconstruction Period only a few years past, many lodges had been unable to maintain their financial obligations, thus becoming a burden to the Grand Lodge. Therefore, the Grand Lodge was more than reluctant to issue new Charters in a still recovering economy of 1886. Brother Nelms who was a long time Mason came to the rescue. Brother Nelms traveled to Macon at the end of October and due to his diligence and zeal, and the small matter of his paying the proposed Lodge's per capita dues to the Grand Lodge for two years in advance from his own funds, a Charter was obtained.

Exactly fourteen months after the actual laying of the Capitol Cornerstone, on November 2, 1886, the Charter was granted for a Masonic Lodge in Smyrna, Georgia by the Grand Lodge of the State of Georgia, located in Macon; which was to become known as John W. Nelms Lodge of F. & A. M. No. 323 of Smyrna, Georgia. The following excerpt from the November 4, 1886 minutes of Nelms Lodge's first meeting describes the role of Brother Nelms .

"Brother Nelms, who being one of the Charter Members, and whose untiring efforts before the Grand Lodge of Georgia to produce a Charter - so endeared himself to the Lodge and its members, that by unanimous accord, the Lodge was named for and in Honor of our Respected Brother - John W. Nelms."

On November 4, 1886, the first meeting was held in Leggs Hall the leased home of Nickajack I 0 0 F (Oddfellows Lodge), on the second floor of a frame structure located near the Southwest corner of Atlanta Road and Powder Springs Street, where presently stands a former service station building, in the City of Smyrna. A committee was appointed to negotiate with the Oddfellows to share the lease of Leggs Hall. However prior to deciding to proceed, a Brother was assigned to remain in the store below to determine if the work of the Lodge could be heard there.

The agreement was subsequently made to share the Lodge with the OddfelIows for the exorbitant sum of $25.00 per year with Nelms Lodge providing their own coal and coal oil for lighting as well as their own janitor to clean up the Lodge, arrive early to build a fire in the heater, trim wicks and fill the lamps.

The Lodge was "duly instituted" on December 2, 1886. Brother Parkhurst from the Grand Lodge presided and Brother Meyer from Atlanta spoke to the Brethren on their responsibilities to the Lodge and to the community.

Brother Whitfield journeyed to Macon in December to purchase the first jewels of the Lodge for $13.00 and to pay the $80.00 due for the Charter. This money was the proceeds from a note to J.A. Stone, Secretary of the Lodge, for 90 days at "the lawful rate of interest".

Nelms Lodge was not content with just moving into Leggs Hall as is. Plans were immediately made to move the stairs from the South side to the North side and close the South door. Discussions were also begun with the Oddfellows about carpeting the Lodge.

The first applications were read in December of 1886 for W.J. Bohanon, W,A. Dodgen, S.F. Iselam, and J.A. Medlin by the sixteen charter members. It was also decided that the Tyler would be paid fifty cents per meeting for his services.

Brother Nelms was apparently an active traveler in those horse and buggy and railroad days. He was away from Smyrna and the Lodge until August of 1887, when he gave an "interesting instruction", and presented a petition for Doctor John A. Nelms, relationship unknown.

In September of 1887, the Lodge formed the first "Eastern Star Degree" for the "ladies entitled to receive (those) instructions".

The sick and needy were, then as now, of primary concern to Nelms Lodge. Brother Stewart was "so sick" as to need two Brothers to nurse him each night for more than three weeks.

The cost of coal for the Winter of 1887 was sixty-five cents and the rent was raised in 1888 to five dollars a month, payable quarterly. In March of 1888, this apparently exorbitant rent prompted the Lodge to form a building committee. A motion was made to "Look for or build a good schoolhouse with a suitable lodge hall over it". After five months of searching, it was decided in September of 1888 to build rather than settle for any available structure. They wanted a place to stake their "stock" while attending Lodge meetings. A wagon had been damaged recently when the horse backed it onto the railroad track while its' owner was in the Lodge. They voted to have Mr. H.C. McGriff build the hall, but later withdrew their support because "he would not give a definite answer".

In October of 1888, the Lodge sent an additional five dollars to Jacksonville, Florida for Masons who had Yellow Fever. They also approached the Elders of the Presbyterian Church about perhaps building a schoolhouse with a hall above on their grounds or on other alternative sites. Much as today, a committee was appointed to see how much money they could borrow.

In November of 1888, Nelms Lodge purchased a lot 36 feet by 100 feet on Atlanta Road for twenty-five dollars. This lot was located in the hollow in the vicinity of what is now the Second Baptist Church site. In a 1960 history of the Lodge the site was identified as "the lot adjoining the First Baptist Church in the hollow below the present Sub-station". At the end of 1888, the Lodge had $100.43 on hand.

An additional parcel of land was purchased in January of 1889 for which the Lodge paid Mr. Pace the sum of $12.50. This lot fronted on Atlanta Road in front of the new Lodge site. Construction was completed on the two story structure in the fall of 1889 and the first meeting was held in the new Lodge to install the new officers for 1890. The ground floor was furnished by the Lodge with bolted down school desks. (Remember the inkwell?)

Records are sketchy from this point until 1923. However, Mr. Robert L. Baldwin, a lifetime resident of Smyrna and a member of Nelms Lodge since 1923, said that he attended school in this building.

In Smyrna it was “The Fire.”

The Lodge remained at this location until disaster struck in March of 1924 - when fire destroyed the building. Lodge records, fortunately, were saved because the Secretary kept them at his home. The determination of the Brethren of Nelms Lodge, that this center of community would continue, also survived the disaster.

However, prior to the fire, two significant events are recorded. In January, 1923 a Royal Arch Chapter was formed at Nelms Lodge and it remains active today as part of the York Rite of Freemasonry. Also in 1923 it became known that the Board of Education desired to sell the "Old School Building" on the present location of the Lodge. This was due to the construction of the new Smyrna School at King and Church Streets. In July of 1924 the lodge made $229.48 for the building fund by holding an ice cream festival.

Nelms Lodge began holding their meetings in the old school building in April of 1925. Although many letters of sympathy on the loss of the Hall were received, only Bolton Lodge offered their hall for meetings without any charge. The immediate problem with the old school building which faced Smyrna Cemetery (West Spring didn't exist), was the fact that the building had been condemned. The exact price paid for the building by the Lodge is unknown; however, it is known that they spent between $4,000 and $5,000 for the acquisition and renovation. The Lodge demolished the wooden front portion which faced the cemetery and renovated that portion which was the first brick structure constructed in Smyrna in 1840.

The building occupied by Nelms Lodge in 1924 has quite a history of its own. It was originally a Boys Military Academy before the Civil War. During the War it served as the first Confederate Officer's training headquarters known as Camp Joseph E. Brown in 1861. After the Battle of Smyrna July 4, 1864, the building was used as a Confederate hospital and later as a Federal hospital after Sherman captured the town. Consequently, it was the only public building not destroyed as Sherman's troops moved south. In the 1870's and 80's the two story structure was used by the Smyrna Presbyterian Church. It was also in this building that the First Baptist Church was originated in August of 1884. In 1905, the Presbyterian Church deeded the property to the Cobb County Board of Education for $1,600. It was used as a school building from then unti1 1922 or 1923 when the "new" Smyrna School opened.

Nelms Lodge completely renovated the building, graded a new street in front of the building and occupied the structure by the end of 1925, (Mr. Baldwin stated that an elephant is buried in that area of West Spring Street in front of the fire station. The elephant died during a carnival held on that location and no equipment could be found to move the body.)

The Smyrna City Council used the Lodge as their meeting place as well as the “Matrons Club” and on at least one occasion the K.K.K. in October 1926. In November 1925 the Woodsmen of the World began meeting there.

It was also in 1926 that the Lodge voted not to buy stock in the "new" Smyrna Bank. This year also marked the beginning of the famous possum and chitterling suppers held each fall at hog killing time.

In June of 1927, a marble stone was placed in the sidewalk to commemorate Nelms Lodge. It was then that the Lodge started charging other groups $2.50 to use the Lodge. At this time also one dozen lambskin aprons were purchased for the sum of $18.85. In July the Smyrna Bank went "defunct". The last action taken by the Lodge that year was to sell the lot where the old Lodge stood back to the Baptist Church for $300.00.

1928 was a banner year for the Lodge in that there was running water installed. In 1929 the Lodge "adopted" Jack Tate, age 15, in the orphanage, buying his clothes, his Christmas and contributing to his further education.

The City of Smyrna exempted the Lodge from water bills the following year. The Boy Scouts began using the lower hall as a meeting place and a special contribution was made to the Masonic (Orphanage) Home on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. A sad note to 1930 was the typhoid fever epidemic, when many Brethren were stricken and the Brethren and their wives pitched in to nurse them.

In 1931, the Lodges' adopted orphan, Jack Tate, was expelled from the Masonic Home. Georgia Power during this year held a cooking school in the Lodge building, and broke the lock on the door, thereby upsetting everyone. A new water cooler (a keg, two cups and a dipper) were purchased for $2.00 for the Lodge.

A portrait of George Washington was presented and hung in the Lodge, by the donation of Congressman M.C. Tarver in 1932. The Lodge voted to remove the old cornerstone that year and replace it with a "new replica". 1934 saw a fund set up for the Brethren and their families in distress caused by the Great Depression. A cow was donated to one widow and grain was purchased for a Brother.

With the war in Europe and the Far East raging, the Lodge voted in 1942 to place their entire savings into War Bonds. In 1944, Arthur Bacon was elected into Masonry in Nelms Lodge. This same year the Lodge purchased $7.50 worth of hog feed and a committee was formed to see if it was fat enough to be killed. The Lodge voted the following year to inform the County that the doctor's clinic that had occupied the basement must either pay rent or be moved. Five years was long enough, rent free. In 1946, the magnificent mural of Masonic work which adorns Nelms Lodge in the most honored place was painted and donated to the Lodge by Brother Ted Bowman, Master in that year.

The roof of the Lodge building was repaired in 1949 and a vote was taken for the installation of a toilet. This same year a committee was formed to investigate the possibility of erecting a new building.

1950 heralded the formation of Smyrna Chapter, Order of the Eastern Star and they were granted permission to meet in the Lodge on the first and third Tuesdays. "But again, in 1950, when it became known that the Post Office might rent the ground floor, a building Committee was appointed to build a building (adjacent to the present building) for the Post Office. The Post Office rented the new structure, and through rental money, the Lodge was beginning to pay off all indebtedness. The original Post Office building was leased on April 9, 1951.

THEN IT HAPPENED! It was noted by the Brethren that the floor sills were retreating from the old walls of the old building and considered unsafe. (The building had been condemned some 20 years previous).

A new Building Committee was appointed in 1954 to explore the possibilities and financial conditions of erecting a new building which would also include the first Post Office for Smyrna, Georgia. It would have a modern Lodge Room on te second floor.

After investigations with Finance Institutions and the Post Office Authorities, The Building Committee was empowered by the Lodge to proceed. This was a "Golden Night" of the Lodge - since the Committee DID proceed!

Demolition of the "old building" began on March 8, 1954.

02-13-54 Conferred with possible tenant for first floor.
03-01-54 Ordered Wrecking Permit from City of Smyrna.
03-03-54 Building Loan Approved.
03-03-54 Members met and began moving furniture and fixtures out of the Lodge. Gas cut off.
03-06-54 Grand Lodge issued Dispensation to hold meetings at the Smyrna Elementary School.
03-06-54 Made last pictures of "old Building" (Pictures are hung in the Lodge).
03-06-54 Kennesaw Lodge offered Brethren their Hall while we were under construction.
03-08-54 Wreckers removed windows and casings.
03-12-54 Roof removed.
03-13-54 Ceiling beams down.
03-16-54 Walls coming down.
03-20-54 Wreckers finished!
03-23-54 Old brick sold by the Lodge as mementos. The brick had been handmade by slaves and still had the handprints.
03-24-54 Bull-Dozer leveled lot.
03-26-54 Excavation for basement began.
04-01-54 Trenches for footings dug.
04-03-54 Paid Wreckers - $500. Check No. 1840.
05-10-54 Loan Papers signed by Building Committee. (McGehee, White and Camp).
05-17-54 "Wheel-Barrow Brigade" - moving dirt so that beams could be set at basement level.
05-25-54 Beams for second floor - raised.
06-14-54 Building Committee (Kreeger, Bailey and Camp) met with City Council regarding sidewalks.
06-28-54 Concrete for second floor poured. Walls began.
07-01-54 Aluminum ceiling for Post Office ordered.
08-04-54 Building Committee ordered exhaust fans and coping for windows and top ledge of building,
09-18-54 First meeting in the new Hall! Met on raw concrete and unfinished interior, but it was WONDERFUL!
09-28-55 Duct work for Air Conditioning and Heating Installed.
11-14-55 Ceiling installed.
11-27-55 Furnace delivered.
12-03-55 Heat first turned on. SURE FEELS GOOD!
02-21-56 Decided to hold "Called Communication" to ask donations from members to finish interior.
03-19-56 Called Communication. Herman Talmadge, speaker. Needed $7,500.00 to complete interior, and $6,610.00 was pledged!
03-19-56 Started Plastering Walls.
04-02-56 Ceramic tile in rest rooms installed.
04-04-56 Carpentry work on risers completed.
04-05-56 Tile laid in front lobby.
04-22-56 Washed windows and put down base boards and mold.
04-25-56 Tile installed on risers.
05-04-56 Beautiful red carpet laid!
05-05-56 Red Plush seats installed! (This completed the interior work asked for at Called Communication).
07-16-56 Officers chairs ordered from Roswell firm.
08-01-56 Screens delivered and installed by the Brethren.
09-20-58 Lease signed with the United States Post Office
04-18-59 Post Office portion completed and ready for occupancy

The preceding chronology of the construction was compiled by Leslie M, Camp, Secretary of Nelms Lodge, 1960.

What else happened in the meantime?

The Lodge had a softball team in 1953. The Lodge met with Kennesaw Lodge #33 while the new building was under construction. The Order of the Eastern Star met in Smyrna Schools' old building.

Over the years, Nelms Lodge has been the home of a Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, two chapters of the Order of the Eastern Star (Smyrna Chapter and Jonquil Chapter), the Order of Demolay (a fine fraternity of young men who have gone on to become community and business leaders), the Order of Rainbow Girls (among the finest young women who matured as credits to Smyrna and the world), Oakdale Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, York Rite Chapter of Royal Arch Masons #160 and York Rite Council #60.

Together with Brethren from adjacent lodges, Nelms Brethren formed Nelms Fellowcraft Club in 1958, and remained active for many years, visiting lodges throughout the southeast.

When constructed, Nelms Lodge was the center of the Smyrna community which spanned one-half mile in all directions. The building remained the center of Smyrna with the city limits having expanded to one mile in any direction. Today, although Smyrna has spread like sorghum in a pan, Nelms Lodge remains the center of Smyrna in thought, deed, word, purpose and location.

In 2000 the City of Smyrna began the development of the downtown area into what is now the "Smyrna Village Green". The city approached Nelms Lodge to discuss the purchase of the lodge building. A new site was chosen, plans were drawn up and the paperwork was signed. Nelms would soon have a new home at 455 Concord Road in Smyrna.