AUGUSTA — The fourth floor of the Augusta Masonic Building at 317 Water St. carried the sweet smell of breakfast Saturday morning as visitors and soon-to-be Masons toured the home of Bethlehem Lodge 35 AF & AM.

Those on tour during the open house marveled at the narrow wooden floorboards, an octagon-shaped anteroom with multiple large mirrors that opens to the Abnaki Club — the Masonic social club. One floor up is the main lodge, as large as an auditorium, where lights in the ceiling mimic stars.

The building was erected by the Masons in 1894 and shared at one point by two lodges, Bethlehem and Augusta, when the membership swelled, and then they merged into one.

Now the Bethlehem Lodge, which was founded in 1821, has about 173 Masons, with 20 to 40 attending the regular monthly meeting.

Today the top three floors are used for functions by the Masons, while the ground floor is occupied by commercial enterprises.

“Masonry is the largest and oldest fraternal organization,” said Bob Stratton, of Manchester, a past master of the lodge. He said the success is the result of a couple of things, including a ban on talking politics and religion, and occasionally sports. The Bethlehem Lodge is one of the dry lodges, meaning no alcohol is served.

However, he and several members pointed out a door in the pool table room that, in years past, opened to an adjacent building where members could go in, have a nip and come back to the dry side.

Stratton talked of the origin of Freemasonry among the stonemasons of Europe, who took care of their own as well as other needy people in their community, and said that tradition continues today.

The Bethlehem Lodge has offered assistance to the Augusta Boys & Girls Club, the Area Agency on Aging, Lithgow Public Library, the Salvation Army and many other charitable groups. “We’re finding a lot of people who want to help people, said Edward “Fluffy” Libby, who is to take up the reins as lodge master in January 2018.

Among those is Jonathan Pare, of Sidney, who is joining the lodge this week. “I like helping people in need.” Pare said, just before accompanying his wife, Michelle, and granddaughter Mikayla Dalbeck on a tour.

They had been there for breakfast as well. “It was the best and biggest breakfast,” said Mikayla, 14.

While lodge membership is restricted to men, both women and men can join the Order of the Eastern Star, and there are organizations for youth members as well.

An annual open house is encouraged by the Grand Lodge of Maine, and in one room, an “Ask a Mason” video was running.

As in other Masonic Lodges, the main lodge room is oriented east-west to resemble King Solomon’s temple. Along with the lit stars in the blue-painted ceiling, a trio of chairs stands at both ends and a Bible is on a stand in the middle of the room. However, that could be replaced by a Koran or a Torah, depending on the book preferred, while the Lodge businesss is conducted.

“We’re not a religious organization, but you do have to have a believe in a higher entity,” Stratton said. He said the Masons offer “moral and ethical lessons about how you treat other prople” as well as providing for people in need.

There are symbols everywhere, in the geometric arrangement in the plush rug and the mosaic tile floor.

Arranged around the wall are chairs and benches with blue velvet cushions.

Being a Mason allows members to visit other lodges as well. Stratton has been to a lodge in Colorado. Sean Collyer, of Augusta, went to one in Arizona.

Stratton said there are about 20,000 Masons in Maine, and the website shows the lodges divided into 24 districts. Bethlehem Lodge 35 is one of 10 lodges in District 11.

Steve Mairs wore the Masonic regalia, while the other members, include Ken Gotreau, lodge master, were in collared, casual shirts to help at the breakfast and elsewhere. For degree work — which is how people become new members — the members wear tuxedos. Gotreau, of Sidney, belongs to both the Sidney and Augustas lodges.

In the Abnaki Club on Saturday, guest Roger Madore ran a slideshow of historical postcards of Augusta, many of them featured in his book, “Augusta (Postcard History Series).”

As people participating in the 14th annual MaineGeneral Health Walk for Hope passed by Saturday morning, Libby and Cal Yeaton, of Winthrop, stood outside, looking at the building sign that Yeaton had just renovated. “This was one of the most modern buildings in 1894,” Libby said, “It had total gas lighting.”

The Renaissance-style brick building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

Now it has an elevator and a sprinkler system, installed in more recent years. The building has a new roof as well.

“We try to do regular maintenance,” Stratton said.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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