The John R. Fretwell Officer Jewels

The story of the Fretwell Jewels has been handed down through the Past Masters of the Masonic Lodges of Calhoun County for over 150 years, by divine providence. We will never be able to determine with certainty how they were able to survive, but will provide what information that I have been able to collect.

       The minutes of May 19,1860 of Lavaca Lodge #36 Records the following information.

The Worshipful Master after a brief expression of appreciation for honor conferred on him by this Lodge presented to this lodge, a beautiful Master’s Jewel wrought in Pure Gold! On motion of A.W. Canfield it was resolved that this token of regard from our Worshipful Master be accepted with the thanks of the Lodge in the hope that all future Masters of this Lodge may wear this jewel with as much credit to themselves honor to the fraternity as he who presented it. (1)

The question I ask to myself was what honor conferred by Lavaca Lodge #36 stimulated J.R. Fretwell to make a gold Master’s jewel and present it to the Lodge on May 19,1860? I have not been able to find any information that clearly states the reason J. R. Fretwell decided to present the jewel. The only information in the minutes is as above “after a brief expression of appreciation.” The secretary did not record what J.R. Fretwell said. The information that I have been able to find about J. R. Fretwell tells us that he had been serving as Worshipful Master of Lavaca Lodge #36 for the years 1855, 1856, 1857, 1858, 1859 and 1860. J.R. Fretwell had also served as District Deputy Grand Master, 10th District in 1857, District Deputy Grand Master of the 11th District in 1858 and District Deputy Grand Master of the 10th District in 1859. (2) We can see that J.R. Fretwell had been working for Masonry but just what motivated the donation of the jewel we will never know, but the fact is he did donate the jewel. When was installed as Worshipful Master of Lavaca Lodge #36 for the year 19781979 a Past Master of Lavaca Lodge, Brother Pete Mowen gave me the story of the jewels in the following manner. “The jewel of the Worshipful Master, Sr. Warden and Jr. Warden were presented to Lavaca Lodge #36 by Past Grand Master J.R. Fretwell. The Master’s jewel was made from a twenty dollar gold coin, Senior Warden’s and Junior Warden Jewels were made from silver dollars. Guard well these jewels and pass this history on to the next master.” When I left office I passed the story onto the next master as I had been told to do. After my year as Worshipful Master of Lavaca Lodge #36 joined the Texas Lodge of Research and began to do research on Lavaca Lodge #36 in order to write a paper so I could become a full member of Texas Lodge of Research. I was able to write several papers for T.L.R. and became a full member and was honored to serve as Worshipful Master of T.L.R.. I must sadly inform the reader of this paper that after 36 plus years of searching the records I have not been able to find any written records about the Wardens’ jewels. do know that these jewels do in fact exist and are  engraved as donated to Lavaca Lodge #36 by J.R. Fretwell My question was who made these jewels? Brother J. R. Fretwell may have made the jewels himself or may have had them made by someone. If you follow the life of J.R. Fretwell you will find that he was one of a kind and I do not think you can discount the idea that he may have made the jewels. In the 1860 census of Calhoun County Texas J.R. Fretwell is listed as a physician from Mississippi age about 45. 1n the 1860 census of Calhoun county on page 5 there was a James Jones listed as a Jeweler on line 4. It may be that Dr. J. R. Fretwell had the jewels made by James Jones (3). We do not find any information that tells us how the jewels were made.

I feel that I must relate a little history of Calhoun County at this point so that you can understand just what was happening during the mid 1850s in Calhoun County that doomed Lavaca Lodge #36.

Lavaca was a prosperous place during the early 1850s. Lavaca was the supply port for a large part of South and West Texas and Northern Mexico. There was some trouble that arose over the fees to use the seven large wharves and the Morgan Line stop using Lavaca and move a few mile southeast and built wharves at Indianola. As the years past during the 1850’s Indianola grew and Lavaca declined. This event had a great effect upon Masonry in Calhoun County. (4)

At this point I will begin the rest of the story and divine providence. John R. Fretwell continued as worshipful master of Lavaca Lodge #36 from 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865, & 1866. He was elected Grand Junior Warden of the Grand Lodge of Texas in 1860, Grand Senior Warden 1861, Deputy Grand Master 1862. During the war of rebellion, war between the states or civil war, you decide what it was, J.R. Fretwell served in the confederate army and upon returning to Texas he returned to Lavaca and served as Secretary of Lavaca Lodge #36 in 1867 and 1868. He was again elected as Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Texas in1867 and in 1868 he was elected Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Texas(5)

Dr. J.R. Fretwell and eight other masons from Lavaca Lodge #36 served in the Confederate army in a group known by several names, Singer’s Secret Service Corps, Singer’s Torpedo Corps ,and the Singer Submarine Corps. Admiral Porter of the Union Navy became aware of this group and placed a shoot-on-sight order on Singer, Fretwell, Frary, Braman, Dunn and others. There is a Texas Historical Marker on the bay front of Lavaca Bay which states that Singer’s financial partner was Dr. J.R. Fretwell. (6) After the war the United States would not permit Dr. Fretwell to practice medicine, as a result he had to sell his property to fund himself from 1867 until he left Texas. In the Transactions of Texas Lodge of Research Volume XVI pages 136-141 Doctor D.D. Tidwell presented his paper on John R. Fretwell. He wrote on page 139-140 that J. R. Fretwell moved to Galveston and a few months later to Mobile Alabama where his name appears in the Mobile Directory from 1874 through 1884.(7) I am not sure from the footnote of the paper how Dr. Tidwell found that Fretwell went to Galveston and then to Mobile but it is clear that J.R. Fretwell left Lavaca sometime in 1874 and moved to Mobile Alabama. The last Lodge meeting of Lavaca Lodge #36 that J. R. Fretwell attended was Saturday, January 17, 1874. He was secretary and wrote the minutes of the meeting. (8)  J. M. Bickford was the Worshipful Master at the January 17,1874 meeting. Times were very difficult for Lavaca Lodge after the war and now with the loss of J.R. Fretwell it continued to get worse. In 1875 a Hurricane made landfall in Calhoun County and destroyed Indianola with much loss of life. Lavaca faired better than Indinolia but had damage.(9)  J.M. Bickford kept the Lavaca Lodge opened from 1874 until 1880. J.R Fretwell demitted from Lavaca Lodge #36 on 2-2-1880.(10)  The proceedings of the Grand Lodge of Texas in 1882 reports that Lavaca Lodge #36 demised in 1880.(11)  J.M. Bickford was still Worshipful Master in 1880 and I can not find documentation on just what transpired.  I will not try to explain what J.M Bickford did or how he did it in this report. That will require another paper to put everything into something that would be understandable but is not for this topic of the jewels. I do know that J.M. Bickford kept the records, Charter, furniture, Bible and jewels of Lavaca Lodge #36 in 1880.       

J.M. Bickford attended the Grand Lodge of Texas in 1882 but did not represent Lavaca Lodge #36 nor Indianola Lodge #84. On Aug 20, 1886 another hurricane made landfall in Calhoun Countv and again destroyed Indianola. After the 1886 hurricane Indianola was abandoned and moved to Lavaca, Victoria, Goliad and Cuero. Indianola Lodge #84 moved to Lavaca and set up lodge with J.M Bickford in the old Lavaca Lodge Room. J.M. Bickford gave Indianola Lodge #84 the Lavaca Lodge #36 bible, furniture and jewels and they went to work as W.P. Milby Lodge #84 in Lavaca. W.P. Milby was a member of Lavaca Lodge #36 and was a Physician in Lavaca. W.P. Milby had served District Deputy Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Texas in 1854 so when the lodge moved from Indianola to Lavaca they changed the name to W.P. Milby Lodge #84 . (12)

The W.P. Milby Lodge continued in Lavaca and the Jewels, Minutes, and furniture somehow survived the hurricanes that struck Port Lavaca in 1919, 1942, and 1945. In September of 1961 the

Worshipful Master, William Mowen place the Jewels and minutes into his vault of Mowen’s Jewelry Store on Main Street during Hurricane Carla.

In 2015 I was elected to serve as Worshipful Master of Lavaca Lodge #36 for the second time. I learned that the story of the Fretwell Jewels had been lost to the members sometime between 1980 and 2015. The Lodge had purchased a new set of jewels and had put the old jewels up in a cabinet. After I found the jewels, l informed the members of Lavaca Lodge about the history of the Fretwell jewels. In 2017, I made a motion to have Lavaca Lodge #36 donate the Fretwell jewels to the Masonic Grand Lodge Library and Museum of Texas. At the stated Meeting of Lavaca Lodge #36 on April

11, 2017 it was voted by the members present to donate the FretwelI jewels to the library and that

Worshipful Master Jack Beeler write the Historical Narrative for the jewels. This is the story of how these jewels, presented by J.R. Fretwell to Lavcca Lodge #36 have past to Indianola Lodge #84 then past to W.P. Milby Lodge #84 and then back to Lavaca Lodge #36 after the name change from W.P. Milby #84 to Lavaca Lodge #36 in 1948 and now to the Masonic Grand Lodge Library and Museum.

Jack E. Beeler Past Master of Lavaca Lodge

(signed, Jack E. Beeler)


  1. Minutes of Lavaca Lodge #36 May 19,1860
  2. Masonic Record of John R. Fretwell, Grand Lodge of Texas Library
  3. 1860 censes of Calhoun County of Texas
  4. Shifting Sands of Calhoun Couny page 15
  5. Masonic Record of John R. Fretwell, Grand Lodge of Texas library
  6. Texas Historical Marker Port Lavaca Bay Front location
  7. Transactions Texas Lodge of Research Vol XVI page 139
  8. Minutes of Lavaca Lodge #36 Jan. 17 1874
  9. Shifting Sands of Calhoun County
  10. Masonic Record of John R. Fretwell, Grand Lodge of Texas Library
  11. Proceedings of the Grand Lodge of Texas 1882
  12. By-Laws and Rules of Order Lavaca Lodge #36 circa 1868