The Eleusinian Mysteries
and the Patrons of Husbandry
Did I ever tell you about Francis McDowell infusing the rituals of the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries into the ceremonies of the National Grange? McDowell was born June 12, 1831, in Wayne, and lived in the hamlet of Wayne most of his life. His house still stands there, just inside Steuben County.
Francis Marion McDowell was the eldest son of Matthew McDowell and Maria Mitchell McDowell. He had a brother, George McDowell, and two sisters, both of whom became wives of his business partners. Ann Eliza McDowell married the Canisteo-born entrepreneurial sensation Samuel Hallett. Sam had gotten his early business training in keeping store and lending money from Ann Eliza's uncle, John B. Mitchell, right in Wayne.
From here Hallett moved ahead rapidly to a lumber yard in Adrian, then a bank in Hornellsville, and one in Bath, and very soon a bank in New York City. He took his wife's brothers, Francis and George, with him. Another sister, Marie Louise, had married Nirom Crane and he also was in the bank with Hallett.
These young men must have been wonders even in those heady times. From their New York base they were soon in Europe seeking venture capital in Paris and Madrid for railroads to be built in the American West. Hallett was one of the principals in the transcontinental rail link that became the Union Pacific for which Congress gave vast properties in the western states and of which, for awhile, the famous western soldier and scout, John C. Fremont, was president. Hallett started the construction of the eastern part of the line with his own company, the Leavenworth, Pawnee and Western Railroad, and after Fremont withdrew he changed that name to the Union Pacific Railway Company, Eastern Division. He actually completed 40 miles of track before he was shot and killed at Wyandotte, Kansas, in 1864. There is some mystery about his death; he may have staged the shooting, and disappeared when he couldn't keep his company financed.
But going back to Francis McDowell and his story. Francis was cashier of the bank in Hornellsville and later head of the Hallett office in New York City. He, too, went to Europe to raise money for Hallett's schemes, and while he was in Italy he met the Chamberlain of the King of Naples, the Duc d'Ascoli. They became friends and d'Ascoli invited McDowell to become a member of the Order of Demeter. This was a society of devotees to Demeter or Ceres, the goddess of fertility and plants.
These society members, which included wives and daughters, too, carried out the rites of the Eleusinian Mysteries which go back to very early times, to Eleusis in Greece, but perhaps earlier. The name Demeter may have come from the Greek word for barley. You can read about the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone (or Ceres and Proserpine) in Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough, and Homer Smith's Man and His Gods, Will Durant's The Life of Greece, and in Bulfinch. These rites of fertility and resurrection had been observed in Greece and Rome and many parts of the world for milleniums. In 395 AD Theodosius tried to suppress this order, but the society merely went underground. Sicily was one place it flourished in more recent times, so it is not surprising that a court official of the King of Naples should have been a member of the "Knights of Demeter."
Francis McDowell was introduced to the Society about 1857 and must have been initiated during a subsequent trip to Italy in 1859, when he was made a priest. McDowell was given instructions about the rituals and some of the vestments of the Order by the duke. What the intention of the Italians was in inviting an American into their society we can only conjecture. You can imagine that Francis McDowell had a very engaging personality, he was the right-hand man to the flamboyant Sam Hallett. Perhaps, there was a feeling of genuine comradeship towards an American, those people who were then so admired the world over. And, perhaps, the duke thought the order needed some new blood.
Also, about this time, McDowell and Hallett were setting up a grape-growing venture, and had bought tracts for vineyards in Pulteney and on Bluff Point as well as in Wayne. Likely the Italians felt a closeness to this American grape-grower. Anyway, McDowell came back to Wayne with his new knowledge of the Society of Demeter and several pieces of the raiment.
McDowell apparently did nothing to develop the Society in this country for about nine years. He was trying to help his widowed sister, Ann Eliza, with the management of her estate. Margaret Hallett Lang, in her account of life as a child at her grandmother's house, tells that pieces of the farm had to be sold off to get income enough for the living style Mrs. Hallett expected.
Then in 1867 Francis McDowell met William Saunders at a fruit fair held in Hammondsport. Saunders was travelling around the U.S. and studying the grape industry for the Agriculture Department in Washington. He and McDowell became friends. Through Saunders, McDowell learned of Oliver Hudson Kelley and his desire to form a farming fraternity. Kelley thought such a society would give farmers a sense of cohesiveness.
Seven men, Kelley, Saunders, McDowell, John Richardson Thompson, William M. Ireland, Aaron B. Grosh, and John Trimble, got together in Washington, D.C., in January 1868, and formed The Patrons of Husbandry. You can get a sense of the enthusiasm and urgency of these promoters from their letters.
Here is part of one from O.H. Kelley dated March 27, 1868:
…I have no fear of want of funds after I get started—Two or three hundred dollars will set us in motion nicely. I suppose it will turn up somewhere. I do not borrow trouble about that.
I have some letters of introduction written for me so we won't have to stop to write while I am with you for we shall want every moment to talk & I cannot spend more than two days in a place—now after I have been west & then start back for the New England States I can stay longer—but now it must be action—not a day must be lost. My whole mind is centered in the work & we can have an Order that is unequalled, but we must be active. We need a dozen men scattered in different parts of the country organizing all summer. I can find them as I move about.
I enclose you part of the Manual—there is one more degree yet at the printers as soon as finished they will be stitched with covers & I shall bring some with me all complete—also a "Key" for the secret work indicated by the stars & letters.
…My dear fellow rejoice & be exceeding glad—The order is a sure cure for the blues—I expect to see the Duc's ghost smile in a Grange some evening—bully for the Duc.
Yours Truely & Fraternally,
Then a letter written in Wayne on April 6, 1868:
To the Officers of National Grange
I reached here yesterday noon & became the guest of Brother McDowell our Worthy Priest of Demeter. I need not assure you I found a cordial welcome—that you already anticipated. As instructed by you I made him familiar with the entire work we have accomplished since he conferred upon us the seventh degree—and our labors have met his most hearty approbation while he expresses himself even more sanguine than ourselves of the success of the order. It is his intention, now that the work is completed, to take immediate steps to organize Subordinate Granges in several towns in this vicinity. Having the proper material already selected for that purpose.
I have already had the pleasure and satisfaction of examining the papers and paraphernalia which he received from the Duke of Ascoli at the time he had the Degree of Demeter conferred upon him & am perfectly satisfied with the authenticity of the same. The portraits of the Duke & Duchess are both before me also the Priests cap with which the Duke decorated Brother McDowell at the time he was made a Priest. This cap is well worthy a description & is a most singular & elaborate piece of workmanship & is the work of a Nun. It is composed of various colored silk & pure gold thread, the later, predominating. The designs upon it are leaves of various plants—the stalk of wheat & ear of corn also numerous hireogliphics & to every design even the minutest there is an appropriate explanation. It is lined inside with a pea green silk very finely quilted & its weight is about two pounds. You can form some idea of the workmanship when I assure you it required two years steady labor of a nun to make it. There is no tinsel or bead work about it—it is all genuine needlework. While the purity of the gold shows for itself being now over three hundred years old & as bright & brilliant as when made.
I have had this cap on my head & while describing it have it on the table before me. Could it but speak & tell of the honored heads that it has decorated & which now have crumbled to dust, could it exemplify to us the mysteries where it has been present what interesting mementos we should possess. The Surplice being a part of Bro. McDowell's regalia is of black silk very heavy & the seams trimmed with gold cord. The stole is of green velvet about as wide as our sashes—beautifully decorated with emblems embroidered with gold thread—bound with gold braid & the ends decorated with a heavy fringe & hanging over the neck comes down to the knees. The girdle worn around the waist is a simple heavy gold cord about as large around as the little finger at either end of which are two heavy gold tassels to correspond.
The vest worn under the surplice is a whole front suspended from the neck, with straps to pass around the shoulders & also a strap around the waist to keep it in place. This is made of white satin heavily decorated with gold thread embroidery & with designs appropriate to agriculture. The dove emblematic of peace is most prominent also the pruning hook & sickle. When we were first told about the Duke's regalia I must confess that I had some misgivings, but seeing is believing in this case. Besides the Duke has his biography in print, & on page 195 New American Encyclopedia you will find a notice of the town of Ascoli an ancient city in Italy, from whence the Duke was made Grand Chamberlain to the King of Naples. However credulous others may be regarding this degree of Demeter, just rest easy and do not trouble yourselves about showing proof—the whole history is at hand & it is ours & we have the bonafide thing. Your Scottish & Memphis rites & Solomon's Temple are completely eclipsed. We can just bust the wind out of anything in the way of antiquity. It will be the height of my ambition to receive at some future day the position & the regalia & occupy the chair of the Priest of Demeter, the very highest position in our order but as it is a life office & must descend in regular rotation I shall probably be binding grain in the harvest field above long before it will come my turn.
However it is in good hands as it now is and there is no one connected with the Order to whom we can all look with greater pride & respect than to Bro. McDowell. It was our salvation that he came to Washington at the time he did & he is worthy of all honor for the interest he has taken in the Order. When he shall appear in the seventh degree during the session when it will be confered—we can all bow to him in deep reverence & do so with heartfelt pleasure.
…Monday A.M. Penn Yan—I returned here Saturday & commenced working up material for a Grange. Last Thursday I had an article published in Cleveland's paper (Mrs. Spicer knows him) & I have got several interested—it requires time to have them consider it as it has not been heard of before. I shall try hard to establish a Grange tonight—if I succeed and get pay for a dispensation I will enclose the money order provided I get deadheaded at the Benham House where I am stopping—if not I had better defer it until I reach Fredonia & see if Moss will contribute for the cause if he does not I shall be pinched for…(The conclusion of this letter cannot at this time by found.)
Here is part of a letter to Bro. Kelley from another founder, J.R. Thompson, of Jan. 28, 1869.
…Yesterday Bro. McDowell dropped in upon us and the National Grange was at once convened in special and extraordinary session. Upon which occasion we joined hands over the altar of Husbandry and vowed a vow unto Ceres, Flora, Pomona and all the rest of the Goddesses that we would rekindle the fires of our zeal and devotion, and that henceforth whatsoever our hands findeth to do, that we will do it with our might.
Saunders has taken the two ladies degrees in hand and promises to return to me with his suggestions by Monday next.
Meantime Bro. Grosh & I have taken upon ourselves to write up and send you the 5th degree by the middle of next week so that you can have them all in hand by the 6th day of February. I suppose that Ireland sent you the songs long ago—if not—he alone is to blame as they were put into his hands for that purpose. McDowell and Ireland are going west next week and will both see you while there.
I send you on the other page a good "Corn Song"—more anon & anon.
J. R. Thompson
And here is a letter by F. M. McDowell from Wayne, Steuben Co., N. Y. of March 7th, 1868:
Article 1—Section 3 about Lecturers. I suppose this is not intended to do away with the idea we had of the Lec. of each State Grange being a salaried officer, and competent to Lecture & that he should be examined and commissioned by the Master of the National Grange.
The above is intended to recall to your mind a conversation we had in relation to this subject.
Article XI. Annual reports:
This seems alright and yet it savors of responsibility to the Subordinate Granges. I really don't see why the National Grange should report to the Subordinate Granges—It seems to me that Subordinate Granges should report to State Granges & State Granges to National Grange. And our reports should be made to ourselves and a copy of our proceedings yearly might be furnished to each Subordinate Grange free.
Please examine this matter carefully & in council before embodying it, for in the matter of money lies the question which has given us so much trouble from the first. If we are obliged or oblige ourselves to report to the Sub. Granges we in a measure become responsible to them in the matter of our expenditures and in that case where are our visions of a glorious temple dedicated to Ceres.
I see nothing to remark upon—(save well done) except the two points refered to above.
I see nothing here about Salaries of Officers and indeed I don't know that it should be mentioned here, I merely speak of it.
The Country Gentleman has called attention to our Order. Not for the purpose of making remarks or criticism but as an item of news.
There are numerous typographical errors which will of course be corrected before the matter is marked finished.
Yours in haste & Truely,
F. M. McDowell
Francis Marion McDowell was chosen by the group to be the first High Priest of Demeter, probably because he had been elevated to be a priest of Demeter by the Duc d'Ascoli nine years before, and the promoters of the Patrons of Husbandry wished to gain as much antiquity as they could for their new fraternity.
In this society of the Patrons of Husbandry there were to be ceremonial orders and McDowell was charged to write a ritual for the highest or 7th order. Supposedly the duke had requested earlier that he do this.
Francis McDowell stepped down as High Priest of Demeter in 1873 and became treasurer of the National Grange. He was also presiding officer of the New York State Grange when it was organized in 1873.
By 1874 opposition within the order caused the executive power and the conferring of the first five degrees to be placed in the National Grange. The esoteric and secret work was left in the hands of the Assembly of Demeter which conferred the 6th and 7th degrees. The holders of the seventh degree comprised the Assembly of Demeter which acted as a court for the Grange.
When McDowell was in Europe in 1861 he met Sarah Josephine Sprange, the daughter of Charles F. Sprange of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They were married in that year. Sarah died in 1868 in Europe where she was staying for her health. In 1874 McDowell met and married Eva Sherwood who came from Woodhull, but lived also in Corning and Penn Yan. They lived in the family homestead at Wayne until Francis Marion's death in 1894. He had been the treasurer of the National Grange until 1893. Mrs. McDowell was elected treasurer and held the post for 26 years. After 1894 she lived in Columbus, Ohio, until she went in 1909 to live with her daughter, Louise Sherwood McDowell, who was a professor of physics at Wellesley College.
Where are the ceremonial articles and raiment of the Order of Demeter that Francis McDowell brought home to Wayne from Europe? The National Grange says that it does not have them. Did the McDowell family keep them? Where could they be? New York State, and particularly Wayne, would seem to be the most likely place to find a clue to what became of the articles that Francis Marion McDowell brought home with him from Italy.
Mr. George H. Spies of Stow, Massachusetts, has been searching for a lead to their whereabouts. He has looked in the George McDowell collection at the New York Public Library, he is trying to track down the family of McDowell's first wife, Sarah Josephine Sprange, through the Pittsburgh Historical Society, and he even is having some work done in Italy. Mr. Spies found the letters excerpted above in an old book about the Grange.
Here are brief sketches of the seven founders of the Patrons of Husbandry:
Oliver Hudson Kelley was born in Boston, January 7, 1826. He was Secretary of the National Grange from December 1867, until November 1878. O. H. Kelley died in Washington, D.C., January 20, 1913.
William Saunders was born in Scotland in 1822. He was the first Master of the National Grange, serving from December 1867, until January 1873. Saunders was a celebrated landscape gardener and designed the grounds of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He died in Washington in 1900.
John Richardson Thompson was born in New Hampshire in 1833. He was the first Lecturer of the National Grange and served from 1867 until 1872. Richardson served with a volunteer regiment from Vermont in the Civil War. He died in Washington in December 1893.
William M. Ireland was born in Pennsylvania in 1833. He served as the National Grange Treasurer from 1867 to 1872 and as the National Grange Secretary from 1878 until 1885. Ireland died in Washington, December 24, 1891.
Rev. Aaron B. Grosh was born in Pennsylvania in 1810. He was the first Chaplain of the National Grange and author of the first four degrees of the Grange ritual. He was also author of the first Grange songbook. (Miss Caroline A. Hall, niece and secretary to O. H. Kelley, later enlarged the book.) Grosh died in Washington in 1884.
John Trimble was born in New Jersey in 1831. He served as Secretary of the National Grange for 18 years following Mr. Ireland who died in office. Mr. Trimble died in Washington in December 1902.
Francis Marion McDowell served as Treasurer of the National Grange for 21 years. He had an important part in the writing of the seventh degree and the Grange ritual. Mr. McDowell never missed a session of the National Grange. He died in Wayne, New York, on March 22, 1894.
© 1991, Donald A. Rowland