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Isabel B. Holbrook

In July of 1920, North American Co-Freemasonry's Deputy Grand Commander, Isabel B "Hal" Holbrook[1], decided firefighting is Masonic.

"July 26, the Deputy Grand Commander, V. Ill Bro Holbrook, arrived in Larkspur for a short stay," American Federation Grand Commander Louis Goaziou recalled the following month, in the August 1920 edition of the American Co-Mason. "She was seen soon afterwards hard at work with a shovel for a working-tool fighting a brush fire on the Federation grounds - a new Masonic duty and experience, so she thinks."

Then 55, Holbrook was about the same age as Goaziou and had only two years prior been declared his deputy. Goaziou is, rightfully enough, remembered as a great North American Masonic leader. His strongest supporters, without whom he could achieve little, are little remembered today. Holbrook is one of these. A strong minded woman and gifted speaker, Holbrook was someone very rare in Goaziou's life. She was a confidant, advisor and peer in a way that has not existed in the Order since.

She was born October 13, 1863, probably in Abington, Massachusetts[2]. She was the youngest of five children, two boys and three girls, of Turner R and Lydia J Lindsey Holbrook. Her father was a cutter in a shoe factory in Abington and the two oldest children, the Holbrook sons Elliot and Amos, followed him into that trade[3]. However, the oldest girl, Emily, became a teacher and Isabel Holbrook followed her into the profession when she was in her late teens.

The 1870s and 1880s was an exciting period in US educational history and Isabel Holbrook soon had a real education in controversy. Like hundreds of other educators, Holbrook was trained in the "Quincy Method", a system of learning developed by Francis W. Parker, superintendent of schools in 1875 and who later became influential in Chicago schools. The Quincy method is child-centered and rejects the more rigid school routine and rote learning emphasized by prior educators. Instead, the Quincy method emphasized social skills, self-expression, writing, physical training, teacher-prepared materials and experience-based learning.

Studies would later show that students educated under the Quincy method excel in reading, writing, and spelling; and brain-based thematic learning is accepted today, in its early days, Parker's system was controversial. Parker depended a great deal on the rank and file educator for continual support, even under some very trying circumstances. One example was in late 1895 in Chicago, where Holbrook may have been an educator at the time and may have participated in the resulting protest. On December 9, 1895 the Cook County Board of Commissioners moved against Parker, trying to force him and his teachers to resign, saying, "Col. Parker is teaching a system concerning which there is a diversity of opinion, and which is totally irreconcilable with the system used in our schools. To adopt him is to adopt his system."

Parker and his teachers, which may have included Holbrook, refused to resign. In fact, Parker's teachers protested by working without pay. They prevailed.[4]

Though it's likely Holbrook participated in the Cook County protest, it's difficult to trace her movements in the late 19th Century because she lived very much on the move. We know she did study the Quincy method under Parker. She earned her initial training certificates at the Training School in Quincy. In the 1880s and 1890s, she taught in schools in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, as well as Chicago. In these years, Holbrook also became an editor and national lecturer, speaking not only about education but also philosophy and psychology. These activities took her to Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and other large cities.[5]

A woman in professions dominated by men, Holbrook often used her nickname "Hal" in her correspondence to render her gender more ambiguous.

Holbrook also was a Theosophist, a topic on which she also lectured. In this way, she became a nationally known speaker on many topics, all of which gave her a strong foundation upon which she built her career in Freemasonry.

Holbrook was initiated, passed and raised in Marie Deraisme Lodge No 352 in 1909. Four years later, Holbrook was named to the National Council and began working closely with Goaziou who named her his Deputy Grand Commander in 1918.

This was a period of growth and building in the North American Co-Masonic Order. The headquarter was newly established in the tiny town of Larkspur, Colorado. There was much to do in digging foundations, pouring bricks and other work, in addition to dealing with natural dangers such as brush fires. We have a fair idea of what the Order's early life in Larkspur was like thanks to a letter Holbrook sent in August of 1918 to Mrs. Jessie Wright in Forest Glen, MD, that August:

"Left Krotona the last of June and was extremely busy as a pioneer here at this site of our future Co-Masonic Home and attending our little Convention here up to this month. Now I am one of only a half dozen left to wind up some items of business and in my case to get a bit of a vacation and breathe a little before going on East."

In a postscript of the letter, Holbrook begged "pardon for this bad paper and ink, but it is all there is in this Camp."

We also know a great deal about the early Order's history thanks to Holbrook's scrap books, which she compiled over several decades. Some of this early history is documented only in these scrap books.

Holbrook, as Deputy Grand Commander, acted in Goaziou's stead at Lodge consecrations, laying cornerstones and Masonic funerals nationwide, in addition to missions to London and Paris. She also, more and more, shared with him editorial duties of the American Co-Mason, to the point that it was necessary for Goaziou to sign his articles, usually with "LG". Holbrook herself often signed her own articles as "Hal".

Her greatest contribution was as a peer to Goaziou. The long-time Grand Commander generally kept his own counsel but Holbrook was one of the very few Brothers whose opinion Goaziou sought. This became very obvious in what was called "the New York Situation" at Verulam Lodge No 525 in New York City, which had been a problem Lodge almost since its inception. Holbrook, in her letter to Goaziou, summed it up this way:

"Poor New York! The first time I went there for some work was in 1915, having a two months arrangement with the T.S. Lodge at 222 Broadway. I came away feeling that there should be another geological catastrophe like the one that originally made the Hudson River by a drowned valley. I saw so much lack of Brotherhood that to drown them all seemed the only chance for another trial.

"Don't let it all break itself on you, and please remember it will soon be 'bad' again even if you straighten it out now."[6]

It did get very bad, over and again. The Lodge ultimately split. However, Goaziou was able to moderately handle the difficult Lodge thanks to the advice he received from Holbook.

Holbrook often worked for the Order despite steadily increasing ill health later in her life. The chronic heart condition that eventually killed her[7] begun in 1928 when she temporarily set aside her associate editorship of the American Co-Mason "due to severe illness"[8]. She also was hospitalized in late 1931[9]. There are other mentions of ill health. She generally always bounced back but in the spring of 1935, her health declined to its lowest ebb. Goaziou received his last message from Holbrook in a letter dated May 6, 1935, from Boston, dictated to another Brother:

"Dear and V. Ill. Bro. Goaziou:

By request of our dear friend, V. Ill. Bro. Holbrook, I write you a few lines. She was very happy to receive your personal letter and the one from the Consistory. She wished that she had the strength to write you a letter and to tell you of the wonderful service you have given all these years to the A.F.H.R. especially during the early years of struggle.

We pledge ourselves to help you. To the North American Consistory she sends her Greetings and Best Wishes.

I delivered the message of our V. Ill. Grand Secretary and she smiled and mentioned the wonderful work you were both doing.

She is very weak.

Frat. yours,

Maude A Brigham"

Holbrook died at 6:15 p.m. June 11, 1935 in her home at 65 Vernon St, Boston. She was 71. Her ashes were buried three days later in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts[10].

With her passing, Goaziou announced that there would no longer be only one Deputy Grand.[11] From that time on and as it is today, there are district deputies. Isabel Baker Holbrook simply could not be replaced.


[1] This is the correct spelling of her first name, how Holbrook herself spelled it. Her name is regularly misspelled in most of the remaining public records, including her two birth records.

[2] "Massachusetts Town and Vital-Records, 1620 to 1988" (online database housed in Provo, Utah), holds two both records for Holbrook, one stating she was born in Abington and the other that she was born in nearby Rockport. Abington seems more likely as her parents' home was in Abington.

[3] See the 1870 US Census.

[4] For more information on Francis Parker and the Quincy method, see "Colonel Francis W. Parker, the Children's Crusader" by Jack K. Campbell (Columbia University, Teacher's College Press, 1967).

[5] See May 30, 1922 edition of the Boston Daily Globe, page 2.

[6]Letter was published, in part, in Circular No 107 May 1930. The letter's date is not included but Goaziou describes it has having been written "a few years ago, when conditions among New York Co-Masons seemed to be a little worse than usual. . ."

[7]See Holbrook's death certificate, No 819981, filed with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Public Health Registry of Vital Records and Statistics

[8]See June 1928 American Co-Mason

[9]See December 1931 American Co-Mason

[10]See Holbrook's death certificate, No 819981, filed with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Public Health Registry of Vital Records and Statistics

[11]See Circular 148 Sept 1935

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