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Reintroducing the Odd Fellows

A rich history of fraternity and paranormal lore vines around Liberty’s Belvoir Winery

There are two things you should know about the previously named Odd Fellows Home: it is the location of arguably the most picturesque winery you’ll find in the Northland and it is non-arguably the most ingrained with spirits. The fact that the site of Belvoir Winery and Inn has also been featured on paranormal investigation programs including “Ghost Adventures,” “Ghost Hunters” and the evocatively named “Most Terrifying Places In America” does not escape the grasp of irony, but it’s the history of the transnational fellowship that once called this compound home that most vividly brings to mind the word “spirit”.

The inception of the Odd Fellowship is largely undetermined, but there are two commonly held theories in circulation. One is that the organization stems from the medieval trade guilds that grew in prominence in the 12th and 13th centuries, and the other is that its origins began in the mid-17th century. Regardless, what is certain is that there were several established lodges of the “Society of OddFellows” by 1745.

By 1819, the Odd Fellows had traversed the Atlantic Ocean and became established on American shores in Baltimore. In the same vein as the medieval guilds that clearly influenced the ethos of the society, fraternal brotherhood, social agency, and employment support services were extended to the members of the Odd Fellows. According to the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F) website, there was a system for fellows who were experiencing job insecurity: “when a brother could not obtain work he was given a card and funds enough to carry him to the next Lodge, and if unsuccessful there, that Lodge facilitated his farther progress in the same way. Where he found employment, there he deposited his card.” 

When the Odd Fellows compound that now houses the site of Belvoir Winery was built in 1900, its architectural uniqueness was immediately notable. William B. Ittner, who was nationally celebrated for his distinct visual renderings, designed the first three structures as an assemblage of Jacobethan Revival-style buildings. In the following twenty-three years, the “Administration Building”, the “Old Folks Building” and the “Old Hospital” were all added to the complex.  

As the 20th century unfurled and changed the landscape of American society, so did change the Odd Fellows Home. In its many iterations, the structures and acreage assumed roles as a production farm, almshouse, orphanage, school, hospital and laboratory, nursing home and, eventually, a haunted house, all before settling into its current life as a vineyard, winery, and inn. In 1993, Dr. John Bean and his wife, Marsha Bean, purchased the property, which is now under the ownership of their daughter, Melissa Leimkuehler, and management of her husband, Jessie Leimkuehler. Jessie laughs as he recalls the state of the building, which is now the winery and inn, when the property was first purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Bean.

"Before we bought it, it was used as a haunted house,” he says. “So they had, down the hallways, like, railroad tracks. You know, there was black paint painted on the hallways and stuff hanging from the walls to make everything dark. So yeah, it was just in a fine, normal state, that's for sure."

There's something about the land at Belvoir Winery that causes all to visit it to experience a sense of stillness. It emotes a timeless eccentricity that seems to exist inexplicably untouched by the dizziness of modern preoccupations. Once inside, other-timeliness touches every edge and corner, from the ceremonious stained-glass windows and Tiffany light fixtures to the dignified portraits tucked among early 19th-century, Victorian-influenced couches, and chaise lounges.

The rooms are filled with relics from yesteryear and the walls are lined with the history of the property and its previous custodians, the Odd Fellows. Jessie admits, surprisingly so, that the majority of the rarities distributed throughout the winery were not intentionally left behind as decor.

“The stuff that's on the walls on the hallway, that all came out of the restroom or the time capsule in the cornerstone,” he says. “The cornerstone was laid in 1900 as a part of a commencement ceremony when they finished the building. Then, I want to say it was like 2000 or something like that, the stone cracked. So right away, we popped it open and pulled all this stuff out because we didn't want it to get molded now that it was exposed to heat and moisture. We pulled all that stuff out and hung it in the hallway. And then, what's in the room, some of it I've purchased and some of it is donated.”

In addition to extending their enthusiastic approval of the winery and the survival of the history of the I.O.O.F through the winery, the legacy holders of the fellowship have also made significant contributions to Belvoir. 

“I was allowed by the Grand Master to go to the Grand Lodge and see if I could use anything here on site,” Jessie says. “The Odd Fellows wanted stuff to be here because it helps them as a dying organization. Literally every day they're being talked about because it's part of the experience here.” 

When discussing the experience rendered by Belvoir Winery, it’s impossible to do so without mentioning George. George (whose favorite wine would be Casaova, if you’re looking for recommendations), is a beloved mainstay and natural attraction at the winery. His journey to Belvoir is intrinsically linked to the I.O.O.F and is as spirited as the rest of the organization’s history. 

“He (George) was used as part of a ritual where they like basically lift their blindfolds and they present them with a coffin and a body and say, you know, ‘do what you can while you're alive because eventually, this will be you’, right?” says Jessie. “So it's just a mortality check basically for them.” 

That’s right, George donated his remains to the fellowship he dearly loved in life, and Belvoir Winery is where he remains today. It’s not completely certain who he was or his role in the operation of I.O.O.F (“George” is a ubiquitous name given to all of the skeletal remains at the Odd Fellows’ lodges), but his presence is thoroughly appreciated by visitors.

“People talk to him all the time,” says Jessie. “People bring in flowers and set them out there for him. It's also become a custom for brides to bring flowers to him on their wedding day for good luck.”

It’s hard to deny the intimate notion of camaraderie that becomes evident in the enduring commitment of George and his kin to the survival of the Odd Fellows and their altruistic philosophy. Jessie expresses this same sentiment himself. 

“A lot of people, you know, they come for the wine or they come for the ghosts,” he says. “They don't know about the Odd Fellows and what they were. They were a benevolent, very charitable order. Their ritual was based on the parable of the Good Samaritan — all they did was just charitable work all the time. So it's good to keep their history alive.”