Paul Thon nervously straightened his bow tie while taking one last look in the mirror at his substitution outfit. His uniform had not arrived yet and the competition was about to start.
As the captain of The Fraternal Brotherhood drill team, Thon led a group of eight ladies who would compete with two other drill teams in a public exhibition on the evening of April 26, 1912. This was one of the highlights of the San Joaquin Valley Membership League of T.F.B. annual convention in Merced and was captured in a series of three photographs which are attributed to Frank Robinson.
These photos featuring three groups of ladies in uniforms have troubled me for years as I had no idea what they were or when they were taken. It was not until recently when Grey Roberts, a local collector, showed me the newest addition to his photo postcard collection that I was able to connect the dots.
The postcard shows the same group of ladies in white uniforms with their captain who also is in uniform marching down M Street between Main and 16th streets. The back of the card written in pencil reads, “The Fraternal Brotherhood drill team, Merced, Calif.” The postcard reminds me of two things — the photos of the ladies’ drill teams and a postcard featuring Roman chariot in a parade.
Although I believed the photos for the Roman Chariot and Ladies’ Drill Team postcards were taken at the same location and same time, the event was still unknown to me. I kept looking and found another postcard in the series showcasing a Japanese float. Bingo! This Japanese float looks identical to the float that I have seen in the Society Circus parade that I wrote about in a story entitled “Monster Band Concert” from four years ago. After comparing the pictures side by side and examining the program for the parade, I concluded these postcards depict the Society Circus parade that took place on May 22, 1912.
Once Grey’s postcard shed light on the identities of the ladies in white, I started looking for more information about T.F.B. and the occasion that led to the photographing of the ladies’ drill teams. The Fraternal Brotherhood was one of the fraternal societies in Merced whose main objective was to provide insurance to its members. T.F.B. was so visible that both its ladies’ drill team and uniform rank were part of the 1912 Society Circus parade. However, there was no written account of the group in Merced County history books other than these still images.
From researching on the California Digital Newspaper Collection, I came across a story about the Madera’s Valley Lodge sending delegates to Merced for an annual T.F.B. convention in April 1912. A search of Merced newspapers from that time period solved the whole mystery. The ninth annual San Joaquin Valley Membership League of T.F.B. convention took place in Merced from April 24 to 27. One of the traditions of the convention was the competition of ladies’ drill teams which occurred on Friday, April 26. The exhibition that drew close to a thousand spectators was carried out on Canal Street in front of Odd Fellows’ Building. In addition to Paul Thon’s Merced Lodge team, there were two other teams from Fresno. Merced, a young team in its first public appearance, took home third place.
According to the news report, the Merced ladies did an outstanding job in their drills but lacked fancy movements. In addition, points were deducted because Captain Thon did not wear a uniform. Looking at the photo with the bell tower building in the background, there is Captain Paul Thon in his suit with his team of ladies in white uniforms in the center. Raisin City Lodge team of 12 ladies must be the one on the right because they had a female captain by the name of Florence Hopkins (the 13th lady in the picture). The Fresno Lodge drill team, which also consisted of 12 ladies, is on the left as they were led by a uniformed fellow by the name of C.E. Elmore.
Indeed, it was Captain Thon’s clothing and the matching descriptions of the other two team captains that further verified that our collection of the ladies’ drill team photos were of the 1912 T.F.B. convention.
Organized in 1896 and headquartered in Los Angeles, T.F.B. was a pioneer of its time in fraternal societies as it opened to both men and women. Women held important leadership positions in the organization and played critical roles in the development of the society. For example, Emma R. Neidig was the Supreme Vice President of T.F.B., a position she had held since 1898, and represented the national office in the Merced convention. When she was elected to lead T.F.B. as its Supreme President in March 1914, she became the first woman in the history of fraternal organizations to head an order that accepted both men and women as members, according to historian James Miller Guinn.
Although the history of Merced T.F.B. is sketchy, the photos and postcards in our collection have at least kept the history alive. To learn more about Merced County history, please visit the Courthouse Museum. Currently on display is the “Grazie America! From Italy to Merced County” exhibit.
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.