The Independent Order of Foresters, a fraternal society, was founded in Newark, New Jersey, in 1874, as a separation from the Order of Foresters" founded earlier in England. The IOF was started in Ontario, Canada the following year.
The origin of fraternal societies goes back to the Middle Ages when they were formed to provide help to working class people for burials and in time of sickness. They were secret societies because the English kings outlawed any organization of working people. The legend of Robin Hood grew out of this movement.
An important early leader of the IOF was Oronhyatekha, a medical doctor and Mohawk Indian from Brantford, Ontario. During his tenure the Foresters spread to 35 countries, though they were most active in the United States, Canada, and Britain. In 1898 women were admitted. A main function of the Order was to provide affordable insurance to members. By the turn of the century they had a twelve story headquarters in Toronto, and a recreational park with an Orphans Home. By 1906 there were 275,000 members and $11 million in cash surplus. It was one of the world’s largest fraternal organizations: Canadian Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier and US President William McKinley were members. The IOF charitable work included helping victims of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and establishing two TB sanatoriums (at Rainbow Lake and Lopez Canyon, California).
In the 1920s, the IOF continued to provide insurance, built senior housing, and supported dental services and youth activities for their members. During the depression of the 1930s, the Order began to branch out from service only to members to wider community charitable work with aid to the poor. Later they helped with the WW II effort, folding bandages, making blankets, sending packages to soldiers. In England they sheltered children from the bombings.
After WW II the IOF invested very successfully in the stock market and was able to fund a large expansion. In 1953 they built another new headquarters and by 1966 membership was 725,000 with an insurance in force of $250 million. By this time, the whole concept of the fraternal benefit society had changed from only looking out for members to reaching out to others around the world. They began giving out polio and tetanus shots in California, sent soap to South Vietnam, and raised over $1.5 million for various charities.
By the 1970s, IOF benefits included university scholarships; polio, cancer and TB grants; and orphan and senior benefits. A second senior residence was built in Florida and another in England. A child abuse prevention movie was sponsored, and funds raised for various diseases. The IOF is still active in 2002 with a million members. It is still providing insurance for members, still active in community charities, especially for children. At their many large gatherings, IOF members celebrate members’ uniqueness while demonstrating their brotherhood.
- Gerdes, Marianne, ed/writer. Shaping our Future Together, Special Court Edition.
- Don Mills, Canada: Independent Order of Foresters, 1997.
Original Text by Pat and Tom Willis