PEPPERELL-- At the commencement of every meeting of the Pepperell Odd Fellows, Dave Gage, vice grand of the lodge, has, as ritual dictates, dutifully recited his responsibilities like each vice grand that has come before him: Guarding the door "to admit no brother, except members of this lodge, who has not received the password."

Back when the local lodge was founded in 1876, the duty was a serious one; the organization, although not Masonic, similarly valued the utmost secrecy amongst its members. Now, however, the words are more ceremonious than necessary.

"Years ago, this used to be a very secret meeting. You'd never be able to get in," said Bob Lindgren, the group's secretary. "We don't hold a lot of secrets anymore.

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That's because the meetings, which decades ago boasted anywhere between 50 and 200 members, has dwindled down to six regular attendees.

"You had to campaign for offices like the secretary's job," said Lindgren. "You really had to fight for those. People were campaigning around town. Now, I hate to say it, whoever wants to do what, does it."

Membership started to drop off with the invention of the television, said Burt Lyons, who has been a member of the Odd Fellows since 1942. "People just didn't show up," said Lyons. "It was just the times."

Right now, one of the group's main focus is gaining more members in order to keep the establishment alive.

"Before television, (membership in) the Odd Fellows was the key social event for the town," said Gage. "Today it's a matter of holding tradition. We're trying to survive."

Despite the fact that membership has not picked back up in recent years, the Odd Fellows continue to follow through on their original mission: To help the widowed, orphaned and ailing, a purpose which has been around since the organization was founded in England in the 18th century.

"At the time in England, when the head of the household was sick there was no one there to take care of the family. So a group of men got together and decided they were going to do that," said Chaplain Al Harris. "Other people thought that it was odd and the name stuck."

The group was later opened up to women.

At their meeting on Dec. 6, the lodge members compiled a list of local Odd Fellow widows to whom to deliver their annual Christmas baskets.

"We make bread cookies, jams, we put in lotion, things elderly people might need," said Lindgren.

The group has also expanded its purpose to serve the community in other ways; among various projects, they donate to the Arthritis Foundation and the Pepperell Aid from Community to Home Outreach and they help to maintain the Odd Fellows Nursing Home of Massachusetts, located in Worcester.

This year is the Pepperell lodge's turn to send a local high school student on a trip to visit the United Nations; last year, the Leominster lodge did the same.

"If we had more bodies in here, we'd be able to do more things," said Lindgren.

They are also hoping to replace the roof of the Park Street Grange, their meeting place, which they share with the Pepperell Grange, a similar organization. Interestingly, the men that make up the Odd Fellows are the same who comprise the members of the Pepperell Grange.

"We are the Grange," said Lindgren. "We just swap hats."

Years ago, the Grange's membership was also rapidly depleting, and the organization was going to give up the building to the state Grange.

"We Odd Fellows would have had nowhere to go," said Gage.

Now, the men are able to use the building as a meeting house for groups, holding various fundraisers such as suppers and yard sales, and leasing out the building to help pay the bills.

And while the halls may not be as filled as they once were, as long as the Odd Fellows have members to meet, the group will continue to gather and keep the tradition of the society alive.

"It's a matter of camaraderie, of fellowship," said Gage. "That's what I get out of it."