The Strangest Insurance Company in the World

Oronhyatekha was one smart Indian. He dressed up an old-fashioned burial society with card games, cake and coffee and built it into a rich insurance business in its own skyscraper. Now the IOF boasts $50 millions in assets

GERALD ANGLIN February 1 1951

The Strangest Insurance Company in the World

Oronhyatekha was one smart Indian. He dressed up an old-fashioned burial society with card games, cake and coffee and built it into a rich insurance business in its own skyscraper. Now the IOF boasts $50 millions in assets

GERALD ANGLIN February 1 1951

The Strangest Insurance Company in the World

Oronhyatekha was one smart Indian. He dressed up an old-fashioned burial society with card games, cake and coffee and built it into a rich insurance business in its own skyscraper. Now the IOF boasts $50 millions in assets


ON THE northwest comer of Toronto’s Bay and Richmond Streets stands a forgotten architectural sensation which houses a bronze Indian and a secret society that will sell you life insurance when you aren’t looking.

The 12-story red brick and sandstone pile is the Temple building, which when completed in 1898 was the tallest office structure in the British Empire and boasted air conditioning and ice water on tap.

The secret society is the Independent Order of Foresters, whose origins reach back mistily to the days of Robin Hood. And the bronze Indian is a statue of the amazing man who built this premature skyscraper and turned the ancient IOF into a

big business operating on two continents. A plaque on the statue identifies him as Oronhyatekha, physician, graduate of Oxford and a full-blooded Mohawk born on the Six Nations reserve at Brantford, Ont.

The statue stands just inside the revolving doors of the Foresters’ Temple and is something more than life size. Oronhyatekha himself always seemed larger than life. He stood 6 ft. 2 ins. and weighed 250 lbs. He had a round, copper-red face topped by wavy, un-Indianlike hair which in later years turned a distinguished white. As faithfully noted by the sculptor he invariably wore a frock coat and a small (white) bow tie; on the street ho carried a gold-headed cane and wore a large black sombrero encircled by a bright red cord. He had a soft, impelling voice which one English journalist who heard him debate said was “as smooth and incisive as a Damascus scimitar.”

This was Oronhyatekha (Oron-ya-tekka), the Canadian Indian who became a protege of Edward VII and stole a show from George V. This was the man who built a house for a wigwam, a castle for an orphanage and a fireproof temple as headquarters for the order to which he gave his life. This was Oronhyatekha, a Barnum let loose in the insurance business.

Still following Oronhyatekha’s lead, the IOF today approaches all prospects as potential members in a great fraternal society—never as mere policyholders. The IOF sells most of the standard types of life insurance—20-pay life, endowment at 65, and so on—and these differ little in coverage and rates from policies sold by any of the commercial companies. So the IOF cannily bases its sales appeal on the extra social and fraternal benefits the order offers; and a prospect is no sooner signed up than he is hustled off to be initiated.

Secret Oath in a Dark Room

The local lodge in his home town may be Court Chinook in Calgary, Court Hassayampa in Phoenix, Ariz., Court Abbey of K'rkstall in Yorkshire, or any one of 1,174 other “subordinate courts.” Here he is introduced to brother members by the District Deputy who sold him his insurance and who is sometimes referred to as a field man but never as a salesman. He meets the Chief Ranger, the Orator, the Woodward and the Beadle, after which these officers disappear through a door which is bolted behind them.

Finally his mentor whispers a password through a peephole in the door and the tyro is ushered into a shadowy room and up to an altar bathed in the glow of a ruby red lamp. Here he takes the secret obligation summed up in the Foresters’ non-secret motto, “Liberty, Brotherhood and Concord.” A few minutes later the new brother is munching sandwiches, sipping coffee and enjoying lively entertainment which may range from court whist and canasta to tap dancing and television.

He gets invited to skating parties and formal dances, to help with a bazaar in aid of, say, the local war amputees’ society and to sign up his daughter for free ballet lessons—-providing he has signed her up first as a juvenile member. Women are eligible and membership is often a family affair. All members must lie insured, although an eager prospect who flunks the insurance medical may become a social member.

This streamlined version of an old-fashioned benefit and burial society has won the Independent Order of Foresters a 25%, jump in membership in seven years. Its 160,755 members 58,399 in Canada, 95,108 in the U. S., 7,248 in Britain, Norway and Denmark — hold insurance worth $140 millions. Assets total $50 millions and IOF is rated A-plus (excellent) by the authoritative Dun insurance reports.

Humans band together for pleasure and/or protection in a variety of organizations. There are purely fraternal orders, such as the Masons whose lodge members may chip in to help a brother in distress but who offer no regular benefits. Others offer life insurance optionally (the Orange Order) and some provide medical and death benefits but no actual insurance policies (the Oddfellows). Then come the fraternal insurance societies, like the IOF, which offer lodge meetings and life insurance in a single package-—the lodge meetings being optional although they are taken with Masonic seriousness by active IOF-ers. And finally there are the “old line” insurance companies: the

mutual companies whose profits are divided among the policyholders, and the public stock companies in which profits go to the stockholders as in any normal business.

The Independent Order of Foresters, like all “fraternals,” is entirely owned by its policyholders who share profits in the form of dividends and

special benefits. As members of subordinate courts they elect delegates to high courts in each district, which in turn elect a supreme court. Members of this august group assemble every four years in antique regalia—colorful collar pieces and sashes —to lay down policy and elect officers. Instead of a president they elect a Supreme Chief Ranger, paid $20,000 a year, and a Supreme Council, paid the usual directors’ fees, to help him run affairs until the court meets again.

There are 196 fraternal insurance societies in North America, 21 of which operate in Canada. The IOF is the largest society with head office in this country, and only 10 North American rivals list greater assets. Generally speaking the fraternal

societies are smaller than the commercial insurance firms with which they compete. Both operate under the same federal regulations.

Few rivals though are merchandizing a package deal as hoary in origin and as modern in appeal as the IOF’s “Insurance plus Fraternity.”

The slogan was invented by Oronhyatekha, of course, who published it in IOF pamphlets now crumbling with age; but his successors keep the magic words alive in neon lights over Toronto’s City Hall square. And the neat trick as practiced both by the master 50 years ago and his disciples today is to sell the combination in reverse—sell the lodge and the insurance will look after itself. Thus the IOF not only entertains its members but cares for their children when orphaned, operates a palm-shaded California retreat for impoverished elders, pays $3 a day for TB treatment, up to $200 for a cancer operation and $2,500 for treatment of polio in juveniles.

Every Forester must take out life insurance but whether his policy is for $500 or $25,000 (the average is about $1,080) he is entitled to these extra benefits at no extra cost. A member must also pay monthly court dues, usually 30 cents for adults and 20 cents for children. These cover routine lodge activities and provide him with the free services of a doctor when ill and, in many sections, general surgery.

Even if he just files his policy away in a bureau drawer and never goes near a court meeting the member is still entitled to these benefits. Brother lodge members will call when he’s sick and pay their last respects at, his funeral.

They cite the case of an ageing Calgary businessman whose firm went broke during t he depression. I Institute, he and his wife determined to commit, suicide rather than accept charily. All they bad left was a small IOF insurance policy which would barely be enough to cover funeral expenses. Then the wife recalled reading in the society’s magazine, Forester, about the IOF camp for oldsters in California. They’re still there today.

Welcome Speech for a Prince

So great are the attractions of the Lopez Canyon community that one wealthy member offered $20,000 to be allowed to retire to one of its bungalows. He was refused.

While many members refer fondly to Robin Hood as an IOF patron saint predating the illustrious Oronhyatekha, the society’s link with this legendary character is understandably vague. History does record, however, that by 1600 the axemen and faggot carriers of England’s royal forests had banded together in a mutual aid society which became the Ancient Order of Foresters.

Migrating brethren carried the idea to the United States, then rebelled in 1874 to found the IOF—an assessment soc ety in which every member chipped in a dime whenever a worthy brother passed away to provide “something more than the washtub for the widow.”

The new order spread to Canada but was so ineptly run that by 1881 it boasted only 369 members and was $4,000 in debt. That’s when Oronhyatekha, the 40-year-old Indian, was called from his medical practice in London, Ont., to be Supreme Chief Ranger.

Born on the Six Nations reserve at Brantford, Oronhyatekha had been educated in the local Indian school and at two American colleges, paying his way by cutting firewood at 40 cents a cord. He was studying medicine at the University of Toronto when he was chosen by his people to read their address of welcome to the Prince of Wales during the Canadian tour of the future King Edward VII in 1860. The Prince was so impressed that he arranged a year’s scholarship at Oxford for the Indian student.

The handsome young Mohawk had been given a white man’s name at birth buf he realized that while there were hundreds of Peter Martins in the world

there was only one Oronhyatekha. From university on he never used anything except his tribal name, which meant Burning Cloud.

As Supreme Chief Ranger, Oronhyatekha shrewdly exploited his name, his race and his commanding appearance to promote the IOF. But first he introduced ft medical examination for all would-be members, scrapped the assessment plan for ftn endowment scheme will) regular premiums based on age and began building up reserves. He introduced a disability benefit, almost unheard of at that time, by which a member collected seven tenths of his policy’s face value if totally disabled, the remainder being payable fit death. He launched the orphan care scheme when he built a huge, frame castle on ¡in island in Lake Ontario near Deseronto as a home for the youngsters. It adjoined his own summer home which he called the Wigwam.

Then Oronhyatekha went out. and sold the IOF with full page advertisements and publicity stunts of regal proportions.

He Put Hydrants on the Roof

Most lodges then had cantons, or brightly plumaged private armies, and Oronhyatekha organized the cockedhatted Royal Foresters fis a private guard of honor. He joined everything

the Knights Templar, the Orangemen, and became a 33rd degree Mason.

But his master stroke was the Foresters’ Temple, which between 1895 and 1899 climbed 11 stories and a tower above Bay Street, a block south of City H¡ill. Built before the days of steel gilder construction, the Temple was erected story by story of cast - iron pillars and beams.

Oronhyatekha loudly proclaimed the building to be absolutely fireproof because it was trisected by brick firewalls, all its baseboards find wall panels were of sheet steel, and all wooden doors were sheathed in molded steel plates bearing the IOF’S Maltese cross. But he mounted high-pressure hydrants on the roof to help city firemen fight possible flames in neighboring buildings of lesser stature and inferior construction.

The building was opened in 1898 and three years later Oronhyatekha turned it into a blaze of glory by night to welcome HRH the Duke of York, later to become King George V.

The Indian who had greeted a future monarch once with golden words this time squandered thousands of red, white and blue light bulbs to outline his Temple’s 300 windows, its balconies, parapets, turrets, cupolas and the steel-pi 11ared porches which straddled the sidewalks on both streets. Then he built a massive archway which spreadeagled the Bay-Richmond intersection, supporting a royal crown as big as a boxcar. And this gargantuan set piece was illuminated too.

Public Honor for Dead Chief

More people thronged to see the IOF sunburst than saw the royal duke: the regal visit was over in a day but Oronhyatekha kept his Temple blazing for a mont h.

In 26 years the Foresters’ chief boosted membership from 369 to 257,000 and replaced its $4,000 debt with an accumulated fund of $11 millions. But he drove himself mercilessly to do it and developed both diabetes and a weak heart. Time and again he collapsed with heart attacks and finally he died in Savannah, Georgia, in 1907.

One report says that a procession “the like of which Toronto has not often looked upon” followed Oronhyatekha’s casket from Toronto Union Station. Foresters and non-Foresters lined the streets all the way to Massey Hall, where the Indian lay in state for three days.

The IOF recently announced plans for a new million and a half dollar head office to be built on Jarvis Street, near Bloor. While abandoning the Temple (already sold for $1 million) will mean quite a wrench with the past, there’s one bitter chapter all the brethren would be glad to have forgotten.

About 1910 revised insurance regulations forced the IOF and other fraternal insurance societies to increase premium rates—drastically and retroactively. Oronhyatekha had been forever urging increased reserves but few members would take him seriously

when the society already had about $11 millions in the bank. Government actuaries said this wasn’t sufficient to guarantee the insurance risk, so oldtimers who had been paying dues for years found liens for as much as $260 against their modest policies.

Fortunately, Oronhyatekha had left a sound business administration which guided the Foresters safely through bitter and stormy years. But, while reserves climbed steadily, angry resignations plus normal death losses cut membership from its 1907 peak of 251,000 to a low of 119.000 in 1943. These were the lean years of rate readjustment, and readjustment is still a profane word in Oronhyatekha’s Temple.

By the time final returns are in for 1950, the IOF will have written more than $40 millions in new insurance for the year, a whopping jump from the $6 millions sold in 1943. This revival was sparked by a former Salvation Army street preacher named Tom Robertson, who in 1941 became superintendent of field work—IOF for sales manager.

At the same time, Hon. Victor Morin, a brilliant Montreal lawyer and scholar, was elected Supreme Chief Ranger and began to instill new spirit and color. He composed a three-hour operetta to celebrate the IOF’s 75th anniversary in 1949.

Robertson succeeded Morin as Supreme Chief Ranger but died of a heart attack before his first term was over. The IOF’S current chief—outsiders may call him president —is a big, beaming Californian named Louis E. Probst. It was Robertson who brought Probst to Toronto as Superintendent of Field Work after he had become the IOF’s top salesman by writing a new member a day, 365 days a year, for 17 years. Since Lou Probst has had a hand in directing the IOF the order has added a free polio benefit to attract new members and a cookbook to perk up lodge-night refreshments.

A Silent Warwhoop in Bronze

In Canada the more active courts are adopting service club tactics. In British Columbia, Court Penticton supplies a professional lifeguard for a public beach and Court Winfield refurbished an abandoned hall as a community centre. Edmonton Foresters recently ran a carnival to help the local amputation association.

in spite of all the bustle, the IOF admits that perhaps only 10% of paid-up members are active in lodge affairs. Yet it would In* unfair to conclude that 90% are mere policyholders. A great many are old-timers, once enthusiastic but now on the sidelines. And District Deputy Tony Fara claims that fully half the 4,000 members he and a staff of eight fieldmen recruited for two Sudbury courts in five years attend meetings about as regularly as work in the mines will let them.

Fara was recently moved to Toronto and now works out of the Temple building at Bay and Richmond. The Temple’s balconies and overhanging porches have long since been stripped away. The pioneer air conditioning and ice-water fountains fell into disuse years ago. But Fara has learned that “Insurance plus Fraternity” still works, even in a strange city where you only know one person.

Fara sold that first prospect and 235 more members in five months, more than a quarter of a million in new insurance. That’s nice business in anybody’s brief case almost enough to raise a warwhoop from the bronze Indian that catches his eye every time he checks in at the office. ★