Masons are well known for the secretive nature of their traditions. The international fraternity is as famous for its private ceremonies, oaths and symbols as for its philanthropy and other good works. So few people in Fredericksburg knew what was behind the doors of Lodge No. 4.

Inside the sprawling, 188-year-old red-brick building were key artifacts from the young adulthood of George Washington, who grew up across the Rappahannock River and is the source of such pride and identity here that his portrait hangs even in the local McDonald's.

Washington was a member of Lodge No. 4, where dozens of historical items -- including the Bible used at his initiation ceremony in 1752, the minutes of his meetings at the lodge and a portrait by the celebrated painter Gilbert Stuart dating to the late 1700s -- were stored unprotected from must and dust.

For years, a volunteer gave tours, but the collection was barely advertised and was seen mostly by insiders -- Masons from around the world who knew Lodge No. 4's place in American history. More than a decade ago, officials with the city's museum began appealing to the Masons to move their collection to safer storage space and to allow the city to display it on a much grander stage.

But the Fredericksburg Masons, influenced by a combination of possessive pride in their unique connection to Washington and two centuries of sporadic anti-Mason sentiment, turned the city down.

"People who have experienced persecution are more hesitant about opening themselves up," said J. Travis Walker, a past "worshipful master," or president, of the lodge and its historian.

And then one day last year, the Masons came to city museum officials to say they had changed their minds. It had been 250 years since Washington swore on that Bible, the Masons told the city, and they didn't want the anniversary to pass unnoticed. And they knew that they didn't have the money to mark the occasion themselves.

But there was more to it.

Like other civic groups, the Free and Accepted Masons are losing membership, and in a culture that reveres free information and free trade, the group's reticence hasn't helped. But the Masons in Fredericksburg, a place that celebrates constancy, decided to try to buck the trend by bringing some of their 250-year-old traditions into the open, hoping to save them from extinction.

Along with the exhibit, which opened last month at the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center, the Fredericksburg Masons this year published a book by Walker about their history and have just registered the lodge as a nonprofit organization so they can begin raising funds to restore their building and house the permanent exhibit there.

"There has been a concerted effort to reintegrate our lodge into public life," Walker said.

The world's oldest fraternal organization, the Masons -- which is called by many other names, including the Freemasons and, in Virginia, the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons -- evolved from the guilds of stonemasons and cathedral builders of the Middle Ages. Eventually they opened their membership to others and became focused on morality, charity and the requirement that members believe in some higher being -- regardless of what it was.

With the number of Masons nationwide down about 300,000 since 1996, to fewer than 2 million, the fraternity is trying to be more open to shake loose the stigma of secrecy and attract younger members, said George Seghers, executive secretary-treasurer of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria. After the Alexandria memorial, the Fredericksburg collection is the second most important from Washington's Masonic past.

Because of its link with George Washington, the Fredericksburg lodge has been hit slightly less hard by the decline in numbers and has been able to maintain more interest -- among both relatively younger men and masons worldwide who pay to be "affiliated" with Lodge No. 4. Its average age is 45, compared with the national average of 65, Walker said.

But the local lodge has still been hurting financially and was unable to pay someone to keep the George Washington collection open when its longtime volunteer tour guide fell ill in 1999. The lodge also has been unable to afford to maintain its relics.

"One minute book page was open with sunlight on it, and it almost faded away," said Don Robey, a former Virginia grand master, or state president who has been involved with the Fredericksburg lodge. Also, a document mounted on an oily board was ruined, he said.

Scholars have long studied the significance of Washington's experiences as a Mason. When Washington joined the lodge, it was a place where landed gentry would gather and one of the few places where the British and colonials could mingle. It was a more sophisticated, worldly group than Washington had generally been exposed to, Walker said.

The impact of Masonry pervaded Washington's writing and ideas, said John Kaminski, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who wrote "A Great and Good Man" about Washington and heads the university's Center for the Study of the American Constitution.

Washington's writings rarely include references to God, and never to Jesus, Kaminski said, but rather use the terminology and philosophy of the Masons, referring to "The Great Architect" and building in general. Washington became a promoter of an extensive canal system aimed at facilitating westward expansion, and Kaminski suggests that he was influenced even in that by his experience as a Mason.

Meanwhile, after Washington's death, suspicion about this elite society grew into a political party -- the first Third Party -- based on anti-Mason sentiment. Masons in the United States split into many factions, including some that practiced rituals criticized as satanic and anti-clerical.

Suspicions and old rumors about Masonic practice have lingered, and officials with the Fredericksburg Area Museum said they believe that part of the reason they had difficulty raising money for the exhibit may have been some donors' reluctance to be connected with the Masons.

As the world sometimes looked askance at the Masons, so did the brotherhood sometimes look skeptically out. Robey said he doesn't favor all the moves toward openness, including the simplification of rituals, to make it easier for people to join. "It's everywhere, so what can you do? We don't like to see those things lost, but others say, 'Hey, we need to get members in, whatever the cost.' "

Franklin Powell, 71, a retired contractor who has been a member of Lodge No. 4 since 1956, said he was simply worried about turning over to the museum items that have such value to the Masons.

"When you think about it, that Washington was initiated 250 years ago and you have this Bible, it's not replaceable," he said. But for the sake of saving Lodge No. 4, Powell said he supported going through the elaborate rites involved with removing certain artifacts from the lodge. For example, three past worshipful masters had to be present to escort them to the city museum.

"What can you do?" Powell said. "It's just a sign of the times."

Robert Brammer, left, and Greg Harrod, of the Fredericksburg Masons lodge, look at the Bible upon which George Washington took his Masonic oath. The Bible and other items were unveiled to the public, a move the lodge hopes will help improve its image and membership.