How Boise's Treefort Built An Offbeat Partnership Between Shriners And Rock 'N' Roll

Mar 27, 2015

El Korah Shrine is one of those buildings in downtown Boise people pass by all the time, but probably haven’t ever been in. In the last couple of years, Treefort Music Fest has exposed thousands of people to the venue – giving the old-school fraternal organization some new-found relevance with a younger crowd.  

At 71-years-old, Shriner Ron Lester isn't exactly the typical indie music listener. But a few years ago, he was approached by Treefort organizers; they wanted to rent the building for their annual festival. He was cautiously open to the idea.

“We were always looking for alternative uses for the building," says Lester. "Because managing and maintaining a 100-year-old building [is] not cheap.”

The building feels like a museum, with glass display cases holding trophies from Shriner competitions – yes, they race those little red cars – and old fezes dating back to the early 20th century. Black and white photos of Shriners throughout the decades line the walls. Downstairs, there’s a wood-paneled bar that looks like it’s straight out of the 1950s, with curved chair barstools and etched mirrors.

Treefort festival director Eric Gilbert says from the moment he first saw the upstairs ballroom and the stage at El Korah – he envisioned one thing.

“I just saw rock n’ roll shows in it immediately,” says Gilbert.

Mr. Gnome, a Treefort favorite, performs at El Korah Shrine during the 2014 festival. The neon symbol above the stage is the symbol of the fraternity, known as the scimitar and crescent.
Credit Patrick Sweeney / Treefort Music Fest

But Gilbert and the rest of the Treefort crew were nervous about fans possibly getting too rowdy and damaging the venue. The Shriners admit they were nervous too. But Lester says everything went smoothly that first year, and again last year.  

“Treefort-goers are very very well-behaved, they have a great respect for this building,” says Lester.

Gilbert jokes when he says the festival they managed to turn the Shriners into Built To Spill fans over the last two years.

"I remember standing next to a Shriner and they were just like, ‘I have never heard music like this before in my life,'" says Gilbert. "And he’s been on planet Earth for a long time.”

It’s a reminder of just how unusual the arrangement really is. For five nights a year, music connects young fans with people who are sometimes 60 years older.

Perhaps the most popular spot in the building during Treefort is the ladies powder room. Like much of the building, it's a step back in time with plush couches, wrap-around mirrors, and pink floral wallpaper.

This sign was posted on the women's powder room door after word got out about just how special the room was. Plush couches, pink floral wallpaper and wrap-around walls give the space a nostalgic feeling.
Credit Frankie Barnhill / Boise State Public Radio

During Wednesday’s show, friends Abby Gazlay and her friend Jules Owen took a break from the music to sit on one of those powder room couches. The two recently moved to Boise from San Francisco, and are attending the festival for the first time. They're impressed by how friendly people are – especially the Shriners.

“We’ve met a few [Shriners] – the one at the door was very nice," says Gazlay. "We had never been here before and they were like, ‘go here, go there.’ And then – I believe his name was Charlie – and he had the little tokens and he was really sweet.”

The tokens are the drink tokens the Shriners sell to festival-goers. Treefort has become one of the Shriners biggest fundraisers. The money raised helps send local kids to the famous hospitals in the region. Shriner Corey Turner came up with a new idea this year to raise even more money – a late night $10 breakfast buffet they’re playfully calling “breakfastfort.”

"[We're serving] scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy, we’re going to have some bacon. We’re even going to cater to the vegetarians so we’re going to have a vegetarian dish too.”

For Turner, the opportunity to host Treefort means the possibility of recruiting younger members. At 46-years-old, he’s one of the youngest Shriners at El Korah. So far no one has been recruited as a result of the festival, but they've had some people become interested. The process to become a Mason and then a Shriner can take years, and Turner acknowledges that kind of commitment can be difficult to get from would-be Shriners.

“We’ve got 574 [Shriners] that are 64 and older," says Turner. "The younger bunch, there’s not very many of us so we need to get some of us younger guys."

Treefort director Eric Gilbert says the mixing of young and old at El Korah is rare among music festivals.  

“People walking in there and having 75-year-olds hand them drink tokens, [it’s] definitely a unique experience," he says. "And it’s cool to see the generations coming together, because I think a lot of times there’s generational segregation through our politics or through whatever else.”

He says by bringing together different segments of the community in an offbeat way – the shows at the Shrine embody the spirit of the indie festival.

Find Frankie Barnhill on Twitter @FABarnhill

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