The Benevolent & Protective Order of Elks
Birth and Growth of Elkdom
STRANGER IN TOWN
On November 15, 1867, a commercial sailing vessel arrived in New York City after a stormy Atlantic voyage from Southampton, England. From its decks stepped a 25-year-old singer who had been attracted by accounts of rapidly expanding opportunities in American entertainment as told to him by U.S. performers touring the music halls of his native London, less than three years after the end of the Civil War.
Charlie Richardson, or Charles A. Vivian under the stage name he preferred, faced the problem of food, lodging, and employment in a strange, new land. A handbill thrust at him from a stack carried by a grimy-faced boy told of John Ireland's Star Hotel & Chop House, so he merged into the crowd of people passing through the Customs House and headed out into the city.
Although he had heard "Yanks" speak often enough over in England, the strange dialect from two New Yorkers he stopped for directions still amazed him. Nevertheless he found his way to Lispenard Street and the brightly lit Star Hotel. Pushing through the door of the Chop House, the voices and warmth surrounded him and brought back memories of his favorite pub back in London, right down to the sawdust on the plank floors. Unwrapping his scarf, he walked over to the mahogany bar running the length of one wall, put his derby down on its shiny surface and propped his foot on the brass rail as he surveyed the noisy crowd reflecteed in the long mirror behind the bar. Over the heads of the cheerful customers seated around numerous tables, his attention was drawn to the mustachioed piano player carrying on a serious discussion with a large thick-browed man who kept pulling his pocket watch out of his flowery vest and pointing at it. The smiling face of the bartender blocked Vivian's view and he ordered a schooner of ale and began to sip from tits foamy edge, lost in worries of how far he could strectch his small bundle of coins and bills. Movement at his elbow interrupted his thoughts and he turned to find the same ornately-vested individual, his bushy eyebrows lowered in a scowl as he addressed the bartender -- "Dere'll be a mountain of ice in Hades "fore I iver let that lowlife warbler, Billy Martin, talk me inta lettin' him sing on Friday evenin"! Now I'm stuck widda no show 'n a full house gittin' ready to walk!" A small smile crept onto Vivian's face which didn't escape the big man's notice. Turning to Vivian, his voice took on an ominous note, "And just what are ya findin' so funny, little man?" It took some fast and smooth talking before Vivian's charming manner could defuse Big John Ireland's temper enough to discuss a mutually beneficial arrangement, followed by a short talk with Dick Steirly at the Piano. What followed on that evening long ago was the American debut of Charles Vivian, whose tenor voice and mirthful smile accompanied an almost endless repertoire of new songs that wove a spell of enchantment over the crowd at the Star that night.
JOLLY CORKSCharlie Vivian went on to become a huge singing success starting with a 9-week engagement at Butler's American Theater 3 days later. But even more important, he attracted a large group of theatrical folk and set up regular gatherings under the name of the Jolly Corks, an informal society Vivian had belonged to in London. How this group evolved into the Elks continues two days after Vivian first walked into the Star Chop House. That Sunday, November 17th, Charlie awoke at Mrs. Giesman's Boarding House where piano player Dick Steirly had secured him lodging, only to find that the Star was closed all day Sunday, along with every single music hall, saloon, restaurant, theater and gathering place within the city limits of New York, courtesy of a strictly-enforced "Blue Law". This brand of forced idleness was not to Vivian's liking, as he had to have a constant diet of friends, laughter and song. Over the next few weeks he began planning a solution to this predicament with his friends. He succeeded in getting the message out to a dozen other entertainers from his new circle of friends to met in the attic of the boarding house on Sunday, December 15th. With the half dozen who already lived at Mrs. Giesman's, they proceeded that evening - one month to the day after he set foot in America - to have the first real meeting of the Jolly Corks, with each of the talented attendees adding a large share of merriment to produce an impromptu variety show. Soon the word was out: the Jolly Corks had the finest - and ONLY - variety show in town on Sundays. Each Cork was allowed to bring guests - prospective members - to meetings, and the second Sunday more than a dozen additional performers showed up. This session was so successful, in fact, that it ended abruptly with a "cease and desist" notice from Mrs. Giesman, prompted by complaints of other non-theatrical roomers, possibly because they were excluded from the frivolity. To a personality like Vivian, this was only a minor setback, especially as the rapidly growing throng was finding the attic too cramped. The Corks searched out an unused storage loft over Paul Sommer's saloon on Delancey Street, and subsequent meetings were rousing good times, due partly to their practice of storing up a bountiful supply of food and beverages before the next Sunday rolled around.
WINDS OF CHANGE
The names of the first eight Jolly Corks were known. Charles Vivian was certanly the first, and the founder of the group. Richard Steirly (who was also born in England) was second. The next members were John T. Kent, Frank C. Langhorne, William Lloyd Bowron, John H. Blume, Harry Bosworth, and J.F. Norris (stage names Hilton or Wilton), many of whom lived at Giesman's. The grapevine fame of the Sunday evening festivities soon drew many more to their group, such as Tom Riggs, Matthew Ash, George McDonald, William Sheppard, Edgar Platt, Henry Vandemark, William Carlton, George Guy, Hugh Dougherty, Harry Stanwood and Hugh Egan. By the time the Elks would officially come into existence, the ranks of the Corks had swelled to over 200 quasi-official members, not all of whom would make the transition into the Elks.
It was now apparent that potential membership in the organization was tremendous, and the rapid growth and new type of member coming in immediately created a certain difference in viewpoint. Vivian's first Corks had nothing in mind except conviviality - to get together and pass an otherwise blue Sunday in grand style. But as the group grew, and the potentiality was seen, other members, mostly legitimate professionals, felt the Corks could and should have some purpose higher than fun and games - a real society. A larger club had to have some kind of real organization, plus a serious purpose, or it would fragment and go out of existence. A formalized group would mean regular membership, dues, a responsible treasury, regulations, and - following the custom of all such societies - some sort of ritual. Vivian had created a nucleus with his wit and personality, a vitally important nucleus around which greater things might be built.
Had this jovial group of "Jolly Corks" been able to insulate themselves from the real world outside their gatherings, they undoubtedly would have followed the same jolly path and eventually drifted apart. But, as the calendar moved through December and winter tightened its hold, one or another of the regulars would fail to show up, either because of sickness or lack of funds (caused by too long a stretch without an engagement). In the lulls between each song or dramatic recital, conversation would turn to those who were missed and why. These were all souls whose livelihood came from the wildly fluctuating world of show business, with occasional well-paying bookings sprinkled over lean, dismal stretches of near-poverty and late rents. This experience certainly contributed something to their "eat, drink and be merry" attitude, but it also gave them a deep understanding and compassion for those in distress. It happened that one of the original Corks died unexpectedly, and left a wife and children without any funds just before Christmas. This crystallized the benevolence of the group, and they established a continuing collection to support the fatherless family, as well as for other misfortunes that would befall members ofthe group, in the process forming one of the first performers protective associations in America.
Since Mondays meant going back to work (or because some legitimate gathering spots opened at the stroke of midnight), the meetings would break up around eleven. Any leftover food would be consumed or sent off to the unemployed performers along with the charitable collection. This left the beverages and brought about the first ritual to be transplanted into Elkdom. All would fill their glasses and drink a toast to those whose misfortunes had made them absent from the gathering, after a custom Vivian relayed from the English Order of Buffaloes in commemoration of the eleven o'clock curfew imposed by William of Normandy after the Battle of Hastings. The same prayerful sentiment for friends at risk out in the world in 1066 was appropriate for those who were absent from the circle of friends in 1867. Thus came into existence both the Jolly Corks eleven o'clock toast - from a tradition spanning 8 centuries - and a few months later the Elks eleven o'clock toast to deceased or distant Elks. By the time the Corks met on Delancey Street in January of 1868, this custom was informally but well established.
PLANS FOR THE FUTURE
At a Sunday session on Delancey Street, George McDonald made a motion that "we resolve ourselves into a benevolent order, and that a committee be appointed to draft rules and a ritual and to select a name."
As presiding officer, Imperial Cork Vivian put the motion to a vote, declared it carried, and immediately appointed the required committee. It consisted of George McDonald as chairman, William Sheppard, Edgar Platt and Thomas Riggs. Vivian also appointed himself as an ex-officio member.
The committee that was to devise the name, regulations and purposes of the new organization met, made a partial report on February 2, and agreed to give its decisive recommendations in open session on February 16, 1868, in new quarters on the top floor of Military Hall at 193 Bowery. The departure from the Jolly Corks, and the birth of something new, was at hand. The committee appointed to create from the ranks of the Jolly Corks a new benevolent order seems to have hit only one major snag: what to call the new organization. The Imperial or Head Cork, Charles Vivian, was a member of the British Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes. He was deeply influenced by both the ancient traditions and the impressive rituals of that order and with these in mind he urged that the new American group also be called "Buffaloes."
The idea of being the offspring of an English order, however, did not go over with a majority of the membership (five of the fifteen corks who signed the original B.P.O.E. Constitution were born in England: Vivian, Steirly, Bowron, Kent and Ash; Carlton was born in Ireland. The remaining nine were American-born.). They wanted the new society to be thoroughly American, with a truly American name. While "Buffaloes" seemed to fit, the English order was actually named after the African buffalo. At any rate, after some discussion, the committee decided to name the new order after a more suitable animal.
The name "Bears" was put up, but they were thought to be rather savage and surly animals. "Beavers" were industrious, but they were also destructive pests. "Foxes" seemed to be worse. Finally Tom Riggs remembered the massive power and graceful towering antlers of a truly gigantic preserved Barnum's Museum on Broadway & Ann Street which burned down the year prior, and, galvanized by the image from his memory, he impassionedly swayed the rest of the committee to at least research the possibility. This they did in the 2 weeks that followed, in the Natural Histories of Buffon and Goldsmith at the nearby Cooper Institute Library.
They read that the elk was "distinguished by its fleetness of foot" and "timorous of wrongdoing." Besides being fast and avoiding evil, the elk also avoided aggressive combat. The elk preyed upon no other species for its existence and destroyed nothing - but it would fight valiantly in defense of its own life, and those of its mate and young. The idea of an animal that lived in peace, but would fight to defend its rights and protect the weak and helpless, appealed strongly to the group. The elk, with its spreading antlers, was not only a beautiful animal, but it seemed to symbolize the ideas and values this group most wanted to stand for and perpetuate.
ELKDOM: DAY ONE
When the group of 15 again met in regular session on Sunday, February 16, 1868, the committee returned a majority report recommending that the group be called "The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks." And the name of Elks was adopted on this day, recognized as the birthday of our organization.
Thus, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, a society that was to enjoy a long and glorious history in America, was born out of humble beginnings.
With the name "Elk" decided for all time, the Lodge agreed upon a committee for its constitution and by-laws, which was to report back in March.
When the committee on constitution and by-laws reported on March 1, the Elks Constitution as adopted contained 15 articles and 21 rules or regulations. Significantly, while Elkdom grew from a Lodge of 15 members meeting over a saloon to a nationally-recognized organization of over a million Americans, and some changes in these basic laws were made where needed, this Constitution is still recognizable as the basis of all Elk law and jurisprudence. The Rules and Regulations set dues and initiation fees, and contained the usual and essential directions any order needed to run its business.
On March 2, 1868, Vivian's long tour in New York City ended, when he was booked for performances in Philadelphia. Significantly, his preferences as far as the new Order of Elks were shown by his organizing another Lodge of the Jolly Corks while working there.
Vivian closed at Fox's Theater, Philadelphia, on April 11 , returned briefly to New York, then opened in Pittsburgh from May 11 through June 1, 1868. Meanwhile, the Ritual for the Second Degree was reported on and adopted May 17, 1868, under the chairmanship of George W. Thompson, a theatrical agent who was close to McDonald - who largely wrote it.
The First Degree, pretty much put together by Vivian, closely followed the rituals of the R.A.O.B. in England, but still had many features in it that remained with Elkdom for decades. In essence, it was several acts of horseplay which initiated members into the first or social level on a temporary "test" basis prior to their being judged as fit for FULL membership rights and status. The Second Degree, however was to provide a framework that was more lasting. It should be noted that the titles of the officers of the Second Degree differed from those of the First, (such as Vivian's RIGHT HONORABLE PRIMO), and are the ones now used for most of Elkdom's existence.
Accounts differ as to whether the election of officers for the higher Second Degree was held on May 17 or May 24; but in either case, Vivian, who if he had been present would have been a heavy contender for presiding officer, was still in Pittsburgh. In this election for the higher degree the Thompson-McDonald theatrical forces carried the day:
George W. Thompson: Exalted Ruler
James Glenn: Esteemed Leading Knight
William L. Bowron: Esteemed Loyal Knight
George F. McDonald: Esteemed Lecturing Knight
Henry Vandemark: Treasurer
William Sheppard: Secretary
Albert Hall: Tyler
By May 24, 1868, Exalted Ruler Thompson had conferred the ritualistic work of the Second Degree on the Elks who had not been members of the original Ritualistic Committee. These included Steirly, Kent, Vandemark, Platt and most of Vivian's friends. Vivian, being absent, did not receive the Second Degree - in fact, he was never to receive it.
PARTING OF THE WAY
Meanwhile, the Elks of New York had already held their first ball, which was given at Ferraro's Assembly Rooms on April 16. Vivian, between stands at Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, had attended this and made a short speech. Then (as now) balls and benefits were one of the principal ways a benevolent order could raise money, and the fledgling Elks' treasury was hardly bursting. Another larger, advertised blowout was scheduled for June 8, 1868, this one to be held at the Academy of Music. Between June 2 and June 8 a series of ads appeared in the New York Herald:
ACADEMY OF MUSIC
The deliberate use of the term "Performers' Benevolent and Protective Order ofElks" - which was not the legal name of the Order - showed clearly that a revolt between the actors and the less prestigious performing artists was gathering in the wings. And there was something else more noticeable - Vivian's name, although he was R. H. Primo of the First Degree, was left entirely off the programs and posters printed for the occasion.
Upon his return, Vivian found a drastically mature organization which had grown from his fun-loving brainchild, under the guiding hand of George F. McDonald, the legitimate actor.
Vivian returned to New York expressly for this benefit. When he found he had been ignored in this way and, even worse for a performer whose publicity is his meal-ticket, left out of the entertainment program, he became quite angry. Most of his friends felt the same way. A storm was brewing.
The events of the next regular Lodge session, on June 14, perhaps should only be described in the words of Past Grand Exalted Ruler Detweiler: there was an "unseemly altercation". A motion was made to expel Charles Vivian from the meeting; there were violent objections, and the session broke up with no definite action of any kind. Vivian, however, unquestionably was deeply hurt when he left that night. According to the record, he never again sought entry into an Elks Lodge.
Charles Vivian certainly founded the American Branch of the Jolly Corks, and he was certainly their guiding spirit. He put a stamp upon the Corks, and upon the organization that grew out of them, that was vital and would remain. Vivian was, in real terms, the founder of the Elks as well, because he was the spark that lit the flame. But, while Vivian's boyish charm enlivened any gathering, his amicable indifference toward taking life seriously handicapped him at the critical juncture where prudent and dedicated leadership was needed.
In all truth, happy-go-lucky as they were, the Cork coterie were something of "fly-by-nights" - solitary individuals living in boardinghouses, working on the fringes of the American theater, eking out a living as best they could. They were footloose and moved about rapidly due to their profession, and they had no real cohesion, no glue beyond Vivian's personality, to hold them together. In fact, many of them were perfectly happy to continue the Jolly Cork organization as it had been founded.
Just as the character of Charles Vivian - so charming, fun-loving, and careless of tomorrow - was important to Elkdom, the nature of George F. McDonald needs at least a brief examination, because both were influential in the formation of the Order.
McDonald was described as a person of fine character, deep sentiment, and having considerable literary skill. This last resulted in his appointment to both the Rules and Regulations and the Ritualistic committees, and he had a very large part in writing the final drafts of all the early work on constitution and rituals.
McDonald was the leader of those who foresaw a more glorious future for the Elks. He wanted to move rapidly out of the Jolly Cork "fun-and-games" stage and turn the Elks into a genuine benevolent institution. He was burning with the conviction that there was a tremendous future in America for such an organization, devoted to the practice of Charity and camaraderie. He even mentioned, on one occasion, that within 50 years the Order would have a million members. And, filled with this zeal and enthusiasm as he was, it must be said that George McDonald, and the performers on the legitimate stage around him, felt that Vivian and those similarly wedded to the Jolly Corks forever would not bring the full commitment and, more importantly, the organizational skills that would be needed to move the Order into a larger, sturdier and nobler phase.
While some of the things that were done were unfortunate, the motives of those who did them should always be regarded as sincere and, based on our growth for over a century and a quarter, emphatically valid.
Charles Vivian went on his carefree way as a stage singer. He toured the U.S., making friends wherever he traveled. Then tragically, at the age of 34, he died in Leadville, Colorado, of pneumonia. Leadville was a mining boomtown then, and Vivian's funeral was a great event. The whole population turned out, with marching mourners and a band. But then Leadville, and Vivian's memory, faded. Within a few years his grave was marked only by a wood plank, engraved with a nail point.
But an Elk is never forsaken or forgotten. After heartbreak, there was a certain resurrected glory.
In 1889 the Chairman of the Board of Grand Trustees of the B.P.O.E. informed Boston Lodge (No. 10) of the neglected state of Vivian's grave. There was an instant reaction. With Denver and Omaha Lodges cooperating, a few weeks later Charles Vivian's mortal remains were reinterred in the beautiful Elks Rest at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Boston. Here they were commemorated with a magnificent monument and assured perpetual care. Of perhaps greater significance to the Order which began as an entertainers' benevolent and protective association is Elkdom's taking upon itself the support and care of Vivian's penniless widow until her death in 1931.
The place, and the memory, of Charles Vivian in Elkdom was secure. More important, the Order he had done so much to start was moving ahead, out of bitterness to bigger and better things.
Very little is known of the progress of the New York Lodge, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, between June 1868, and the start of the next year. That the Lodge not only survived, but continued to grow is clear from the old membership rolls. On December 27, 1868, one J.D. Kelly was initiated into the Elks. He was number 76.
MEMORIAL RITUAL BORN
The first death in the Elks was that of Albert Hall, Tyler, who passed away in early 1869. Hall's death does not seem to have been ritually commemorated. However, when George Farmer died in the first part of 1870, the social session was modified to include a memorial exercise and eulogies. The third Elk, James Glenn, passed away soon afterward in February, 1870. Member George J. Green now proposed that a "Lodge of Sorrow" be held for these departed members.
A beautiful service was held in Clarendon Hall, on 13th Street, with music conspicuously featured. This first Lodge of Sorrow was held on March 20, 1870, and from this time forward the passing of every Elk was formally commemorated. Memorial services became not only a feature of the Order but one of the customs most impressive to outsiders.
During the same month, March, 1870, the Lodge also gave a benefit performance at Hooley's Theater in Brooklyn for Brother Glenn's widow, who was in need. This benefit was a brilliant affair. The services of Elk performers were given unstintingly, without pay, and more than $1,000 - then a very respectable sum - was turned over to the bereaved family.
Another significant event was the proposal of Brother Tony Pastor "that the Lodge set apart an evening for the purpose of inviting our mothers, wives, sisters, and female friends to our social session," and in that day and age it was an almost unprecedented move. The men's Lodge club or society was regarded as sacrosanct, where no female was permitted. But this, as nothing else, brought the families of Elks into an awareness and approval of the B.P.O.E. and its works. A steady increase of membership forced the Lodge to move to larger quarters. Negotiations were opened to acquire Clarendon Hall on 13th Street. While this building was being renovated, the Elks met for a time at 720 Broadway. When the move to Clarendon Hall was finally made, initiation fees were raised to $20.
This was, in the era of penny sodas and nickel beer (with free lunch included), a very considerable fee. But in this, and in accepting relatively heavy dues and fees, the Elks were obviously thinking of future progress. A benevolent society had to have or raise a reasonable amount of money, the great tool and lubricant for good in American life, and certainly the leaders of Elkdom were concerned with their emerging image. Elkdom was now leaving its Bohemian roots behind and becoming a reputable organization of kind, solid citizens, who were both concerned with and effective in their community.
This last feeling led the Lodge to petition the New York legislature for a state charter. This was not granted, because of opposition of some state officials. The argument against the charter was that the B.P.O.E. Lodge was merely a subterfuge to evade the "Blue Laws" of the city, and to run an "open saloon" on Sundays - an argument Elks would hear again, in other times and places. Blocked in the legislature, however, the Lodge tried again, by appealing to the state Supreme Court. This body approved a charter allowing Elks to hold up to $50,000 worth of property, and the New York Lodge was so incorporated.
BIRTH OF THE GRAND LODGE
Meanwhile, an event of great imponance was brewing. When Charles Vivian had gone to Philadelphia in March, 1868, he had quickly organized a coterie of Jolly Corks in that city. The Corks of Philadelphia continued and grew, much fertilized by frequent visits from members of the New York organization. When Gotham's Jolly Corks flowered into the New York Lodge, B.P.O. Elks, it convinced the theatrical professionals based in Philadelphia that they should become Elks, too. In the last half of 1870, a delegation of three Philadelphia Corks went to New York and petitioned entrance for their group into the Order of Elkdom. They were told to "go ahead," as the minutes read.
However, the birth of a truly national order was not so easy as all that. For one thing, the Elks technically were not yet an order, but merely a single Lodge chartered under the laws of New York. Their charter did not give them the right to charter or commission subordinate or sister Lodges, although the term "Grand Lodge" was already frequently in use, and even indicated in the heading of the first Elk Constitution on 1868. To bring the Philadelphia Lodge into the Order required some changes.
On December 4, 1870, Elk Tony Pastor moved that measures be taken immediately to establish an "Exalted Grand Lodge," This Grand Lodge would be organized to approve, charter, and regulate any and all future Subordinate Lodges of the B.P.O.E. This meant that New York Lodge could not any longer consider itself as the "Grand Lodge" but must form two separate organizations, one of local scope, the other of national concern.
The committee formed to solve the problem reported on January 1, 1871: "Resolved, That the first Grand Lodge of the B.P.O.E. consist of the following: the original founders of the Order, together with all past and present officers who are now in good standing in the Order, and that the above take effect immediately."
There seems to have been no real opposition. Any and all rights claimed by the whole New York Lodge to be a governing body were thus surrendered, and the legislature was petitioned for "an act of incorporation securing requisite powers."
Pending approval, a rump meeting of the proposed Grand Lodge was held January 22 at 512 Broadway. George Green presided, and 13 other qualified Elks attended. However, business was suspended until all Elks could be notified by a special communication, in final ratification of the resolution.
Some of the Elks who had friends or influence in Albany, especially Gus Phillips and several others involved in newspaper publishing, lobbied to get quick action from the state. On March 10, 1871, the New York legislature passed a special act of incorporation for the Grand Lodge of the B.P.O.E. which was rushed to the governor, who signed it willingly. Thus the Grand Lodge became a New York corporation, with powers to issue charters to Subordinate Lodges throughout the United States.
A charter dated March 10, 1871, was immediately issued to those Elks who had already petitioned the now-legal ruling body to be known as "New York Lodge No. 1, B.P.O.E," For obvious seniority reasons, the charter issued to Philadelphia was delayed two days, and issued effective March 12. Philadelphia became No 2.
George J. Green now vacated the chairs of New York Lodge No. 1, and became, as he was first called, Exalled Ruler of the Order. Henry P. 0'neil was given the main task of writing a constitution and by-laws for the new, super-Lodge. To help the Grand Lodge get started, a per capita lax of $77 was paid to it by New York, whose treasury fortunately held over $500.
The last session of the Elks in New York as a single body was held on March 19, 1871. Thereafter, Grand Lodge and New York Lodge No. 1 met separately, at different times or in different rooms, though there continued to be a certain amount of cross-fertilization, and even confusion, among the officers of each group. Grand Lodge, during 1871, held nine regular sessions, and had three communications. It was in business. The Elks were "national," and firmly organized for future expansion.
A number of Elks held a "session" in Chicago in January of 1871; however, these were members of New York Lodge No. 1 who happened to be working on the stage in that city. In the fall, New York gave a big benefit in the Academy of Music, to aid victims of the great Chicago fire - the first known instance of Elks responding to a disaster.
THE EXPANSION WEST
By now, several things about the Order were firmly set - but many others were in constant change. The Elks were not, and could not be, a static society, any more than the United States of America was a static, unchanging nation. In the 1870's the country was being rapidly spanned by rails; pioneers were pushing deep into the Great Plains regions; and from coast to coast many small communities were beginning to swell into thriving cities. The enormous, unbelievably productive industrial complex that was to characterize 20th-century America was already past its foundation stage.
The industrial and financial capital of the United States was taking shape in New York City, where it would remain for many decades. New York was also the main American gateway to Europe and the Old World, and here also was centered the new nation's artistic and theatrical world. This literary and acting community traveled the interior and even the Far West continually, but its heart was in New York.
This theatrical connection seems to have both helped and hindered the infant B.P.O.E. Whatever other personal traits they might have had, theater people tended to be sentimental, warm-hearted, and generous, their jealousies confined pretty much to the stage itself. Logically, they were often flamboyant, with a strong sense of the dramatic, necessary in their profession. They had wit, poise and presence, and this gave them popularity and caused other people to enjoy associating with them. All these were of vital importance to a new organization that intended to be benevolent, in which ritual played an important part, and which desired to expand.
Further, the world of show business consisted of the most tolerant and broad-minded people of the last century; their own associations were nonsectarian, and the Elks could emerge no other way. The names on the early rolls are British, Irish, Italian, Scandinavian, and Central European, representing virtually every immigrant group that inhabited New York at that time, and almost every denomination.
Finally, the theatrical trade of the 1870s was very much concerned with road trips; tours and troops went everywhere the rails or the stagecoaches ran, and everywhere these charming, clever and attractive people went, they collected other citizens about them in the saloons, hotels, and chop houses. This free movement of Elk members quickly spread the fame of the Order across the country, from north to south and coast to coast. People heard about the Elks.
But although there there almost 300 Elks in New York Lodge No.1 at the start of 1871, from this point on the Order's growth slowed very visibly. This slower growth hung on for a number of years. By now, the fact that the Elks were mainly a literary and theatrical group began working against them.
For one thing, there was a limited number of such people in the country, and the determination of the dominant Elks in 1868 to keep the Order "professional" severely limited the potential membership. For another, the "theatricals" were so footloose and on the road so much that it was difficult for them to continue an active part in Lodge business. On June 11, 1871, Exalted Grand Ruler Green reported, "The reason that so large a number or dispensations (permission to omit meetings) had been asked for in [Lodge] No.2 was from a recognition of the necessity of having a sufficient number of Devout Elders (Second Degree holders) for the transaction of business during the absence of the professional brethren of the Lodge in the traveling season." If the Elks had gone on limiting themselves mainly to the theatrical world, or, for that matter, any particular profession, they would never have become a great national body embracing the mainstream of America.
It must be emphasized that the B.P.O.E. was not a professional society - persons were introduced and initiated into the Order because members desired their companionship, not because they wanted to get in, or because they happened to be performers. There was no automatic eligibility. An early account of the Order states that for several decades there was no formal restriction or regulation on membership other than that prospective members must be 21, and this is true so far as it goes. But people bring in their own sort of people, and there was from the first a process of selection.
EXIT STAGE LEFT
Fortunately, membership had never been tightly restricted to theatricals; it was always understood to be extended to people sympathetic with the acting or literary professions. Consequently, there soon began a steady infusion of people who made a living in law, medicine, brokerage, sales and even clergy. These "outsiders" were attracted by the flair of the professionals, the ideals behind the Order, the impressive rituals of the sessions, and - to be truthful - also the fact that Elks had a reputation of being a jolly group who threw fine parties. In the last half of the century American family life was quite different from what it would be later. There was no real notion of "togetherness." Children were expected to be seen, period; alcoholic beverages were not served in respectable middle-class homes; and men and women enjoyed somewhat separate social lives. Neither the cocktail hour nor the backyard barbecue had yet been invented. The family and social life of the era gave a strong push in the fast-growing cities to orders like the Elks. They offered members companionship, after a ten-to-twelve-hour day, and a chance to relax with people they liked that could be had nowhere else. They also gave a certain sense of belonging and cohesion to society, that a rapidly moving, expanding and changing American scene required. In cities that now had thousands of citizens, the fact that one was an Elk fostered a strong sense of belonging to something worthwhile and good to replace the anonymity of the masses. With the Elks, the theatricals had begun something other people recognized as enjoyable and fine. The sense that Elks "cared" - by 1871 Elks were already not only assisting less fortunate members now and then but helping the bereaved families and providing monuments forthe deceased - was impressive and attractive. In a great, hardworking, growing, building - but sometimes harsh - America, it was important to belong to a group that cared. Two things, by the mid-1870s, were happening, both probably inevitable. People outside the theater were joining in increasing numbers; they recommended their friends, who further diluted the stage predominance. And these newcomers, especially the doctors, lawyers and other professional people, who stayed in one place and attended every session like the solid citizens they were, gradually began to be elected to the high offices of the Order. It was inconvenient to have a Tiler who next Sunday might be in Poughkeepsie or an Exalted Ruler about to spend the summer in San Francisco or touring on the road. And if the theatrical element had given the Order its ritual flair and deep sense of sentiment, these latter business people-chairholders did much to give the Elks themselves order. They brought skills into the Lodge that no available amount of money could have hired, and they were to be of tremendous importance later, not only to the Order of Elks, but to the American nation.
Because of all these factors, the third Lodge was not installed until April 11, 1876, in San Francisco. But No. 3 was quickly followed by No. 4, Chicago, and Cincinnati, No. 5. Ten years after the beginning, there were ten Lodges, and while the total membership was still less than 1,000, the stage was set for solid expansion, from sea to shining sea.
The most striking thing about the Elks between 1880 and 1890 was its tremendous surge of growth. The Order went from 10 Lodges in major metropolitan centers, and 1,000 members, to 158 Lodges, with a "herd" of 13,000.
This expansion took place outside the original major cities of the theater circuit, such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston. Charters were issued to smaller outlying towns, such as Peoria (No. 20), Utica (No. 33), and Fond du Lac, Wisconsin (No. 57). The center of gravity of Elkdom swung sharply westward from the Atlantic coast. Lodges dotted western Pennsylvania, and the entire American Middle West, and the pioneers of our Order were hard at work planning Lodges from the Mississippi to the Pacific coast. Elkdom would soon fill in the wide-open-spaces and forge a stronger tie with the isolated handful of California Lodges. We were indeed becoming known as the truly American Order ... except for one small thing.
Whether it was residual respect for Vivian and the half-dozen Englishborn Jolly Corks who were the midwives for Elkdom's birth, or a case of simply not bothering to state the obvious, the Order, which at its very beginning had stressed its strong bonds with America in choosing the animal found here - the elk - as its symbol, had not up to this point put down in the print of the B.P.O.E. laws the requirement that every member must be an American citizen. Several cases of noncitizens being taken into Lodges caused such a resultant clamor throughout the Order that in quick action the Lodge representatives gathered in 1890 at Cleveland, Ohio closed this perplexing gap in our regulations.
The question of Elkdom being an American Order was settled forever when shortly afterward, Grand Lodge sought to secure a Congressional charter. This proved difficult to get at the time, but it was found that incorporation by the District of Columbia served the same purpose. The "Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the United States of America" was thus incorporated in 1895. It belonged not to any single state but to the entire nation.
BEST PEOPLE ON EARTH
It seems clear that from the very first Elks were an unusually decent group of Americans. But why exactly? This did not come about by accident, or purely through Providence.
On the local lodge level, there was always some sort of control, or screening, of new members. Later, as the Elks became a national body, certain national standards were adopted. This set a pattern. The striking characteristic of the Elks was that Lodges enjoyed local government and freedom within broad limits - but the Grand Lodge leadership was never afraid to act or legislate for the good of the Order. This combination of local sovereignty and decentralization, together with national standards was rather peculiar to the Elks and, at the same time, brilliantly successful. Few other groups enjoyed the Elks' flexibility to change, and responsiveness to ideas or wishes from within.
Lodges developed in their own way, and reflected the ethnic and religious make-up of their locality in an America where there was already a growing pluralism. What actually happened is that while Lodges varied in family names and church denominations across America, Elks were all members of one great American middle and upper-middle class. This was inevitable for the most obvious of reasons: the Elks were founded as a charitable organization, and charitable societies could only be supported by a reasonably "well-off' membership.
Almost from the very first, the concept of a "mutual benefit" society, which some "theatricals" had in mind, broadened into the grander idea of charity for all. The first recorded instance of a nationwide Elks effort was the assistance provided to the unfortunate people hurt or damaged by the Johnstown flood. This action, in which Lodges everywhere joined, was a far cry from raising funds to bury an Elk, or to aid his widow or orphans. The raising of disaster relief on a national scale when the Elks were still small, was of national significance and showed clearly that the Order was thinking not just in Elk, but American terms. From the first, no conditions, other than genuine need, were put on Elk help. The Elks were perhaps the first fraternal group to do this on a national scale. From 1889 onward, Elks assisted in virtually every national natural disaster, and in dozens of small, localized disasters, such as fires or tornadoes, where fellow citizens suffered. In 1906, the Grand Exalted Ruler directed Elk assistance operations - both money and volunteer labor - on the site of the terrible San Francisco earthquake and fire. Elks contributed a total of $109,140.60 to the inhabitants of San Francisco. According to the Governor of California, the Elks were the first organization of any kind to render help at San Francisco. Elks were arranging shelter for refugees within twelve hours, and Elks food wagons were the first in the stricken city, preceding the Red Cross and all other organizations, private or government.
This was significant, because it showed that Elkdom was already not only benevolent on a national scale but already well-organized to carry out its operations. In fact, this smooth mechanism continued to impress governmental and other observers almost as much as the charitable deeds and spirit it delivered.
Growth brought some headaches in the form of trouble with a few hastily-organized and "rowdy" Lodges. The Grand Lodge finally made a requirement that no new Lodge could be created without the backing of at least 25 persons of known reputation and good character in the community. This was especially important when charters began to be granted to Lodges in towns of 5,000 or more inhabitants. The procedure was that the nearest Elks Lodge tried to investigate the situation before a charter was issued. Judging from the continued growth of the Order, and its maintenance of remarkably high standards, this stipulation was well-conceived. The Elk image was preserved and, before 1900, it was already a very good one.
The growth in these years - the Elks reached 1264 Lodges and 428,479 members in 1914 - required a certain administrative supervision and standardization, though this was deliberately kept to a minimum. "Elks cards" or "Traveling cards," which showed paid-up status in Lodges, were issued, and finally, a standardized system of dimits (transfer procedures) was instituted. Elks, like all Americans, tended to move around. Elkdom was a rapidly growing, increasingly powerful body, beginning to have nationwide significance. The Order was still deeply committed to its own members - but an organization which now responded to national disasters like the Johnstown flood, the Galveston tidal wave, and the San Francisco fire and earthquake, pouring funds and other assistance from all over the country was showing clearly a national conscience. Elks were no longer concerned only with their own, but with all America.