If I told you I was applying for membership to a country club, you might guess I was married, somewhere in my 30s or 40s, maybe with a couple of kids, maybe a yuppie. If I told you I was rushing a sorority, you might guess I was a midriff-baring co-ed. If I told you I was joining AA, you’d figure I couldn’t handle my booze. And if I told you I had just filled out my application to become a member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks at Missoula’s Hell Gate Lodge #383, you’d assume I was a white male, maybe a veteran, probably pushing 70.
Shows what you know.
Organizations nationwide have stereotypes—the Junior League is prissy; the Boy Scouts are homophobic—and those stereotypes may exist for a reason. But stereotypes are, by definition, oversimplified, and people are, by nature, complicated.
Case in point: Myself. I am an unmarried 29-year-old female, and, as it turns out, I’m exactly what the Elks are looking for.
“We need young people,” says Debbie Thrailkill, who became an Elk two years ago, and last year became the first woman to win the Hell Gate Lodge’s Elk of the Year award for her role as chairwoman of the lodge’s two youth scholarship programs. She first gave me a membership application last winter during the club’s Friday burger-and-beer night in the upstairs Stag Bar, where women originally weren’t allowed. I didn’t fill out the application until last week because, well, I got busy. Or, more honestly, I wasn’t so sure how my 29-year-old self would fit in with a handful of 70-somethings in a club where I, as a woman, wouldn’t have been allowed membership 10 years ago. In a world where my peers fill their Fridays with sports bars, folf and Playstation, I guess I thought the world of Exalted Rulers and Leading Knights, ritualistic initiation and brotherly love, would be, well, weird.
Shows what I knew.
Today’s Elks are not what they once were. They remain, certainly, a national non-profit fraternal organization, established in 1868, whose halls are lined with old photographs of white men in tuxedos, and whose membership application still asks me if I am a member of the Communist party. It took, at least in part, a 1974 Supreme Court ruling that disallowed organizations with discriminatory practices to get liquor licenses to push the Elks to change their “white males only” policy to “males only,” and they did not admit women until 1995. But at last summer’s national Elks convention in St. Louis, Chairman of the Past National Presidents Lester Hess estimates that a couple hundred of the 2,000 Exalted Rulers present were women.
“We do not keep any records at all based on either gender or race,” Hess says of the Elks nationally, though he knows Elks of all races and notes that one of the most effective Exalted Rulers in his state of West Virginia is an African-American man. “We don’t get caught up in everybody’s background,” he says sincerely. “[The Elks] is not a country club. It’s a democracy.”
Missoula’s lodge, too, makes clear the difference between the way things were and the way things are. While Lodge #383 also does not keep track of demographics, it does have Asian, Native American, gay and lesbian members and states absolutely that membership is open to anyone—except convicted felons.
When I handed in my application to current Exalted Ruler Dean Simon last week, the Elks Club staff was decorating the lounge with rainbow-colored streamers for the Montana Pride Celebration’s annual gay pride dance. On the front door was an announcement for an upcoming salsa dance party, and on the wall in the lobby were photos of recent initiates: not men in penguin suits, but rather about 50 women who have become Missoula Elks in the past two years.
With roughly 20 to 30 of the 700 Hell Gate Lodge members passing away each year, and membership fees covering only half of the lodge’s yearly utility costs, these new members mean survival. Where Elks Clubs were once the places men gathered for camaraderie and drinks, they now are often underused buildings competing for time with parenting, second jobs, and technologies that extend our work days into our shrinking leisure time. By the same token, walking in to Lodge #383 at the corner of Pattee and Front Streets feels like an escape to a slower, calmer time. But for the Elks to maintain their community in this age of cell phones and PalmPilots, when many of us don’t question spending more face-time with computers than families, they’re going to need to receive more applications from younger people like me.
I have two sponsors: Norm Laughlin, Past Exalted Ruler and 32-year member, and Audrey Nevins, who became an Elk two years ago. (“Both my husbands were Elk,” says Nevins, “and I had been getting widows’ cards. I thought it would be fun just to have a real card instead of a widow’s card.”) At the next lodge meeting, one or both will likely be called on to vouch for my character. An investigating committee will then look into my background, though “I haven’t seen but one person rejected,” says Simon, an Elk of 42 years. If the members vote me in, I will be informed of the date of my initiation, which will take place in the second-floor Lodge Room.
Until then, I won’t know much about the initiation. I know I will stand before the four chair officers—the Exalted Ruler, the Leading Knight, the Loyal Knight and the Lecturing Knight—and answer questions recited from the Elks ritual book, a small red booklet that looks like a prayer book and is written (based on a quick peek) like an elaborately scripted play. Each officer will wear their “jewels,” which are medallions hanging from chains. Beyond that, I know only what the Elks will tell me: that the initiation’s impressive ceremony of charity and brotherhood will likely impact me in a profound way.
Why the secrecy? Simon says it’s nothing more than maintaining a sense of unity among members. It’s just about bonding together, says Hess, who speculates that in the past secrecy was seen as some sort of virtue. Today, “We don’t want to be seen as secret.”
According to some Elks’ history, such bonding sometimes included blindfolding candidates. Ceremonies might have involved antics such as “shaving” the candidate’s face with a dull edge, or asking him to walk on “broken glass” simulated with egg shells. But the blindfolds came off in 1952, and whatever secret handshakes or passwords may have existed (Elks today claim no clear memory of either) are estimated to have disappeared in the early 1900s.
As long as the Hell Gate Elks don’t drum up any felony convictions in my past, I could become, by the end of the summer, an Elk, an Elkette (the subset of female Elks), and a Doe (a member of the Benevolent Patriotic Order of Does, chartered 53 years after the Elks in 1921), all in one. And, yes, I catch myself chuckling at these titles. Yes, I smile when I tell a friend that I was hobnobbing with the Exalted Ruler in the Stag Bar. But I’m not joining the Elks as some kind of joke. I’m joining because I like the people I’ve met; because community isn’t as easy to come by now as it was in college; because volunteer work feels good; because sports bars get old—and, because the Elks are changing. Spend some time with the people who keep Lodge #383 going, and you’ll see that somewhere between their antiquated titles and the gay-pride dances lies the real story of the Elks today, the story of how this aging charitable organization is working to find new blood in a modern-day society of high-tech and hip-hop, where money, more than love of God or country, makes the world go round.
Once upon a time in Elkdom
Indeed, the Elks’ history is rich nationwide. The Order’s origins date to 1867, when an Englishman named Charles Algernon Sidney Vivian decided to move to New York City to seek his fortune as a comic singer and dancer. There, he and a group of other entertainers dubbed themselves the Jolly Corks, a social group that met for drinks and fellowship. According to Simon, they chose their name “because they took the corks from their pints, and whoever collected the most corks conducted the next meeting.” When one of their members died, leaving a wife and children penniless, the Corks decided to expand their group into a lasting, charitable organization to help the needy. They established the B.P.O.E. on February 16, 1868, naming themselves after the elk for its noble and protective nature. The first local charter was issued to New York Lodge No. 1 on March 10, 1871.
A combination of Western railroad expansion and the Jolly Corks’ theatrical trade, which centered largely around road-trips, helped the Elks expand into the Great Plains in the 1870s. Membership dipped during the Great Depression, but rebounded and then surged after 1945, when, according to the Elks Guidebook for New Members, “a restless population was again strongly on the move.” People left rural areas for growing cities. By the 1960s, the Elks Magazine was receiving 400,000 subscriber address changes a year. As cities grew crowded, people developed the suburbs. With each move, they started lodges in their new towns. By 1968, the Elks had established over 2,100 lodges.
By the 1980s, membership had grown to a high of 1.6 million in nearly 2,200 communities. Since inception, the Elks have distributed more than $2.7 billion in support of youth, veterans’, handicapped and civic programs across the country.
But lately, national membership has been declining about 2 percent per year, according to Hess, to about 1.1 million now. He says that other fraternal and civic organizations (The Moose and Masons, Rotary and Kiwanis) nationwide have been experiencing similar rates of decline. He points to the American family’s shift from one working parent to two as a big factor detracting from membership. One parent can’t be hanging out at a club after work if the other is in an office instead of home with the kids. To adjust, he says the Elks have worked to make their lodge functions more family-oriented. They’ve made other small changes, too—such as allowing for the title “National President” to be used interchangeably with “Grand Exalted Ruler”—to reduce any stigmas that might put-off potential members.
While I see how these changes might help attract new members, I was first curious about the Elks because of their idiosyncracies—what is an Exalted Ruler, anyway, and how’s his reign going in this modern world? I took a few of my friends to a burger-and-beer night last winter at Elk Laughlin’s invitation, and our experience had nothing to do with the funny hats and secret handshakes we’d imagined. Instead, we found ourselves in a situation that might, by today’s norms, be even more outlandish: a group of 70-somethings and 20-somethings sitting around a big dinner table together, shooting the breeze.
It’s a night that’s stayed with me. In a society where we complain loudest about not having enough time for ourselves, where we combat stress with spa-days and pay whatever it takes to make our Internet connections a few seconds faster, there’s something satisfying about spending time with people whose frame of reference is WWII, not Dr. Phil. At 29, I’m arguably a member of the “all about me” generation. At 70-something, the Elks know the world is not all about them. They’ve lost friends and spouses, lived with disability and economic depression, and what they’ve gained as a result, I think, is the clarity to see through the clutter to what matters most: friendship, community, commitment.
“Too many people want to know what [the Elks] are going to do for them,” says Simon of potential applicants today. “And that isn’t the idea. You have to look at it as what can you do for the Elks?”
Four years ago that question became crucial. Faced with waning membership and financial woes, the Hell Gate Elks Lodge was put up for sale. “There was no money,” says Elks Office Manager and Event Coordinator Linda Stamos. “A lot of lodges are closing down because of financial duress around the country.” But today, Hell Gate Lodge is experiencing a resurgence. One hundred and fifty-eight new members joined last year, which was, according to Simon, “the first year that this lodge has been in the black in four years. We’ve done more with this lodge in the last three years than has been done on it in years and years.” Since 2001, membership has grown from 493 to 711.
What’s the force behind this upswing? Ask anyone at the lodge and they’ll tell you the same story: “The lodge was up for sale,” says Stamos, “and then along comes Clayton DeVoe.”
An Elk with dollars and sense
“When I delved into it, it was a nightmare,” he recalls. Power and garbage-collection bills were too high. Windows were single-paned and drafty. The lounge carpet had holes in it. The dance floor and Lodge Room wood floors were black with crud. DeVoe cut the garbage pickup from daily to weekly (saving $173 per month); he switched the building from electric to gas (saving $500 per month); he ordered new carpeting and refinished the wood floors; he filled the half-vacant rental apartments upstairs (bringing in $4,500 per month). And, most importantly, he realized this:
“The only thing that is keeping this [lodge] afloat is the non-members that are coming in here and spending money. At least 85 percent of our income is coming from non-members…it takes outside money, and that’s the one thing that will keep this going.”
So DeVoe crystallized the distinction between the two halves of the Elks: The Elks Lodge is the institution that represents the members and is in the hands of the Exalted Ruler; the Elks Club is the money-making bar, restaurant and banquet facilities, open to the public and run by the trustees. DeVoe is the trustees’ chairman, as well as chairman of the club’s membership committee.
Today, the club is a pretty smart-looking place. The lounge, with its rich red carpeting, big-screen TV and mirror-lined bar is a fun place to get a drink. A 38-foot sand-etched glass panel created by Seattle artists Ernest Norling and Bruce Thomas runs above its length, depicting historic scenes of the Louisiana Purchase and prospectors panning for gold. Forty-one stars etched in the upper edges of the work represent Montana’s induction as the 41st state in 1889. On Tuesday nights, during the $7.50 dinner, singer Adrienne Dussault plays the piano for diners (tips are her only payment), and Thrailkill talks of the club’s plan to have a grand opening in the fall as a piano bar with specialty drinks, martinis, and complimentary hors d’ oeuvres. The bar will then officially be called the Jolly Corks.
“He is an extraordinary business man,” Thrailkill says, reflecting on the improvements DeVoe has made. “He can see how to make money, and how to cut corners and make things work.”
“He’s a hard-driving business man,” says Hejtmanek from an easy chair in his living room. “But you’ve got to have somebody that’s willing do to it, or the place just goes to pot.”
“We’ve had to make adjustments to survive,” says DeVoe himself. “It’s very difficult. But I think the trustees now have come to this realization that it takes a hands-on [approach]. They used to say you can’t micro-manage, but the only way this thing can work is if you micro-manage.”
The Exalted Ruler’s-eye view While Clayton DeVoe attends to the Elks’ nitty-gritty, Exalted Ruler Dean Simon fills a loftier role. “They say it’s kind of like being a god,” says the robust, 71-year-old Simon. He’s sitting in a dimly lit corner of the Elks lounge one night after work. “But it’s kind of like being a Buddhist symbol. In other words, you lead the meetings; you’re the icon; but as far as the actual work in the lodge, it’s done by different committees and different people.”
By day, Simon runs his own excavating business, wearing a baseball cap, carrying a cell phone and driving a Dodge Ram 2500. But in Elkdom, he exudes an aura more distinguished.
Donning a tuxedo, he presides over the twice-monthly lodge meetings, which involves calling the meeting to order, performing initiations, overseeing the Lodge of Sorrow for members who have died, and mediating discussion of lodge business. He also travels to state and national lodge meetings—next month, he and his wife will fly to the national Elks convention in Minneapolis, then on to the state convention in Hamilton.
Simon not only looks the part of Exalted Ruler—tall, white-haired, dapper in a tux and quick with grandfatherly warmth—but he is a veritable encyclopedia of Elk history as well. Raised in Grangeville, Idaho, Simon was an Elk there before moving to Missoula in 1963. In Grangeville, he managed Lodge #1825 and often found himself in rooms where the four chair officers rehearsed the ritualistic lines they would recite during meetings. He would help them out, and so started to learn the lines himself. Today he talks about perhaps becoming a Ritualistic Coach when he’s out of Exalted Ruler office, working with Elks on the annunciation and pronunciation of their lines and movements. One such movement is the “hailing sign,” a circular hand movement over the head, which mimics the spreading of an elk’s antlers.
While trying to understand these roles is taxing for a mere Elk applicant like myself, Simon rattles off the hierarchy with ease: There are the four Chair Officers, he explains, who each have their own station upstairs in the Lodge Room during lodge meetings, with each station representing one of the four Elk principles: Charity, Brotherly Love, Justice, Fidelity. “The ER is on the stage,” says Simon, “and the Leading Knight sits directly across from him. On my immediate right is the Lecturing Knight, then across from him is the Loyal Knight.” Those knights, essentially, are climbing a ladder to one day become Exalted Ruler, but the Loyal Knight “doesn’t do a hell of a lot of anything,” says Simon. “That’s probably the best position of the bunch.”
Then there’s the Tiler, who guards the outside of the Lodge Room door and escorts initiates in to their initiation. The Esquire tends to roll call, sets up the flag for meetings, and helps conduct the actual initiation. The Inner Guard (currently Simon’s wife) also watches the door, and the Treasurer (currently one of Simon’s sons) handles all the money and delivers it to the Secretary for deposit. Then there’s a Chaplain and an organist and all the trustees. The four Chair Officers, the Exalted Ruler, the Tiler and the Secretary are elected into office; the other positions are appointed by the Exalted Ruler.
If I get initiated, I’ll get to see all these roles in action firsthand. But to a non-member, Elks explain that what is said in a meeting stays in a meeting, so that no hurtful words or feelings about any Elk last. Simon references the Elks’ motto: “The faults of our members we write upon the sands, their virtues upon the tablet of love and memory.” He also keeps, in his wallet, a laminated cheat sheet of the Elks 11 O’clock Toast, a poem to be recited in the Elks Lodge at the 11 o’clock hour, which, as the final hour of the day, “is more or less a time of remembrance for past members,” he says. In the tile floor at the front entrance to Lodge #383 is the design of a gold clock, its hands fixed at 11:00 p.m.
Lodge meetings aside, there is plenty that Simon can show me inside the three-story Elks building. Who knew our Elks Lodge had two bars, 32 apartments, a basketball court in the sunken space where a swimming pool used to be, a weight room, locker room, shooting range, and converted bowling alley that, for a short period, acted as a kind of teen center? The apartments have been updated with new windows and microwaves. What was once the bowling alley is now a party-sized room with a crisp coat of white paint. The weight room doesn’t have the most updated equipment, but some of the younger residents of the upstairs apartments use it without complaint. And I don’t know much about shooting ranges, but I take Simon’s word for it that the narrow, chilly basement space could be cleared of a few storage items and put to good use.
The more time I spend at the Elks, the less surprised I am by what their building holds. Swing by the weight room or the Stag Bar a few times and, like any place that becomes familiar, they start to feel comfortable. Say “Exalted Ruler” enough, and the title just registers as “boss” in your head. I suppose one trouble with getting more young people to feel the same way is that we’re creatures of habit; we already have our neighborhood bar or gym. Our lingo is about dudes, not knights, and we already have extracurriculars of our own. Said selfishly, we don’t really need to be Elks. What we could always use, though, is a nudge to try something new.
Breeding a new herd
He’s got a point. Other members touch on valid reasons why such a point could be hard to sell. From computers to snowmobiling, “there’s too many other things to do,” says Nevins. “I think that’s all it is. And when you’re busy raising a family, you don’t have time. When they get older and their family is gone, then they’ll look for things to fill their time, I’m sure.”
DeVoe remembers when he was younger and ranching: “We had something going on every night of the week…There was the Grange, the Farmers’ Union, the 4H Club.” He says those organizations still draw crowds in the country, but not in larger towns. Maybe that’s because smaller towns, with fewer options, have had better luck keeping community at a premium. Then again, larger cities have more diversity, which could also benefit a lodge. In Coral Gables, Fla., for instance, Lodge #1676 has had a woman, an African-American, a Latin-American and a Jewish member hold the top four officer positions in recent years.
Or it might not be about population at all. “The television has taken over,” says Thrailkill. “We’ve lost that tie to getting to know people.”
“The younger people are just not that enthused over this brotherhood organization,” echoes Simon. “The TV has a lot to do with it…and then, there are so many other activities to be involved in…One of my goals,” he says, “is to keep getting younger people involved, because four or five years ago, the average member was 64 or something, and that’s just sad. You’ve got to have younger people.”
As a new applicant, you’ve also got to answer that important question on the Elks application: “Do you believe in the existence of God?” But the Elks want to clarify: The application is older than many members, and the Elks’ view of religion today is progressive. “When [the officers] talk to initiates,” says Thrailkill, “rather than saying, do you believe in god meaning GOD, they mean do you believe in some sort of supreme being? I mean, look at all the other religions of the world that don’t have God, but believe in a super power, something bigger than you.”
Sitting under the rainbow-streamers in the Elks lounge, Simon says he is “fairly optimistic” about the lodge’s future. Growing membership and wider club usage in the past few years have generated decent revenue, and such increased exposure for the lodge could dispel some Elk myths. “I think that people were always under the assumption that only Elks could come into the building, and that only Elks could come to the functions, and that only Elks could rent the facilities,” says Thrailkill, “but Clayton [DeVoe] and the trustees have really opened that up.”
In getting to know a few Elks, I, too, have learned that it isn’t just older white men who are running our lodge’s show. A past Leading Knight, an Asian woman, was contemplating running for Exalter Ruler at the Hell Gate Lodge, and the Exalted Ruler who preceded Simon moved to the U.S. from Cuba when he was 12. Linda Stamos, also, who is the strongest pulse behind the club’s activities, has only been around a few years, but now manages the club’s front office with a feisty iron fist of her own.
In a way, it’s too bad to even have to spell out such diversity. In talking to active Elk members today, what becomes clearest about their goals is their desire to get more people involved with their youth scholarship programs and charitable fundraising events like this Saturday’s golf tournament. That, and they aim to pour a glass of whiskey and have a good time. Not a bad combination, really. Certainly not one to let die without thinking twice.
And I’ve thought a lot about the Elks since that burger-and-beer night last winter. I’d like to see a generation-spanning group like that together again. And I’m no pioneer. I wasn’t even a Girl Scout back in the day. I’m just a 29-year-old female Elk-to-be, who might someday get one more person my age to join. That person could get one more person to join and—well, you get the picture. As Hetjmanek says, we could make something going on. There are a lot of hardworking Elks down at Lodge #383 hoping that we will.
This original Elks 11 O’clock Toast, thought to have been written by Charles Vivian for the Jolly Corks, was later modified for the Elks.
The Original Jolly Corks Toast
Now is the hour when Elkdom’s tower
And father time on his silver chime
In Cloistered halls each Elk recalls
And traces their faces to well-known places
Whether they stand on a foreign land
Whether they be on the boundless sea
Whate’er their plight on this eerie night
Where ever they are be it near or far
So drink from the fountain of fellowship
And wrote your worth in the rock of earth
TO OUR ABSENT BROTHERS