The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the United States of America is one of the oldest and largest fraternal organizations in the country. Since its inception in 1868, the Order of Elks grew to 1,611,139 members in 1976. It currently has approximately 790,000 members and over 1,900 lodges.
The Elks have created a quiet network of good deeds that has profoundly changed millions of lives for the better, yet there is little public awareness of the impact of their vital work. Why is this so? Quite simply, the Elks have rarely sought recognition, neither have they gone to the general public with fund-raising efforts nor received monies from any level of government. Indeed, the flow of money and goods moves in the opposite direction: the Elks donated to the government the first veterans hospital; contribute regularly to schools and police and fire departments; and assist the young and the needy throughout this great nation.
How could this powerful force have come into being? And where does all this charitable giving come from? From the generous hearts of Elks members whose willingness to share, whose prudent long-term planning, and whose time devoted to serve–for free and with enthusiasm–infuses the Order with an exuberant and enduring expression of the true volunteer spirit.
Of note is that the elected leadership of the BPO Elks–from the Exalted Rulers of the local Lodges to the national president, known as the Grand Exalted Ruler, and other decision-makers at the various levels–serve without salaries.
The organization of the Elks is democratic representation, with overall statutes set through voting at national conventions. The BPO Elks national headquarters is based in Chicago. The Chicago campus is also the site of the Elks Veterans Memorial Building; the home of the Elks National Foundation, the Order’s charitable trust; the Elks National Veterans Service Commission; and The Elks Magazine, the official publication that is sent to every member of the Elks. The Elks National Magazine was first published in June, 1922.
How It All Began
The moving spirit for the Elks was an Englishman named Charles Algernon Sidney Vivian. Born October 22, 1842, this son of a clergyman was a successful comic singer and dancer in the music halls of London. In November 1867, Vivian arrived in New York City to try his fortune.
Other actors and entertainers soon gravitated toward his magnetic personality, and soon this group dubbed themselves the Jolly Corks, a name derived from a practical joke of the time.
When one of their members died shortly before Christmas in 1867, leaving his wife and children destitute, the Jolly Corks decided that in addition to good fellowship, they wanted to have a more enduring organization to serve those in need. On February 16, 1868, they established the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.
Its social activities and benefit performances increased the popularity of the new Order. Membership grew rapidly. Elks traveling to other cities spread the word of the Brotherhood of Elks. Soon there were requests for Elks Lodges in cities other than New York. In response to these appeals, the Elks asked the New York State legislature for a charter authorizing the establishment of a Grand Lodge with the power to establish local Lodges anywhere in the United States. When the Grand Lodge Charter was issued, the founders then received the first local charter as New York Lodge No. 1 on March 10, 1871.
Over the years, the mission has been consistent, and the membership has become more inclusive. Today’s guidelines for membership are that the candidate be invited to join, be a citizen of the United States, and believe in God.
The legacy of Charles Vivian continues to this day. As long as there are those who need help, the Elks will be there to give aid and comfort.
There are over 1,900, all in the U.S. and its Territories. Ninety percent of Elks Lodges own their own homes, most of them offering club facilities. Click on the Other Lodges link to find other California/Hawaii Lodge web sites. The National home web site address is: www.elks.org.
11 O’clock Toast
“You have heard the tolling of eleven strokes. This is to impress upon you that with us the hour of eleven has a tender significance. Wherever Elks may roam, whatever their lot in life may be, when this hour falls upon the dial of night, the great heart of Elkdom swells and throbs. It is the golden hour of recollection, the homecoming of those who wander, the mystic roll call of those who will come no more. Living or dead, Elks are never forgotten, never forsaken. Morning and noon may pass them by, the light of day sink heedlessly in the West, but ere the shadows of midnight shall fall, the chimes of memory will be peeling forth the friendly message, “To Hour Absent Members.”
Origin of the Toast
In regard to the Elks’ 11 O’clock Toast and its origin, we have to go back long before the BPOE came into existence. One of the main contributions of Charles Richardson — in stage name of Charles Algernon Sidney Vivian and founder of the American branch of the Jolly Corks — was to deliver into the hands of newborn Elks the rituals and traditions of a fraternal organization started in England around 1010 A.D., the Royal and Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes, to which he belonged prior to coming to New York.
The RAOB, or Buffaloes as we shall henceforth refer to them, also practiced an 11 o’clock toast in remembrance of the Battle of Hastings in October of 1066. Following his victory, William of Normandy imported a set of rules, both martial and civil in nature, to keep control of a seething Norman-Saxon population always on the edge of a revolution.
Among those rules was a curfew law requiring all watch fires, bonfires (basically all lights controlled by private citizens that could serve as signals) to be extinguished at 11 each night. From strategically placed watchtowers that also served as early fire-alarm posts, the call would go out to douse or shutter all lights and bank all fires. This also served to discourage secret and treasonous meetings, as chimney sparks stood out against the black sky. A person away from his home and out on the darkened streets, when all doors were barred for the night, risked great peril from either evildoers or patrolling militia.
The hour of 11 quickly acquired a somber meaning, and in the centuries that followed, became the synonym throughout Europe for someone on his deathbed or about to go into battle: i.e.”His family gathered about his bed at the 11th hour,” or “The troops in the trenches hastily wrote notes to their families as the 11th hour approached when they must charge over the top.”
Thus, when the 15 Jolly Corks (of whom seven were not native-born Americans) voted on February 16, 1868, to start a more formal and official organization, they were already aware of an almost universally prevalent sentiment about the mystic and haunting aura connected with the nightly hour of 11, and it took no great eloquence by Vivian to establish a ritual toast similar to that of the Buffaloes at the next-to-last hour each day.
The great variety of 11 O’ clock Toasts, including the Jolly Corks Toast, makes it clear that there was no fixed and official version until 1906-10. Given our theatrical origins, it was almost mandatory that the pre-1900 Elks would be expected to compose a beautiful toast extemporaneously at will. Regardless of the form, however, the custom is as old as the Elks.
Although the original Elks were actors and entertainers, members of other professions soon joined the organization. Today’s Elks represent just about the full spectrum of occupations in America. Throughout the course of the Order’s history, many celebrities from the entertainment field, business and public service have been Brother Elks.
Presidents Warren G. Harding, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy were all Elks. Former President Gerald Ford belonged to Grand Rapids Lodge No. 48, where his father served two terms as Exalted Ruler. Of course, many members of Congress have been Elks, too. Former Speakers of the House Tip O’Neill, Carl Albert, John McCormick and Sam Rayburn all belonged to the fraternity. Former Speaker Tom Foley belongs to Spokane, Washington, Lodge. And the late Hale Boggs of Louisiana was also an Elk.
General John “Blackjack” Pershing, American general and hero of the First World War, hailed from New York Lodge No. 1 as a lifelong member. 70,000 Elks served in the First World War; 1,000 gave their lives in the service of their country. 100,000 Elks served in the Second World War, over 1,600 made the supreme sacrifice for American freedom.
Entertainers Lawrence Welk, Will Rogers, Jack Benny and Andy Devine were Brother Elks, too. Brother Devine served as Exalted Ruler of San Fernando Lodge No. 1539. And Brother Clint Eastwood is a member of Monterey Lodge No. 1285. William F. Cody, better known as “Buffalo Bill,” was also a Brother Elk. From the sports world, the Order has counted among its members the likes of Vince Lombardi, Casey Stengel, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Jim Finks.