When the Great Bend Benevolent Protective Order of Elks Lodge 1127 was born over a century ago, it boasted 400 members, a number that jumped to over 1,600 by the 1940s.
However, at the time it opened its current lodge at 1120 Kansas in 1955, the membership was 800. And when it celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2008, the roster was down to 250.
Today, there are only 115 men and women who belong to the storied fraternal organization.
“There are just no young people coming in who want to be members,” said Cherie Jacobs, the lodge’s current exalted ruler. “But, we’re not alone. Other organizations are having the same problem.”
For this reason, the local chapter will close its lodge home as of the first of the year. The aging cavernous 34,000-square-foot building is now up for sale.
“It breaks my heart that we’re closing,” Jacobs said. “We are going to do what we can to serve the community until we close.”
The hall was a venue for wedding dances, fund raisers and a myriad of other special events over the years, as well as Lodge 1127 meetings. Jacobs said they offered the space at little or no cost.
But, this option will soon be gone. “There are only a few places in town that are going to be available anymore,” she said.
“We are about giving back to our community,” Jacobs said. Over the years, the club has helped sponsor the Argonne Rebels Drum and Bugle Corps, youth baseball teams and sent kids to Boys State, but a lack of funds and volunteers have force the club to retreat.
In January, lodge members may decide to keep the local charter, but attend meetings at the Russell club. Also, after their building sells, they may look to buy or lease a smaller location in Great Bend.
The local lodge
The lodge has its roots in the early days of Great Bend. According to the Biographical History of Barton County published on the Web site skyways.kumc.edu, it was organized Oct. 1908. “Previous to this there were a number of gentlemen of Great Bend belonged to the Hutchinson lodge but in 1908 Great Bend had reached a population of 5,000 and a charter was issued for a lodge. There were 50 charter members and in 1909 the membership had increased to something over 400.”
At that time, a lodge home was built on the northwest corner of 12th and Williams (now a parking lot across from the Great Bend City Auditorium and Police Department). It was dedicated March 17, 1910.
However, as the years passed and the members aged, the three-story structure’s lack of accessibility for the handicapped became an issue. In 1955, the new building was built on four lots at the southeast corner of 12th and Kansas.
“Great Bend was booming in those days,” said Jim Welch, the lodge’s chaplain and building manager. The Elks and other organizations boomed right along with it.
The wall featuring photos of the past exalted rulers is filled with images of many of the city’s founders. But, times have changed.
“All fraternal organizations are going through the same thing,” Welch said. “They’re almost a thing of the past.”
Hallways are fill with trophies from the glory days, a rack of elk antlers and the framed club charter. An American flag stands in a corner over a Bible.
There are also the original “jewels,” the ornate pendants worn by lodge leaders.
Although the club gets new members regularly, there are still fewer than in years passed, and this cuts into dues.
It boils down to the word service in service organization, Great Bend club members said. For example, the Great Bend Elks has distributed funds to victims of the 2001 Hoisington tornado, honored veterans and provided contributions to the Kansas Elks Training Center for the Handicapped in Wichita.
But, the real focus is on young people.
They were involved in a hoop shoot and soccer shoot, used to provide scholarships and have utilized a drug-awareness trailer when visiting schools to preach the message of substance abuse dangers.
This goes back to the Elks’ origins.
The Elks had modest beginnings in 1868 as a social club for minstrel show performers, called the “Jolly Corks.” It was established as a private club to elude New York City laws governing the opening hours of public taverns.
After the death of a member left his wife and children without income, the club took up additional service roles, rituals and a new name. Desiring to adopt “a readily identifiable creature of stature, indigenous to America,” they picked the elk above the buffalo.
Early members were mostly from theatrical performing troupes in New York City. It has since evolved into a major American fraternal, charitable, and service order with more than a million members, both men and women, throughout the United States and the former territories of the Philippines and the Panama Canal.
Today headquartered at Elks National Veterans Memorial in Chicago, Ill.
The organization was originally an all-male club. But now, women are active members as well.