The Elks Lodge – Circa 1927
Every day, thousands of people speed down Pleasant Street, unaware of one of the most attractive buildings in eastern Connecticut. Situated on a hill, overlooking Route 32 is the Benevolent and Paternal Order of Elks’ (BPOE) Willimantic headquarters. It was built in 1926/27, in the style of a English Tudor-style mansion, and is one of Willimantic’s most outstanding structures. For the first time, the stately ceremonial room with its original furnishings will be open to Tour visitors. But before recounting the local history of the Elks and their Pleasant Street clubhouse, let’s take a quick look at the wider history of American Elkdom.
The BPOE, or “Best People On Earth” are well known today for their charitable acts and patriotism. There are currently around 1.3 million Elks in the United States, located in 2,230 lodges across the country. They came into being during the years after the Civil War. In 1866, a New York City Sabbath Observance law closed the city’s saloons and theaters. The Thespians were distraught, and a young Englishman, Charles Algernon Vivian, founded an occasional social group called the Jolly Corks. The Corks eventually decided to draft a constitution and create a more formal, permanent organization. But they decided not to call themselves the Jolly Order of Corks. The members agreed that their new name ought to be based on the positive traits of a specific animal. But what kind of animal? One day, as the story goes, several Corks, while walking down the Great White Way, entered Barnum’s New York City Museum in order to view the stuffed animals and gain some inspiration.
Should the actors call themselves the Bears, or Beavers? But the Corks were struck by the fine appearance of a stuffed elk head in the Museum. An accompanying definition stated that the noble Elk was “fleet of foot, timorous of doing wrong, avoiding all combat except in fighting for the female and in defense of the young and helpless and weak.” The Elks were born on February 16, 1868. But the first Elks were strictly actors and literary men. The group’s primary objective was to bring writers and actors into a closer union of “good fellowship.” But this distinction was soon dropped. The BPOE attracted wide social groups of new members. The thespians and writers were alarmed and resented the newcomers and dismissed them as “drug clerks selling pills,” and “dry goods clerks selling tape.” But by 1910 there were 1,155 lodges and 304,899 members nationwide.
The Willimantic Lodge was inaugurated in 1914, and they assembled in a number of halls and rooms across the city. Elkdom was at its zenith in 1925, when the members of the Willimantic Lodge decided to build a new home. The BPOE had almost one million members nationwide. A year after the opening of the new Willimantic clubhouse, the Brooklyn, New York Elks built a twelve-story clubhouse costing in excess of $6 million.
On May 10, 1927, after a year of construction, the new home of Willimantic’s BPOE 1311, an “imposing monument to Elkdom” was opened for public inspection. The home was considered to be ideally situated, on the summit of the knoll in Elk’s Park, some 26 feet above the level of Pleasant Street. It was easily accessible from the center of the city, yet removed just far enough from the business section. The Elks were also proud of the new home’s surroundings, the “sturdy oaks” and “towering hemlocks” in the 4.5 acre Elk’s Park, enclosed by an extensive rubble stone wall and ashlar pillars mounted by large electric globes.
The approaches to the new home of the Willimantic Elks were laid out in curving walks, and the local Elks were proud of their English country garden-appearance and fine old English architecture. The building is constructed on a steel frame. Its walls consist of hollow tile, red tapestry bricks with stucco and panel work. The roof is finished with dark brown fire flash tile of various shades. In giving the tour of the new house, the Elks proudly pointed to its verandas and sun porches which offered a fine view of the city.
At the time of its dedication, the building’s large cellar and basement contained bowling alleys, pool and billiard tables, showers and kitchens. The main floor housed a parlor, music room, reading room, ladies room, secretary’s office, and a coat and cloakroom. The second floor contained the lodge room, finished in mahogany with a beamed ceiling, and the third floor housed three sleeping rooms. The other floors of the building were finished with oak and brown ash. All the furnishings were supplied by the local Martineau-Bacon Company, and the building’s sophisticated lighting was installed by the Handel Company of Meriden. Over 1,000 people accepted the Elk’s invitation to tour the new headquarters. Visitors in the afternoon were entertained by a pianist, and those who came in the evening were entertained by the Ralph H. Gibson trio.
The grand official opening and dedication of the Elks home was planned for June 9, 1927, and it was conducted by the Elks Grand Exalted Ruler, Charles H. Grakelow of Philadelphia — the first time an Exalted Ruler had visited the city since the Lodge was inaugurated in Willimantic in 1914. The Ruler and numerous high Elk officials from Connecticut’s other 23 Elks Lodges, arrived in Willimantic at 5 pm. They were treated to a dinner at the town’s most recently completed building before the Elks Home — the Nathan Hale Hotel.
At 6 pm Charles N. C. Wheeler directed the Elks Orchestra in a concert in front of the Nathan Hale Hotel on Main Street. The concert lasted for 45 minutes, and the orchestra then crossed the footbridge to set up in the Elks Park, where it played until 8 pm, the time of the dedication ceremony. At the same time, members and guests were treated to a “cafeteria luncheon” during the dedication ceremony in the specially floodlit Elks Park. After the dedication, the assembled crowd were treated to another concert by the eight piece Peerless Orchestra, followed by a five-act vaudeville in the open air Elks dance pavilion, located on the park grounds at the rear of the new home.
Over 1,000 Elks members and special guests witnessed the concerts and dedication. The leader of the Willimantic Lodge, P. D. Donahue, gave over his seat to the head of Elkdom. Occupying other chairs at the head table were Past Exalted Willimantic Rulers, Charles W. Hill, Valentine L. Murphy and R. Ernest Melody.
So the next time you speed down Pleasant Street, pull over and take a close look at this fine Willimantic building. The Willimantic Elks are better known, to non-Elks, as the holder of the Elks Annual Fair every Labor Day weekend, on the Elks grounds behind the home, which took place from 1914 until 1952. The Elks suffered greatly during the years of the Great Depression and membership dropped alarmingly. Many Lodges around the country had to declare bankruptcy. But the opening of new silk mills on Bridge Street, and the continual employment provided by the American Thread Company, ensured the survival of BPOE 1311, through those difficult times. It is today one of thirty-five Connecticut-based Elk Lodges.