By Joseph Slacian
In the mid 19th century, a group of actors looking for a way to socialize with one another formed the organization known as The Jolly Corks.
When one of the founding members died, the group moved to become a charitable organization to help take care of the fallen member’s family. Deciding the organization needed a more formal name, the group debated as to whether to call themselves the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks or The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalos. By an 8-7 vote, the Elks name won and, on Feb. 16, 1868, the B.P.O.E. was created.
This week, more than 1,900 local lodges around the United States and its territories, including the Wabash Elks Lodge No.471, will be celebrating the organization’s 150th anniversary.
The Wabash Lodge plans to celebrate Friday with a dinner from 6-8 p.m., followed by a dance from 8 p.m. to midnight featuring the music of Kustom Khrome and The Rock Band featuring Johnny Kirkwood.
The Wabash Lodge received its charter in 1899. Keith Walters is the current Exalted Ruler, and Chuck Curtis, a Past Exalted Ruler, is one of four local members to have served the Indiana Elks Association as state president.
Both said they enjoy the social aspect of the organization, but more importantly, the service aspect.
“I’m a third generation Elk,” Curtis said. “My grandfather and father were both Elks, and when I turned 21, there wasn’t a lot of discussion of whether I was going to join or not. So I did. And, through the years, it’s given us a lot of pleasure, not only socially, but the benefits of being charitable and helping others.”
To become an Elk, one must be 21 years of age, be an American citizen and believe in God. The Wabash Lodgeknow has about 225 members.
“We’ve got a group of people now that are very active and very supportive,” Curtis noted.
The charitable aspects of the organization are quite evident. According to B.P.O.E. figures, in the group’s first 149 years, it has contributed more than $6 billion to communities across the nation. In the last fiscal year, more than $200 million has been contributed and of that figure, more than $32 million has gone to support veterans and veteran related programs.
The Elks, which calls itself the premiere charitable and patriotic organization in the nation, holds veterans and their causes close. It has a motto, “As long as there are veterans, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks will never forget.”
During World War I, the national order helped organize and equip the first two base hospitals in France. In 1918, it built a 700-bed hospital in Boston to help wounded veterans returning from Europe. The facility is considered to be a forerunner to the Veterans Administration facilities of today.
More recently, the B.P.O.E. has pledged $4 million to help combat the national problem of homelessness among veterans.
On a local level, Walters said, the Wabash lodge works with the Marion V.A. facility.
“Five times a year we bring patients from the Marion facility over and give them dinner,” he said. “We also give them a canteen book so they can have money at their canteen. They can use them to get personal items from the canteen.”
In addition, the national organization has given back more than $10 million to local lodges this past year to be used for local charitable projects. In the past fiscal year, the Wabash lodge has given back more than $70,000 to local projects.
“That basically comes from our Elks National Foundation,” Curtis said. “Every member has an opportunity to donate toward that. The National Foundation is the life blood of the organization.”
Walters noted that locally the lodge helps organizations such as Special Olympics, Blessings in a Backpack, the Youth Access Center, 85 Hope, the F.I.S.H. food pantry, Shop With a Cop, the Wabash Little League and more. In late 2017, the organization pledged $10,000 to the city’s inclusive park to help create a grassy area where families can go and picnic and relax while children enjoy the park.
It also supports numerous youth related activities, including Hoop Shoot and various post-prom activities at the county’s high schools.
“Every November and December we assemble Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners,” he continued. “We provide for the number of people in the household, provide them enough food for a nice meal.
“Anytime someone needs help, if they let us know, we’ll round up a group of Elks and help as much as we can.”
The local lodge also received a national grant several years ago to create the overlook on the Wabash Riverwalk.
“It’s an inspirational place to go to and to visit,” Curtis said.
The lodge also sponsors bingo three nights a week, which Curtis called a large part of the reason it can help in the community.
On the state level, the Indiana Elks Association’s helps sponsor the cancer research centers at Indiana and Purdue Universities. Over the years, state has contributed to more than $9 million to the two facilities.
Last year, the Wabash lodge contributed $10,000 to the state project, a portion of it raised through an annual golf outing each summer.
Those interested in becoming an Elk should contact a current member or call the lodge at 260-563-2081.