In late November of 1867, a number of performers from the world of vaudeville got together and formed a small social club that was a way of circumventing the blue laws in New York state that closed all public taverns on Sunday.
In order to decide who would buy the next round of drinks, the entertainers played a game with corks. They had so much fun, they decided to call themselves “The Jolly Corks.”
That wasn’t a very impressive name in the age of great Victorian fraternal clubs so, in the spring of 1868, after only a few meetings, it was decided to formalize their little organization, turning it into an official “protective and benevolent” society.
The chief founder, a 25-year-old singer named Charles Algernon Sidney Vivian, had only arrived from England about a year before the first meeting. He suggested a grand name for the group such as “The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes.”
That name was not as popular with the other members, who wanted a more “American” title. So a committee adjourned to a local library to look up various animals that were native to America. The description of the elk – “fleet of foot, timorous of doing wrong, but ever ready to combat in defense of self or of the female of the species” – appealed to the group.
On February 18, 1868, the former Jolly Corks, by a vote of eight to seven, changed their name to “Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.” The losing name was the same except buffaloes stood in for the elks.
The little group wrote by-laws to regulate its organization, made up some suitable rituals, which were very important to fraternal organizations in those days, and had some more meetings.
Those Victorian entertainers probably never realized how successful their little club would become. Today, there are over a million members, both men and women, who call themselves “Elks.”
The branch in Miles City is celebrating an anniversary this year, the 100th anniversary of the construction of the Elks Home, or lodge, on the corner of Seventh and Pleasant, across the street from the post office.
The Elks pre-dated their building, having been formed several years earlier in 1900. In 1909, the Elks hosted a state convention which was long remembered by those who attended. The little “town” they built for the occasion in Riverside Park lasted for years, and two little log cabins still stand near the Denton Sports Complex that were part of that town.
The only embarrassment for the local organization was that they didn’t have their own building. They shared space in what was then the fanciest building in Miles City, the 1902 Wibaux Building, with several other groups. So they started raising funds. Within just a few years, the local lodge had the money it needed to construct a new home. The basic structure was going to cost $50,000, not including electrical and plumbing and other finishing touches.
On April 20, 1914, Miles City Lodge No. 537, B.P.O.E., broke ground for its elegant building, which would include ornate light fixtures attributed to Tiffany, a gymnasium and steam room, and other amenities.
The building still stands today, having served several generations of Elks members.