Elks Lodge: Elevating the Community

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By Jamie Grabert

 Mount Vernon Elks Lodge #277 is on a mission to elevate the community. The local chapter of this national organization may just be the city’s best-kept secret. Membership may be down, but the enthusiasm and love of the community continues to grow.

Elks Lodge #277 was first organized in 1894. Lodges are numbered in the order they are formed, meaning the local chapter of the 277th such organization established. The Mount Vernon Elks are the 12th oldest in the state. 

The national organization began as the Jolly Corks. An entertainer found a job in New York and lived in a boarding house. Because there was nothing to do on Sundays, he met with other musicians and entertainers. They later changed the name of the group to the Elks because it is the only animal that isn’t said to be aggressive in nature, and is protective of its young.

The Mount Vernon Elks Lodge currently has about 300 members. Gross said that the group was 700-member strong in the 1970s. He added that membership across the national organization is down.

Connie Seifert, the local organization’s Exalted Ruler, recently sat down for an interview along with fellow member Jake Champlain and Past Exalted Ruler and Trustee Tony Gross. They explained that the 2014 campaign is “Elks Elevating America.”

The Elks at one time was a fraternity. They had a Women’s Elks Club, but those ladies were not allowed in what is now the barroom. Today, the club is open to all. They have a family room instead of a men-only club.

According to Gross, every state has a project. The Indiana Elks have designated their fundraising project to be the Indiana-Purdue University Cancer Research Center. Throughout the years, the Elks Lodges across the state have donated over $9 million strictly to the research center.

The local organization donates at least $500 annually to the national Elks Foundation. Seifert has personally donated $2,000 to the National Elks foundation and has received a letter of recognition.

The three of them spoke about the involvement of Elks members, which goes straight to the purpose of the organization. They want to serve the community in any way possible, whether is be fundraising or volunteering their time. 

The local Elks Lodge is involved in a number of activities and events, including the annual Hoop Shoot, Parks & Rec. movie nights, drug awareness, River Days, Red Cross, Big Brothers Big Sisters, various poker run benefits, Relay for Life, Mount Vernon Youth Baseball, Special Olympics, Habitat for Humanity, student scholarships, Project Notebook, the Mount Vernon Ministerial Association, local veteran’s support, At the Cross Mission and more.

“We have a little money for building maintenance, but most of the money that comes in, goes right back out into the community,” said Gross.

The Elks Lodge is always looking for ways to get involved. “If someone comes up with a cause and brings it to us, we do things to help,” said Champlain.

Gross noted that a number of Elks members participate in other activities, but don’t announce to others that they are Elks because the focus is supposed to be on volunteer efforts, not them. He noted that the national organization wants them to track the hours spent doing for others, but they know this is a daunting task.  Gross noted that last year, $330 million was donated in charitable time, money and travel through Elks members. 

Gross explained that there are a number of benefits to being a member of the Elks, aside from the hours or dedication spent serving. Seifert confirmed. 

They noted that Elks members can go to any Elks Lodge in the U.S. and enjoy full privileges. Some lodges have golf courses. 

The Elks are known locally for donating their facility to local clubs and individuals. On the day of the interview, they hosted a Bicentennial Committee meeting. They host a number of reunions and receptions as well. In those cases, a small fee is assessed to cover expenses like a licensed bartender and clean up. 

Champlain is one of the members working on reviving the beer garden, which was a huge draw to the annual street festival. The beer garden was one of the largest fundraisers for the group. In its hay day, the event lasted a few days. This year, Champlain said they are having a one-evening event, following the parade on Sept. 13. There is no cover charge, but you must be 21. They will have a DJ and half-pot drawing. While they will have hamburgers and hot dogs, the Elks are encouraging patrons to eat at the River Days booths before attending the beer garden.

“The beer garden is not affiliated with River Days. We realize this is a huge fundraiser for these groups, and we want to help them, not compete with them. This is an extended, after hours activity,” said Champlain.

Seifert explained the membership requirements. These are strict because the Elks want to ensure the solid reputation of the group and its members. She said that you have to be 21 years of age; have good moral character; believe in god; and be a U.S. citizen. Dues are $87 per year and are due in April; they are prorated based upon the time of year accepted. 

They have two meetings a month, except for July, August and December. The Elks will hold an initiation class on Sept. 19. A background check will be done after the application is submitted.