In The Beginning: The object of this brief History is to set forth the real facts of the Origin of the Order of ELKS. The story, always interesting, is the story of the expansion of a dream of brotherhood into the greatest of American Fraternities.
On Friday, November 15th , 1867, Charles A. Vivian, an English comic singer, landed in New York via an English trading vessel from South Hampton. On the night of his arrival he dropped into the Star Hotel, a “Free and Easy” kept by John Ireland on Lispenard street near Broadway. Richard R. Steirly, also of English birth, was a piano player at the Star Hotel. Vivian struck up an acquaintance with him and volunteered to sing a few songs. He made such an impression on John Ireland that the latter sent for his friend, Robert Butler, manager of the American Theater on Broadway. Vivian sang for Butler, making such a hit that he was engaged for a three week’s run at the American. When closing time came at the Star Hotel, Steirly took Vivian around to his boarding house at 188 Elm Street, kept by Mrs. Giesman. There he found a collection of congenial spirits, among them William Bowron, who also knew Vivian in his native land. (The streets in that section of New York have been re-plotted and their names changed so that the plot known as 188 Elm Street can now be found on LaFayette Street in the block between Broome and spring Streets. In 1939 the Council of the City of New York passed the following resolution: “Be it resolved… that the two blocks remaining on Elm Street be known as Elk Street to pay tribute to the famous Order of Elks which was founded on that Street in the year 1867.”)
On November 23rd , 1867, Dick Steirly went to the American Theater to take notes for the purpose of orchestrating some of Vivian’s songs. After the matinee, Vivian took Steirly over to Sandy Spencer’s place at Broadway and Fulton Street. There they met Hughley Dougherty, Cool Burgess and Henry Vandemark. The latter suggested that the party shake dice for the refreshments. Vivian replied that he never handled the cubes, but would show them a new game. Calling for three corks he gave one each to Steirly and Vandemark, keeping the other for himself. He asked Cool Burgess to be the judge and Dougherty to count to three. They rehearsed the trick of each dropping his cork on the bar and picking it up as rapidly as possible, several times, the idea conveyed to initiated being that the last man to lift his cork was to buy. Vivian then gave the word of command, Dougherty counted, he and Steirly passed their hands over their corks while Vandemark, eager to lift his cork from the bar, was both first and last to pick it up and, consequently, was “stuck” for the round. This was the first introduction of a delectable form of amusement which became popular.
Birth of the Jolly Corks: At about this time the Excise Law was being strictly enforced and Sunday in New York City was a very “dry” day. Devotees of the cork trick formed the habit of congregating at Mrs. Giesman’s on this day to hold social conventions under the inspiring influences of a stock of beer laid in the night before. This little coterie styled itself the “Corks”, with Vivian as the “Imperial Cork”.
The revels of the Jolly crew meeting at Mrs. Giesman’s became disturbing to the other boarders and she finally required them to forego their Sunday gatherings in her house. Quarters were found at 17 Delancy Street, over a saloon kept by Paul Sommers, where the meetings were continued. The object of the “Corks” at this time was entirely convivial. It’s membership was composed of professional and semi-professional entertainers with a sprinkling of legitimate actors. Among the latter were Thomas Riggs, George McDonald, William Sheppard and George Thompson, a theatrical agent. When the cork trick was tried on McDonald it amused him so that he called the coterie the “JOLLY CORKS” and, as such, it has gone down upon the pages of history.In the latter part of December, just before the holidays, they were returning from a funeral of a friend, Ted Quinn, when McDonald suggested that the “Jolly Corks” become a protective and benevolent society. At the meeting held on the 2nd of February, 1868, presided over by Charles A. Vivian, George McDonald offered a motion to organize the “Jolly Corks” as a lodge along benevolent and fraternal lines and, providing a committee be appointed to formulate rules and regulations for it’s government, prepare a suitable ritual and select a new name.
Vivian had in mind an English organization “The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffalos” but the majority were desirous of bestowing a distinctively American title upon the new organization. A committee visited Cooper Institute Library where the Brothers found the ELK described in a work on Natural History as an animal “fleet of foot, timorous of doing wrong, but ever ready to combat in defense of self or of the female of the species”. This description appealed to the committee as containing admirable qualities for emulation by members of a benevolent fraternity and the title “ELK” was incorporated in its report.
Birth of the Order of Elks: On February 16, 1868, the committee reported recommending that the “Jolly Corks” be merged into the “Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks” and the recommendation was adopted by a vote of eight (8) to seven (7). Listed below are those who voted for what name.
For “BUFFALO”: Charles A. Vivian; Richard Steirly; M.G. Ash; HenryVandermark; Harry Bosworth; Frank Langhorne; E. W. Platt.
For “ELK”: George McDonald; George Thompson; Thomas Riggs; William Carleton; William Sheppard; George Guy; Hugh Dougherty; William Bowron.
Its social activities and benefit performances increased the popularity of the new Order. Membership grew rapidly. Elks traveling to other cities spread the word of the Brotherhood of Elks. Soon there were requests for Elks Lodges in cities other than New York. In response to these appeals, the Elks asked the New York State legislature for a charter authorizing the establishment of a Grand Lodge with the power to establish local Lodges anywhere in the United States. When the Grand Lodge Charter was issued, the founders then received the first local charter as New York Lodge No. 1 on March 10, 1871.
Expansion of the Order: Since then lodges have been established throughout the United States and even in far flung places such as Guam, the Panama Canal, Puerto Rico and Manila. During World War II there were temporary lodges established on Guadacanal and the New Hebrides Elks Lodge that was based on Espiritu Santo Island. There is even a seperate Canadian Order, The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of Canada which was founded in 1912. The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of Canada are not affiliated with the American Elks, but share a common history and enjoy a friendly relationship.
On June 14, 1907 the Order held a Flag Day observance. This tradition later was declared a national holiday by President Harry S. Truman.During World War I, the Elks funded and equipped the first two field hospitals in France and built a 72-room community house in Camp Sherman, Ohio and a 700-bed rehabilitation hospital in Boston, which they turned over to the War Department. They also raised money for the Salvation Army’s frontline canteens.
Their loans to 40,000 returning veterans for college, rehabilitation and vocational education were the precursor of the GI Bill.
When World War II broke out, the Elks were th
e only civilian organization asked to help recruit construction workers for the military, a task that was completed three months ahead of schedule. The Elks also contributed more than half a million books to the Merchant Marines so that their men would have reading material on board ship.
The Korean War again brought out the best in the Elks. They donated more than half a million pints of blood to help wounded soldiers.When the wounded from Vietnam needed help, the Elks responded. They provided the funds for a recreation pavilion at the Navy Hospital on Guam. The wounded at Tripler Medical Center in Hawaii were sweltering in the heat. When the Elks heard of their plight, they purchased 24 air-conditioning units so these patriots could recuperate in some degree of comfort.
When Operation Desert Storm took place, the Elks again led the support for our fighting men and women in the Persian Gulf. Subordinate Lodges undertook letter-writing campaigns to help keep up the spirits of the defenders of freedom. The Elks were also among the first to welcome them home and thank them for a job well done.
Our story is long; our work is humble; our history is proud. As long as there are those who need our help, the Elks will be there to give aid and comfort.