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May 2, 2023

From Jolly Corks to Elks: The Founding Story of BPOE

From Jolly Corks to Elks: The Founding Story of BPOE

The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (BPOE) is a fraternal organization that was founded in 1868. Its purpose is to promote the principles of charity, justice, brotherly love, and fidelity. The organization is known for its philanthropic work, including supporting veterans, children, and communities in need. Like many fraternal organizations, they have their own cemeteries or plots within larger cemeteries. These plots were cemeteries are often marked with a large sculpture of an elk. Individual graves may contain an elk's head inside a circle with the initials BPOE, the words “cervus alces” (Latin referring to the genus and species for the American Elk), and a clock with Roman numerals. The hands of the clock are always frozen at 11 o’clock (more about this in a moment). Many graves belonging to members of the Elks are also marked by metal markers that showcase the elk's head and symbols. These markers are often flag holders. On June 14th, Flag Day is celebrated, marking the adoption of the US flag on June 14, 1777, as resolved by the Second Continental Congress. The Elks began observing this day in 1907 by displaying flags on graves and throughout communities. President Woodrow Wilson was impressed with the Elk's initiative, and in 1916, Flag Day was recognized as an official US observance by Congress.

In an effort to maintain their social gatherings on Sundays, when New York's blue laws prohibited the opening of public establishments, a small group of actors and entertainers in New York City began meeting regularly as the "Jolly Corks." The name was inspired by a bar trick introduced by the group's organizer, and while the meetings were held consistently, no structure or substance resulted, aside from a toast to absent members. However, when one of the group's members passed away before Christmas in 1867, leaving his family destitute, the Jolly Corks realized they needed a more noble purpose in addition to good fellowship. Two months later, on February 16, 1868, the Jolly Corks launched the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.

To better match the aims of their new society, the 15 original members chose to name themselves after an animal they felt represented their values. The final vote was between the Elk and the Buffalo, with Elk being the winner with a vote of 8 to 7. Those who voted for the elk felt that "The elk is a peaceful animal, but will rise in defense of its own in the face of a threat. The majestic creature is fleet of foot and keen of perception. A most fitting representation, the stately elk is, for a distinctively American, intensely patriotic, family oriented organization". 

The Elks incorporated a number of fraternal practices that are similar to those of the Free Masons; An "Exalted Ruler" governs each Elks Lodge as the "Worshipful Master" does in a Masonic Lodge. In 1874 the Elks adopted their official colors of royal purple, white and gold. Even though they presented a very dignified front and ceremonial pomp and circumstance, the jolly spirit of their original founders could still be felt in lodges across the country as new initiates were often pranked during their ceremonies. 

The BPOE conducts a ceremonial called the "Eleven O'Clock Toast" at every meeting and social function when the clock tolls 11:00 p.m. The tradition started as a custom where members would inquire about absent brothers and propose a toast to them. The Grand Lodge eventually provided for this ritual to be observed during Lodge sessions and called it "The Eleven O'clock Toast." The Exalted Ruler recites the prescribed ritual, concluding with the words "To our absent Brothers." The toast is typically followed up with a rendition of "Auld Lang Syne".

In 1921, a group of women in Omaha, Nebraska, decided to form an organization that had similar ideals and principles as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. Thirty-two women attended the first meeting, and a temporary organization was formed. The organization was named the Benevolent, Patriotic Order of Does (BPO Does). The Grand Lodge was formed and chartered on February 12, 1921, with the authority to charter subordinate lodges, called “Droves”. The BPO Does were created to provide a national women's organization that shared the interests of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks. Membership is by invitation only, and applicants must be an American citizen, believe in God, be over 21 years old, and not be affiliated with any political or sectarian organizations. The Officers of a Drove serve annually, and membership is restricted to wives, widows, mothers, daughters, and sisters of Elks. However, as of 1995 women have been allowed to join the BPOE.

In 1898 B.F. Howard and Arthur J. Riggs attempted to join the BPOE, but were denied membership because they were black and at the time the Elks were an all-white organization. This did not deter them however, and they started their own organization, The Improved Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks of the World (IBPOEW). Qualified individuals were granted membership without regard to race, creed, or ethnicity. Today, the IBOEW has approximately 450,000 members in Lodges 
throughout the U.S.A. and the Caribbean. The BPOE became fully integrated in 1973.

In our modern world, The Elks organization have a three-part mission Charity, Justice, and Brotherly Love. They are committed to making a difference in their communities by supporting a wide range of charitable causes. They donate millions of dollars every year to organizations that help veterans, children, and people in need. The Elks believe in the importance of justice and fairness. They support law enforcement and work to promote good citizenship and respect for the law. As a fraternal organization, and they place a high value on brotherhood and camaraderie. They believe in the importance of building strong relationships and supporting one another. 

The BPOE currently has over 1 million members across the United States. To become a member, you must be a citizen of the United States, at least 21 years old, and believe in the existence of a Supreme Being. Members must also be sponsored by an existing member of the organization.

Photo: Elks Rest Section of Greenmount Cemetery in Durango, Colorado.

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