The last days of the Elks lodge

EVERETT — The oldest Elks members will tell you there was a time when a young man in Everett did three things on his 21st birthday: He registered to vote, got his state liquor card and joined Elks Lodge No. 479

At its peak in Everett, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks boasted more than 5,000 card-carrying members, remarkable considering just 35,000 people then lived in this mill town.

For the better part of the last century, the Elks club was the place to be in Everett, the hub of civic life where members cultivated a sense of belonging, goodwill and fellowship.

Big-name entertainment including Sammy Davis Jr. played at the club, dances stretched into the early mornings, and people ate good food and enjoyed cheap drinks such as half-price double martinis.

“If you didn’t belong to the Elks Club, you didn’t have many places to go,” said Joe Weller, a former club manager and officer who worked at the Elks for nearly two decades. “Now, of course, there are so many other distractions.”

The club was private, and its ranks over the years included mayors, congressmen, senators and two governors.

That said, the group wasn’t exactly elitist. Unlike the more exclusive Cascade Club, the city’s power brokers and bankers rubbed elbows at the Elks with mill workers from Scott Paper Co., utility workers and other blue-collar boys.

But it wasn’t for everybody. Women weren’t allowed into the club until just over a decade ago. And the club members became split when a respected Everett city councilman who is black attempted to join but was denied entry in a secret ballot.

Now the building that the Elks called home for nearly a century at 2731 Rucker Ave. in downtown Everett will be demolished and replaced by a seven-story, 200-unit condo. It isn’t the end of the Elks; the group meets in Normanna Hall, and it plans to build a smaller lodge across the street from its old home.

Like similar private benevolent clubs that reached their peak decades ago, the passage of time is taking its toll on the Elks, the city’s largest fraternal organization.

Membership has dwindled as older members have died off at a faster rate than new members are added. The club now has fewer than 900 members. This year, about 30 names will be read at an annual memorial service for departed brethren held on the first Sunday in December.

“Fraternalism seems to have lost its luster,” said Jim Cassidy, an exalted ruler from 1975 to 1976. Exalted ruler is the title Elks bestow upon the lodge’s leader. “I have three kids and none of them even asked to join. That isn’t where their buddies go.”

* * *

Cassidy, a second-generation Elk, whose father, Jack Cassidy, and brother, Bob Cassidy, also were exalted rulers, spent nine years “going through the chairs” taking on various posts before he was elected exalted ruler. The semiretired funeral home director competed for his first leadership assignment, the tiler, or person who guards the lodge door during meetings. He campaigned like a politician for the exalted ruler position. One year, he assembled a marching band to attract votes for his brother who was running for trustee.

That kind of enthusiasm for Elkdom is rare these days. Finding new members, let alone people willing to spend the time volunteering for officer positions, requires arm twisting.

Unflinchingly patriotic, Elks gave generously over the years to servicemen and helped put on an annual air show at Paine Field, showing off the latest military jets.

The club held popular annual events; gave scholarships; sponsored Boy Scouts, Explorer Scouts, Little League baseball, 4-H and FFA; and rented out space for weddings, luncheons, high school proms, and Rotary, Central Lions and Kiwanis club meetings.

Those were the glory days.

Philanthropy is still a core Elks function, but the organization now competes for scarce donations with a wide array of nonprofit groups and government programs that have taken over work traditionally carried out by service groups after World War II.

The Elks also competed with television, long commutes and other societal changes.

No place could the decline in membership be seen more than in the lodge at California Street and Rucker Avenue.

As money became tighter, the lodge experienced years of neglect. Upstairs, a bucket collected rainwater from a dripping ceiling while a leaky boiler downstairs sat wrapped in discolored insulation and duct tape.

Property taxes on the old building ran about $36,000 a year, and gas, water and electricity bills last December totalled about $11,700.

“It was just not wired for this century,” said Linda Averill, the club’s current exalted ruler. “It was once a beautiful building, but it was just falling apart.”

In 2004, club members decided to sell the aging building to Skotdal Real Estate, downtown Everett’s largest developer. Company owner Art Skotdal joined the Elks in 1967.

The Elks earlier this month poured the foundation for a five-story building that will house the club’s new lodge on the southwest corner of California Street and Hoyt Avenue. The new building with bay views will also have nine condominiums and underground parking.

Club leaders say they hope a new headquarters can help breathe new life into the organization, though they don’t expect a return to the flourishing club of 1950s and 1960s.

* * *

The Elks in Everett started on April 21, 1899, when the club was initiated by the officers of Port Townsend Lodge No. 317. Pioneer lumberman James E. Bell, who managed the biggest sawmill in Everett and who later served as Everett’s mayor, was the club’s first exalted ruler.

By 1910, the Elks lodge moved to the Spanish mission-style building on Rucker Avenue what would become its permanent home in Everett. In 1917, the club held a public ceremony where members burned the mortgage, marking the retirement of all debt against the building.

In 1925, the Elks built a $100,000 addition, doubling the building’s size. With its great lodge room, Doric columns, 16 chandeliers and dimmable lighting system, the lodge was touted as being among the finest on the Pacific Coast.

During Prohibition, a speakeasy called “The Shanty” was conveniently located just out the back door. For a short time, before the ban on alcohol was lifted, moonshine was served in the basement.

Membership boomed through the 1930s, prompting the club at one time to consider limiting membership to 1,000. That never happened. Instead, membership blossomed to more than 5,000, making Everett one of the largest Elks lodges in the country.

Up until the late 1940s, slot machines brought “easy money.” Past exalted ruler John Estie, whose father was an Elks bartender in the 1940s, remembers the club’s “one-armed bandits” shoveling fists full of coins into the machines. As with profits from drinks, money collected from gambling also went to charitable works.

The revenue added up and during WWII, 20 percent was set aside for a special fund for returning servicemen.

At the end of the war, the club held a three-day party for its members in uniform who served overseas and held a solemn ceremony for five men who never made it home. The Elks divided $50,000 among the 200 returning servicemen and the widows of those who were killed.

About the same time, the Elks purchased and donated land to Everett School District for the 10,000-seat Everett Memorial Stadium in memory of veterans who served in WWII.

At Christmas, it opened its doors to children of nonmembers for a party with Santa Claus. It held Easter egg hunts at Forest Park, where a few lucky kids could trade in golden eggs for new bicycles. Its annual salmon fishing derby sent anglers swarming to Port Gardner Bay in search of big fish. A popular strip show on Washington’s Birthday every year was a successful tactic to get lapsed members to pay their dues.

In 1960, a fire that hospitalized two firefighters forced the club out of its quarters for more than a year.

A new club rose from the fire’s ashes. For the grand reopening in April 1962, the club offered the community tours of its luxurious new home.

The club sank $1 million into a complete remodel, which included four dining rooms and two kitchens. It was rewarded with a surge of hundreds of new members. The club was built for entertainment, and could accommodate 600 guests for lunch and dinner. Reservations were a must.

Downstairs, members worked out in the full gym or swam in the swimming pool or played on racquetball courts. They even got their hair cut at the club’s barbershop in the basement.

Upstairs, the Stag Bar — a men’s only bar — gave members a place to drink or play the slot machines that were legal at that time. Separate rooms offered places to play cards, shoot billiards or read the newspaper and chat.

Legendary entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. performed there when he was a rising star. Singer Sophie Tucker, comedian and television star George Gobel, Eddie “King of the Banjo” Peabody and Hawaiian singer Hilo Hattie also played to packed crowds.

“Entertainers going up the ladder and coming down, we could get, and we had some big names,” said Frank Platt, who joined during the height of the Great Depression and who at 93 is the oldest Elk in Everett.

* * *

Peter Jackson, Democratic speech writer and son of the late U.S. Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, argues places like the Everett Elks lodge are more than just buildings.

Jackson, whose father was a longtime member of the Elks and who swam at the club as a boy, said informal hangouts away from work and home are important places where neighbors can interact and find creative solutions to the community’s problems.

As for the Elks, Jackson said it was a place and time that outlived itself.

“The Elks kind of did themselves in, in some ways, taking so long to progress as an organization,” Jackson said. “But we do have to be aware that losing those gathering places affects community values.”

The beginning of the end, he said, came in 1977, when Carl Gipson, a respected Everett City Council member, was the only one of 67 applicants to be rejected.

Blacks were barred from membership of all Elks lodges until its constitution was amended in 1973 — five years after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Even though he was sponsored by the club’s leader, Gipson was rejected from membership under an old rule which allowed just three members of a lodge to reject a member by anonymously dropping black balls into a ballot box. The rule, which made it more difficult for blacks to join, was later eliminated.

“It was devastating, because I was on the City Council and I had worked in the city since 1945 and worked my way through my own business,” said Gipson, who was raised in segregated Arkansas before joining the Navy. “It made you feel like you were in the Deep South again.”

Larry O’Donnell, who joined the club as a young Evergreen Middle School teacher in the fall of 1964, said the vote to block Gipson from becoming a member splintered the organization and resulted in several people leaving the Elks.

Gipson never became a member of the lodge. Over the years, the club finally changed. Minorities joined and women were allowed to join 12 years ago.

And they’ve become an important part of the Elks club in Everett and elsewhere in the country.

“Women have been a real asset to us, because they’ve helped stabilize our membership,” said Dwayne Rumney, past national president of the Elks. “The last few years, we have been losing a lot less members than we had prior to them joining.”

Last year, Elks lodges nationally had 17,000 fewer members than the year prior. Five years ago, the club was shrinking by about 30,000 members a year, Rumney said.

Overall, Elks membership has declined from about 1.6 million in 1979 to fewer than 1 million today.

Averill, a retired Everett High School librarian, is the fourth female exalted ruler at the Everett lodge. Her sister, Ann Hall, who held the position from 2000 to 2001, was the club’s first. Elks changed its constitution in 1995 to allow women as members at its 2,200 lodges. Many clubs had women’s auxiliaries before that, but only men were allowed to be members. Today, several lodges in Washington, including Oak Harbor, Lake City, Vancouver, and Puyallup, are led by women.

* * *

O’Donnell kept his membership, though he never became an active lodge member and only attended meetings on occasion.

To him, the biggest attraction was the basement. It was a great place to start or end the day. At first, he enjoyed the basketball court where a group played marathon games followed by a swim. Later he became a regular in the steam room, the ultimate in therapy, when he became a busy school administrator, he said.

“The hiss of the steam room, the echoing splashes in the swimming pool, the gurgle of the Jacuzzi — all memories of the Everett Elks basement,” he said. “For 43 years, it was my home away from home, my personal spa, my workout center, a center for easy conversation, a spot to unwind after a stressful day.”

O’Donnell said he shared the space with some remarkable men, including Bronze Star recipient Jack Elkins, a former prisoner of war in Japan, and National Baseball Hall of Fame center fielder Earl Averill (no relation to Linda Averill).

“Down in the Elks basement, they were just one of the guys,” O’Donnell said.

Albert Greso, 77, who worked as the barber in the club’s basement for nearly 50 years, shares a similar nostalgia, calling the club a “safe haven.”

He started giving haircuts in 1959 and figures he continued at a steady clip of a dozen or so cuts a day for many years. He estimates he gave about 54,000 haircuts in his career.

“It got to a point where I no longer had customers, I had family,” Greso said.

There were gags, like the time some members took a poor fellow’s fishing boat off his truck in the parking lot and plopped it in the pool. He thought it was stolen. Or the time the mahogany doors to the club were switched out with replicas, and a rowdy member, pretending he was drunk, cut through the doors with a chain saw during a lodge meeting.

But the heart and soul of the club, Greso said, was in its members who looked out for one another as they aged, lost spouses and faced declining health. Greso, who recently lost much of his vision, said old Elks members have called him with well wishes.

While they no longer have their own space, a group of Elks still gather three mornings a week to trade barbs over racquetball, just as they have for decades.

On a recent chilly fall morning before sunrise, a group of eight old men with elevated heart rates and racquets in hand took turns whacking rubber balls in the bright courts on the fourth floor of the downtown Everett YMCA.

Between them, the men have had a hip replacement, back-and-neck surgery and a five-way heart bypass.

While their games may have slowed, the caring friends blasted jokes at one another with staccato speed.

“I’m only 68,” one man shouted.

“You play like you’re 80,” quipped retired PUD heavy equipment operator Joe Pereira, 83.

Norm Keck, an energetic 73-year-old, chimed in.

“If laughter is supposed to extend your life, I can tell you we’re extending our lives for 10 or 15 years,” he said. “I can tell you some of us have laughed until we’ve cried.”

Reporter David Chircop: 425-339-3429 or

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