The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (BPOE)—or just the Elks, as most people know them—are celebrating their 150th anniversary this year as a national organization. Locally, the Gateway Elks Lodge #2411 is celebrating an additional milestone as they finally move into their new location at 16321 S.E. Stark St., after spending the last three years crammed into a single room and without a full-service lodge.
The old lodge opened in 1972 and was twice the size of the current location, with 30,000 square feet and 202 parking spots on a 5.44-acre lot. After Elks membership fell to a perilous low of 1,000 (from a high of more than 5,000 at one point), the enormous lodge was sold to the David Douglas School District for $3.8 million in 2015. Since then—pending the purchase and revamping of the new location in a former pizza restaurant on the Portland/Gresham border—the Elks have been using the “octagon room,” just a tiny portion of the overall building, and have now finally spread out into the rest of the facility, which has two bars; multiple pool tables and other gaming options; lottery machines tucked away from where families might gather; and multiple storage, meeting and ceremony rooms around the main bar and gathering area.
On Saturday, June 16, the past and present Gateway Elks held a dedication ceremony to unveil their new lodge and pay tribute to the Elks that came before them. The event was attended by more than 100 residents, among them current Elks, officers of the lodge and what are called “Past Exalted Rulers” (former lodge officers who occupy a place of venerated respect and leadership within the organization). They also enjoy a good get-together with their friends and family and raising a cold drink together. After all, the Elks got their start as a drinking club for stage performers.
Denice Schuermyer is an officer of the Gateway lodge and the public relations chair. Asked if the name was changing since they are no longer in Gateway, she said no, they’re going to treat it as the “Gateway between Portland and Gresham.” She filled the Mid-county Memo in on some Elks history. “They found that they couldn’t drink at night, so they would go back and have drinking games,” says Schuermyer of the very first Elks Lodge, located in New York. When one of the original members, called the Jolly Corks, passed away, the rest of the group organized to provide social services to the family of their deceased comrade. From there, the organization expanded around its love of providing service and a fun place for its members to get together and lift a cold one. Along the way, they amassed 800,000 members and became a premier charitable social organization in the United States. “The Elks were responsible for the first MASH unit [Mobile Army Surgery Hospital] in World War I, as well as the first VA hospital. Elks give out the most scholarships to graduating seniors, next to the federal government,” says Schuermyer.
The Elks do fundraisers all year long and give to a variety of causes. Their biggest two charitable projects are the Elks Children’s Eye Clinic at OHSU and Camp Meadowood, a speech communication camp that gives children an intensive speech therapy experience.
At 15,000 square feet, the new lodge is significantly smaller than the old location, but it still has an impressive set of facilities on the inside. The bar areas are distinct and separated, with one facing the open area of the main space and the other facing the game tables and the darker back area, where a more relaxed vibe is in force. Currently, there are still improvements going on, and some rooms will still shift their purpose.
Membership is always open, and the only requirements to join, other than being over 21, are that you must be a U.S. citizen and have a belief in God. The last requirement might be a sticking point for some, but Schuermyer makes sure to point out they don’t care which deity one worships, just that it is a club for those who believe in a God. The Elks’ roots are steeped in this fraternal service to a higher power. Unfortunately, as history reminds us, those roots are also steeped in racism, as the group began as male-only and all-white (in fact, some of the performers in the Jolly Corks were minstrel performers who worked in blackface). Their national charter didn’t remove that feature until 1976, around the same time their membership peaked at 1.6 million, over twice its current levels. But this is also a history the Elks have done a lot to put behind them with their civic work.
“In July we’ll be going to Alder Elementary School, and we have a $2,000 grant to do lunch and snacks for them to kick-start their summer program,” says Schuermyer about Elks events that non-Elks can participate in. “And our bingo is open to the public, on Wednesday nights at 6:00 p.m., and officers are around who can show people around the lodge.”
The Elks are seeking to regrow their membership numbers, but it’s a challenge when the average age of members of groups like the Elks is ever-increasing. Schuermyer estimates the median age of the Gateway lodge members to be in the late forties, which is why they are strongly courting younger members to ensure the organization’s survival. The new lodge is also part of that strategy.
“We really pushed to get a nice pub feel to the lodge and get younger members and a bigger demographic,” says Schuermyer. “There’s been a decline in fraternal organizations. And with that, we just needed to move into a smaller building.”
For more information about the Gateway Elks Lodge, call Schuermyer at 503-255-6535.