St. Augustine and The Fraternal Orders
Part seven of a series
The Elks, A new Lodge
By Geoff Dobson
At the end of Thomas Wolfe’s novel, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” the protagonist, George Webber, realizes, “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time — back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
Sometimes the change to small town America comes from growth. Recently, the writer, after twenty some-odd years paid a short visit to the town in which he had gone to high school. The prior visit had been twenty years before then. In other words, in forty years since his family left, there had been one visit.
An interstate highway had pushed through where cattle once grazed. Where once a dirt road across the sandhills led to our main gate and the writer’s older brother got his Studebaker stuck in the sand, there is now a shopping center. The railway depot was gone. The elementary school which the writer attended, both replaced by so-called “improvements.” Nevertheless, one thing remained the same, the old Masonic temple still stood. The writer’s home-town had changed from growth.
Recently, one of St. Augustine’s Freemasons, a bon vivant and world traveler, went to his old home-town high school reunion. It proved to be a disappointment. His old home-town was a small town in the snow and rustbelt of the Northeast. It had changed. The people had changed and the town had faded. Perhaps most disappointing to our world traveler was his old Masonic Lodge “had gone dark.”
It was a lodge which he had joined at age 21, a lodge in which his father undoubtedly been a member and perhaps his grandfather before him. Lodges, such as the Masons, Odd Fellows, and the Elks, are father and son affairs. In the local Elks Lodge, the current Exalted Ruler is a part of a family within the Elks which goes back multiple generations. Other Exalted Rulers have followed in their parents’ footsteps.
Thomas Wolfe, however, was wrong, one can go home again, just not to the physical home, but, instead, to a town or place similar to that from which one came, a place where the people are similar to those with whom one grew up, espousing the old-fashioned values of brotherly love, justice, charity and fidelity.
Our world traveler moved to St. Augustine after he had wandered into a saloon on Aviles Street in which the band consisted of three individuals playing a gut bucket, ukulele, and a trombone. There was something about it that must have reminded him of home. He did a transfer demit on his membership in the Masons and he felt right at home.
And in the local area, it is the same with the local Elks Lodge. Elks lodges are found in just about every small town in America. They still put on Friday night dinners, or put on a fish fry, provide scholarships and support veterans.
The local Elks, among other things, put on a Sunday morning breakfast. Most of the time, it is done by some of the guys. On Fathers’ Day some of the ladies did breakfast — albeit with one of the guys on the eggs.
It was amazing how he could manage five frying pans at once, doing omelets to order; fried eggs, sunny side up or over easy; scrambled eggs; poached eggs; and tend to the corned beef hash. The guys did the prep and the washing of the dishes, pots and pans afterwards.
The local Elks lodge belongs to the local veterans service organization and sponsors the Army of Hope helping families of active service members. It also supports “Operation Stand Down” supporting veterans who are down on their luck. On the state level, the State Association provides a youth camp in Marion County and provides mobile therapy vans and therapists for physically challenged children.
Like most of St. Augustine, a majority of the membership now comes from elsewhere and, perhaps, never previously belonged to a fraternal order. But it is amazing how many say, “My father was an Elk, I remember going to the lodge for family day when I was a kid.” So, regardless of where those new members came from, they have come home again.
The Order of Elks dates to 1868, but as discussed in the next article its roots like those of the Odd Fellows and the Masons go back much earlier in time. The local Elks lodge dates to 1903 and over the years has continued to grow. Not to the extent of some other fraternal orders, the Elks have lost membership nationally.
It should not be surprising that in Northeast Florida, the Elks continue to grow. On June 26th, a new Lodge will be instituted in the northeast part of the county to be known as “Mandarin-St. Johns.” And like those in St. Augustine who come from elsewhere, the members of the new lodge will have come home again to a simpler time, a time of volunteerism and helping one’s neighbors and having fun at the same time.
Next Article: The Elks continued, the “Jolly Corks” and the mystic hour of eleven.
Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 years, is a western and Florida history writer and was former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Transportation. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at email@example.com