Winding my way through the labyrinth north of the river, I considered what I might be walking into. Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble used to attend a raucous, male-centric organization called the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes, where they’d eat brontosaurus steaks and communally drink beer out of an unliftable chalice. And I needed a drink.
At the corner of Poplar and Broadway streets, on the front of an old, two-story red-brick building, a neon sign displays “BPOE, No. 1004,” and bears the image of an elk head. The antlers reach up to a star. Behind the horned mammal is an analog clock, whose hands are forever fixed to the eleventh hour.
I rang the doorbell and waited to be let in. A sign in red letters warned: Members Only. A few seconds later, I was welcomed into the North Little Rock lodge of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks by Jackson Pruss, Esteemed Leading Knight.
The image sat firmly in mind. This was going to be like some Skull and Bones, occult goat-riding descent into hell. Black robes, candles, Republicans, the lot. Nothing could have prepared me for what I actually encountered: regular people, like you and me, enjoying drinks, the company of fellow adults, and a connection to something greater than themselves. Secrecy? Hardly. Unlike Fight Club, the first rule of the Elks is to tell everybody.
The lodge’s foyer would remind anyone of an old city hall, with a marble staircase, pictures and names of current and former leadership, and the lodge’s Bible, encased with two different black-and-white pictures of firefighters hosing down a burning building. The Bible has been featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not for having survived not one, but two fires.
“We hope there isn’t a third time to be the charm,” Pruss told me as he led me through two glass doors.
Like any good bar, there’s enough seating and space for at least a hundred people — though I only counted about a dozen there for a Thursday evening. Illuminated dart boards line the wall to the right, a jukebox lays in wait at the front, while a large bar stands in the back, serving members as they chat and smoke. I did not spy any wooly, horned hats … nor any forced machismo.
In this room, I met Joy Gunter, Lodge 1004’s newly elected Esteemed Ruler, and the lodge’s first woman to hold the top Elk position. Her father was an Elk, and after she joined 22 years ago, she was immediately placed in the position of treasurer.
It wasn’t until 1995 that women could even join the BPOE, let alone lead, a change that barely predates Gunter’s membership. As Pruss brought me a pint of Flyway Brewing’s Bluewing, Gunter was showing me the renovations to the building, including a new dining hall where they serve dinner every Tuesday.
The lodge was originally a bunkhouse for the railroad in the ’60s, a place where workers could rest between grueling shifts. The Elks were around then, but they were taking up residence in what is now North Little Rock’s Junior League building on Fourth Street.
That’s when I learned about the ghost.
“There’s actually a few of them,” Gunter said.
I’d expected a tour, but I had no idea our first stop would put me in the Ladies Room — a dimly lit lounge full of plush couches and vanities. One of the ghosts claims this spot as hers.
“Her name is Minnie,” Gunter said.
When a paranormal investigator stayed the night in Minnie’s bathroom, the evening ended with a cold presence brushing past Gunter and a motion detector going on the fritz.
Many Elk members have seen the “Lady in Blue.”
Gunter told me, “You walk in and she says, ‘I think it’s time you should leave.’ ”
I agreed with Minnie’s sentiment, and the tour moved on, taking me up white, marble stairs to where the Elks hold their rituals. The walls outside the entrance are lined with the names of members who have passed, all plated in bronze.
Inside the hall, four throne-like chairs had been placed on each wall. These are the four positions of leadership, representing the four pillars of the Elks:
Charity, Justice, Fidelity, and Brotherly Love.
Taking up these pillars, from the top down, are the Esteemed Ruler, followed by the Esteemed Leading, Loyal and Lecturing Knights — all of which anacronyze to ELK.
The Order was formed by New York thespians in 1868 because they were looking for a place to drink on Sundays. They were known as the Jolly Corks, but as membership expanded and a name change was decided, they became the Elks over the Buffalo by one vote. Since then, they’ve had a hand in developing some national hallmarks: Flag Day was proposed by the Elks, for one. And Joy Gunter wants to bring back some of the old traditions — like their formal Christmas Ball and Mother’s Day ritual — while also welcoming people from every demographic.
Different from organizations like the Shriners, who focus on one area of philanthropy, the Elks have their hands in everything. They collect school supplies for kids going into the second semester, since other drives take place at the end of summer, and they also consistently raise money for local human development centers.
They want the lodge to be a place for families, minorities and especially people who might assume they’re something nefarious.
“People look at the Elks Lodge like the old white dudes club,” Pruss told me. “We’re trying to bring back the positive reputation of the Elks. We have Latino members, African American members. I myself am a member of the LGBT community and we have several others who are as well.”
Pruss is also a millennial, and it’s his hope that of our generation would consider joining the BPOE.
I consider how difficult it is to make new friends in your 30s. Recently, the New York Post reported that one in every five millennials is lonely and has no friends. So why not the Elks?
“We’re there to do whatever we can to help other people,” Gunter said.
Pruss nodded. “Our motto is Elks care, Elks share.”
Membership requires you to be an American citizen and to have never been a member of an organization that tried to overthrow the U.S. government.
Sorry, QAnon Shamans need not apply. Admission also requires you to believe in a higher power, though the Elks concede that a potential member’s answer to the question “Do you believe in God?” can be complicated. Some agnostics have joined, for example, while an avowed atheist cannot.
“We care about people,” Gunter told me when I asked what it all means.
Pruss smiled and said, “That’s why we’re the BPOE, the Best People on Earth!”
So if you’re looking for a safe place to hang out any day of the week, meet new people, and support good causes, you could do worse than the Elks. The least you have to do is pay the annual dues of $119.50. And in this economy, that’s a damn good deal.
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