‘End of an era’ for Lebanon Elks

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

The last tap of the gavel was made as the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Lebanon Lodge #1663 held its last and final meeting on July 5.
More than a dozen of the remaining 44 members attended the meeting just days prior to the Grand Lodge’s official acceptance of the organization’s dissolution.
Chuck Christensen, one of the longest-standing living members at 60 years, felt sad about the closing.
“It was terrible,” Christensen said. “It’s the end of an era.”
The Lebanon Elks was formed 79 years ago on May 29, 1944 when C. Huston Walter was elected as exalted ruler and more than 80 members were initiated into the fraternal organization. More than 250 men from national, state and sister lodges attended the installation on the second floor of the Mayer building.

Monica Macedo as a baby, center, is held between the arms of her aunt Darla Swaney and grandpa Raleigh Smith during a family celebration at the old Elks building in 1985. Photo courtesy of Monica Macedo

“It was the going place,” member Tom Peters said of the fraternal organization. “It was where you went to communicate, to meet, to have a meal, to go to a dance, to be entertained and all of those things.”
The Lebanon Elks was a social hub for families, especially after it erected its own building in 1949 at 633 Park St., and added a ballroom, sauna and athletic room in subsequent decades.
“That building over there was 35,000 square feet and it was built one section at a time with cash,” Peters said. “They never had a mortgage at all and it just got added on and added on.”
Though women and children could participate in special activities and enjoy use of the facilities, only men were allowed to become members of the organization until the mid-1990s when the Elks began admitting women. Catherine McVay was Lebanon’s first female exalted ruler in 2007.
The Elks was more than a social center, though.
“It was a group of people getting together not only to be a part of the group, but to do something in the community that would benefit the community,” said Peters, who’s been a member for 20 years.
Charity was a foundational tradition rooted in the organization’s first part of its name, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks.
“That’s what they focused on, so we’ve always been and we always operated under those premises, a benevolent and protective order of the Elks,” said Bob Burt, who’s been a member for 54 years.
Citizens doing things together for their community was an extremely honorable thing, Peters said.
“These people have become my friends and it’s amazing how you bond by working together and being a part of a group and accomplishing something,” he said, adding that there were a number of other local clubs and groups associated with the Elks that made money and funneled it back into the organization.
“We got out and supported the community over and over again to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars of money that went back into Lebanon,” Peters said.
For 80 years, Lebanon Elks supported youth athletics, veterans, a backpack program, Boys & Girls Club of the Greater Santiam, Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital, MOPS, Lebanon Soup Kitchen, FISH of Lebanon, ABC House, a Christmas basket program and more.
According to members, they donated 585 Park St. as a senior center for a number of years, purchased Lebanon Fire District’s first aerial firetruck, bought and had trained Lebanon Police Department’s first police dog, gave iPads to residents of the Veterans Home and fed its employees during COVID, and annually provided scholarships to Lebanon’s graduating seniors.
“That’s the thing that’s hard for me to watch it go bye-bye,” Burt said. “It is the knowing all the years that we put in as far as donations to the different things in the community, the kids that have benefited by the fact that we’ve been here. If we could possibly sit down and think about all of the money and all the people that have benefited from this lodge, and then to think that it’s not gonna exist anymore, I think the whole community will kind of be taken back a little bit.”
In the early days, the Elks enjoyed a private bar, “one armed bandit” 25-cent slot machines, poker games, billiards and ballroom dancing.
“It was kind of a gentleman’s club where we could go to have a drink and socialize,” Christensen said.
They even shared family camping and RV trips together.
“It was a group of people that just got along and liked each other, and it was wonderful,” Peters said.
Michelle Evans, who’s only been a member for two years but is a third-generation member, recalled regular visits to the Elks Lodge during her childhood.
“As a kid, I’d go push the button and I just had to say I was Mark King’s daughter or Al King’s granddaughter,” Evans said. “They’d let me in and I’d go use the sauna room and all sorts of things. They’d have father-daughter dances and they’d have the crab feast. I remember years previous to that they would actually take a whole weekend and do the Elks picnics in Cascadia.”
According to Christensen, the Lebanon Elks membership was at its highest in the 1950s or 1960s with about 3,600 members. As membership numbers began to drop, long-standing members found themselves bearing the weight of responsibilities often transferred upon newly-elected officers, Burt said.
Ron McKinney, member for 58 years, said it used to take as long as seven years to have a shot at becoming exalted ruler, and Peters added members used to compete for the nomination.
“Years ago it was quite an honor if you were even asked to become an officer,” McKinney said.
As it neared its end of life, however, members of the Lebanon Elks would find themselves in the position of exalted ruler after only one or two years, Burt said.
“I think during the years we had the larger membership numbers, we were family oriented and that’s what attracted new or younger members to continue to join our lodge,” he said.
Peters attributed the decline in membership to technological changes, and more specifically to cellular phones that emerged in the early part of the century.
“People became immediately addicted to it because you didn’t have to go out anymore,” he said. “You could get on and communicate with 20 people by pushing a button, so the need to go into a place like the Elks Lodge started going away.”
As membership declined, revenue decreased while costs increased due to the maintenance of an aging facility.
“It became more and more difficult to generate any kind of income for the lights, but the expenses kept going up,” Peters said.
As such, the Grand Lodge (which is above all lodges) suspended #1663 in 2015 and gave them five years to sell the building and start a new lodge; otherwise it would pull its charter, Christensen said. The 34,577-square-foot building sold in 2017 to Calvary Chapel for $500,000, a sizeable decrease from the original asking price of $1.25 million.

Elks member Tom Peters shows the bar that was installed in the West Maple Street building.

The Lebanon Elks later purchased a former doctor’s office at 41 W. Maple St. and remodeled it to suit their needs with a full kitchen, bar and meeting room.
“It has served our purpose to bring us to today, but it’s an Elks Lodge where there’s nothing to do,” Peters said. “It’s not big enough to have any real activity other than eating and drinking and having our meetings. At the old building we still had activities, pool tables and rooms and games.”
As membership continued to decline, the lodge’s profit to loss ratio was not sustainable, he said.
“We’re down to just a family of a few older folks that’s running the lodge,” Peters said. “It came to the point where we started talking about how we can’t keep going, we have no way to make money here, we keep spending money.”
But all is not lost for the remaining members because Lebanon Lodge #1663 has officially merged with Sweet Home Lodge #1972, which will absorb all of Lebanon’s assets and remaining members.
“They’re doing pretty darn good up there, and what a beautiful building (they have),” Peters said. “They have a million-dollar view out their dining room and 330 members. We’re frustrated and embarrassed that we are where we are, but the best decision we could make is to say that we have something we can offer up there and we can continue meeting close to home.”
The final roster for Lebanon Lodge #1663 included Kathye Parker (exalted ruler), Chuck Christensen (esteemed leading knight), Michelle Evans (esteemed loyal knight), Barbara Jurick (esteemed lecturing knight), Sara Ainsworth (secretary), Tom Peters (treasurer), Mark King (trustee), Bob Burt (trustee), Nick Heineck (chaplain), and Brad Schroyer (inner guard).