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December 11, 2011

Lodge was home to fading fraternity, timeless values

— The clock above Elks Lodge 860 still read 11 p.m. Saturday afternoon, in defiance of an early morning fire that destroyed much of the surrounding structure.

The brick-and-mortar timepiece hasn’t moved in decades, instead subtly reminding those in the know about a time-honored ritual among members. They recite a prayer for past members at precisely

11 p.m. each day.

For the first time since the iconic three-story structure was built in 1921, remaining members will be forced to remember their departed brothers elsewhere.

Now in its darkest hour, it’s not clear how the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks and its many traditions will continue absent their landmark home.

“I don’t think anybody knows,” city historian and longtime Elks club member Peter Trinkwalder said.

In part that’s because the building was in many ways like a living organ for such traditions.

It featured five entrances (including one for members and another for their wives during a time when the Elks was a male-only club) and four stained glass windows representing the core tenets of the Elks’ fraternity: brotherly love, charity, fidelity and justice.

According to some accounts, the building at the corner of Sweeney and Main streets in North Tonawanda is one of just a small number still standing to include similar design elements.

“That building was a diamond in the rough,” past Exhalted Ruler Roger Bush said. “There were rooms up on the third floor in the shipping days for the guys in town with the lumber industry.”

A bowling alley originally constructed in the basement had once been a state-of-the-art draw before having a floor built over it in more recent years.

The Elks was first established in the city in 1901, according to records compiled by the North Tonawanda History Museum, before several temporary meeting places along Main Street were replaced by the current, larger structure.

The present building at 21 Main St. was originally built at a cost of $100,000 and designed by local architect Louis F. Eggert, according to history museum accounts.

An article in the Tonawanda Evening News from 1918 chronicled the need for a larger structure, touting the induction of a large class of men to the club’s rolls. Huge dinners serving hundreds of people justified other headlines of that era.

The Elks always had a strong following amongst the working class residents of North Tonawanda, news accounts indicate, and eventually came to include many of the area’s most influential citizens.  

“The movers and shakers in North Tonawanda all belonged — I think Col. Payne was a member,” said Trinkwalder, whose father Francis Trinkwalder served as exhalted ruler during the 1950s.

Like many Lumber City residents, Trinkwalder grew up in the building, getting in trouble once for riding the dumb waiter between floors, he recalled.

He said a “one armed bandit” slot machine installed behind the bar had to be removed in the late 1940s or early 50s when general gambling was outlawed.

The club as recently as this year continued to offer blackjack, roulette and other games of chance using special state permits issued once a year during Canal Fest.

Members, however, say the many patriotic and community events staged there are what best defined the organization, even more perhaps than its famous Friday fish fry.

“It’s a very worthy organization and it’s a very sad day,” Bush said. “I was there for six or seven years of my life and I really respect the Elks and what they do.”

More recently, members included former North Tonawanda Mayor David Burgio and his wife, Donna.

“It’s one of the things that made this community a community,” David Burgio said Saturday.

Calling it a setback for the city’s downtown success in recent years involving renovations specifically done to preserve such historic structures, Burgio said the city has lost a piece of its heritage.

“Everyone has been in and out of that place for different reasons and it was always a nice place to go,” he said.

Cars stopped in traffic along Main Street Saturday as motorists, each with their own ties to the building, gaped in awe at the familiar building now roofless and gutted.

Others appeared periodically to take pictures of the damage.

The Elk organization dates to the mid-19th century, originating in New York City, according to information published by the history museum.

Organizers modeled themselves after the elk almost accidentally, a chapter in the book “North Tonawanda: The Lumber City” states.

“The brothers found the elk described in a work on natural history as an animal fleet of foot, timorous of doing wrong, but ever ready to combat in defense of self or of the female of the species,” an excerpt reads.

Interestingly enough, only one vote amongst the original brothers secured the name elk as opposed to buffalo.

In modern times, the club had been struggling to maintain the large building, where heat and utilities alone sometimes threatened the club’s bottom line.

Membership that had soared after the turn of the century was around 300 souls at the middle of the last decade, Bush said.

Trinkwalder acknowledged membership has continued to dwindle, in part resulting from changing social behaviors that have similarly affected many social clubs and organizations in recent years.

“Membership was down. It wasn’t like it used to be,” he said. “Like all organizations like that, they’ve had declining numbers. It’s not quite as trendy as it once was.”

Not likely to go out of style, however, are the principles of charity, justice, brotherly love and fidelity that form the club’s core.

It is perhaps best captured in the club’s original charter:

“To recognize a belief in God; to promote the welfare and enhance the happiness of its Members; to quicken the spirit of American patriotism; to cultivate good fellowship; to perpetuate itself as a fraternal organization, and to provide for its government, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the United States of America will serve the people and communities through benevolent programs, demonstrating that Elks Care and Elks Share.”

Contact reporter Neale Gulley at 693-1000, ext. 4114.

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