Scores of 20- and 30-somethings are flocking to two Elks lodges in Seattle, drawn by a stunning view, cheap drinks and the chance to give back to the community.
When a friend invited him to watch last year’s Super Bowl at the Seattle Elks Lodge, Jesse Calixto admits, he never had heard of the nearly 150-year-old fraternal club.
But soon after walking into the lodge at the base of Queen Anne Hill, with its stunning views of Elliott Bay and the Space Needle, $5.50 top-shelf-vodka martinis and a gym, Calixto was sold. He quickly joined and urged all of his friends to follow suit.
“I didn’t think it would be as cool as it was,” said Calixto, 29, who lives on Capitol Hill. “You think of these things as stuffy retirement homes, but when I showed up it was this awesome building that has so much potential. It was a great party.”
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Just a year ago, the sight of 20- and 30-somethings inside Seattle’s Elks lodges — places long known for secret meetings, bingo games and square dancing — was fairly uncommon. Membership in fraternal clubs across the nation has been plummeting for decades.
But the Elks club is cool again in Seattle.
Since spring, the lodges in Ballard and Queen Anne have seen an unexpected spike in membership, largely among people considered young by fraternal-club standards. Of 80 new members in Ballard and 35 in Queen Anne, the bulk have been men and women in their late 20s through early 40s, according to the two lodges.
“They were once into health clubs, and now they’re out of the clubs and interested in us again,” said Lois Morgensen, who didn’t want to give her age but concedes to ties to the Ballard lodge since the 1960s, when women weren’t allowed to join.
“I love them. You can’t believe the hugs, kisses and the respect I get from them,” said Morgensen, who became a member 14 years ago.
Katherine Kroger, 34; Susan Nieves, 40; and Tricia Nielsen, 37, all recent members of the Ballard lodge, said membership allows them to give back to the community and learn about old-time Ballard from some salty club veterans. That, and they get to enjoy some of the cheapest drinks in town with a view of Seattle that people at nearby Shilshole restaurants have to wait in line to enjoy.
Kroger said she’s following in the footsteps of her mother, a member of a lodge in Port Townsend.
“It’s a great organization, and the charity they give back to the community is amazing,” Kroger said.
With the recent spike in membership, the Seattle Elks, the formal name of the Queen Anne lodge, now has about 300 members. The Ballard Elks has more than 560.
“This year has been a banner year for Seattle,” said Toni Schwichtenberg, 51, bookkeeper at the Queen Anne lodge. “It’s like a snowball effect. You bring in one young person and they join and they go out and tell all of their friends.”
Schwichtenberg, whose husband, Jim, is the lodge president, said it wasn’t uncommon in recent years for the club to sign up one new member every 12 months.
For around $100 per year, men and women 21 and older can join the Elks. The only requirements: American citizenship, a belief in God and sponsorship of an existing club member.
It’s a far cry from 30 years ago when only white men could join.
Amos McCallum, 74, a former national president, a role also referred to as grand exalted ruler of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, is fairly certain the requirement that prospective members have a belief in God will be eliminated.
“I’m sure sooner or later we might have a problem in that area,” said McCallum, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Saco, Maine.
In the nearly five decades since Morgensen’s late husband joined the Ballard Elks, much has changed — not just their location, from downtown Ballard to a waterfront site next to Ray’s Boathouse.
When Morgensen took her first twirls around the dance floor at the Ballard Elks lodge, she was dressed in fashionable white gloves, party dress, heels and a corsage, and her husband wore a tuxedo. Everyone who was anyone in Seattle was a member, she recalls.
The Elks organization was founded in New York in 1868 under the name “Jolly Corks” by 15 actors, entertainers and others associated with the theater, according to the Elks website. Membership eventually expanded to other professions.
The fraternal order was founded, according to the website, “to promote and practice the four cardinal virtues of Charity, Justice, Brotherly Love and Fidelity; to promote the welfare and enhance the happiness of its members; to quicken the spirit of American Patriotism and cultivate good fellowship.”
Women, who were not allowed to join, discussed charity work, recipes and housekeeping as members of a ladies auxiliary club. Their husbands ran the lodge in closed-door meetings full of secret rituals.
Nationally, the Elks grew until around 1980, when membership began a decline from a peak of about 1.6 million to fewer than 900,000 today, McCallum said.
Membership also has tumbled at many other fraternal social clubs, such as the Moose, Lions and Eagles, over the past 30 years, even though big changes were made.
In 1995, the Elks opened membership to women.
McCallum and others aren’t sure why membership at many fraternal clubs has dipped and keeps dropping.
He believes the surge of younger members at some lodges will become a national trend because of a desire by younger adults to devote more time to charity work.
“Because of the economics more young people are joining,” McCallum speculated. “It’s their desire to keep programs [being cut] going in their communities.”
While numbers are rising at the two lodges in Seattle, a third lodge, in Lake City, is not experiencing the same growth.
“We can’t attract the younger members here,” said Roger Buck, who manages the Lake City Elks. “There’s not the pride in elkdom that there was when I joined 40 years ago.”
While Buck, 69, manages the Lake City lodge, he belongs to an Elks lodge in Mount Vernon — which, he said, is also not seeing a spike in younger members.
On the national level, most Elks lodges aren’t seeing the type of growth experienced by the Ballard and Queen Anne lodges. And in his hometown of Saco, McCallum said, there’s no surge in younger membership.
“We hear from the younger people in this area, ‘we’re both working,’ ” he said. “My wife and I were both working, but I still had time to be a member and coach my son in pee-wee football and Little League games.”
Nancy Schlagheck, spokeswoman for the Fraternal Order of Eagles, founded in Seattle in 1898 by six theater owners, said the group has activities designed for members younger than 35. But, Schlagheck said, members for the most part are “an aging demographic.”
Darryl Mellema, spokesman for Moose International, said its fraternal lodges slowly are gaining younger members. He says he believes members need to be open to new ideas to attract younger people.
“It’s an acceptance. The program stands for all the right things in all ages, but if everybody in your Moose Lodge or your Elks organization is in that average age group and five people who are 22 join and have great ideas, you have to at least listen to them,” Mellema said.
While fraternal clubs, at their heart, are a place for socializing, they also are focused on charitable giving. Both the Moose and Elks raise money to help children and seniors.
Morgensen and her friend and fellow Elk, Fred Hedman, 73, of Ballard, say they enjoy hearing the ideas of younger members on how to fundraise for a variety of charities. Out are the days of white tuxedo jackets, gowns and formal dances; in are chili cook-offs, potlucks and leaping into Puget Sound in the dead of winter — all in the name of charity.
Calixto said he and his friends put on a several-day stretch of a dinner-theater performance at the Queen Anne lodge and raised $1,500 for military veterans.
“It’s a bar where you can drink to raise money for people,” Calixto said.
But Anthony Gibbs, 35, of Wallingford, said being a member means more than having a place to drink, though he originally joined the Elks in Jackson, Wyo., because the organization had the only bowling alley in town.
“It could be people walk into the bar and the lodge room and they recognize that it’s a better view than anything on the north side,” Gibbs said. “We even have our own beach. It could be the front-end enjoyment aspects, but I know that at every initiation people are genuinely and seriously interested in helping out and give back to the community.”
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294
On Twitter @SeattleSullivan