Ninety years ago, the first purple hats, complete with their white tassels, started to sprout up around Red Deer.
The heads they sat on became easily recognized around the city over the years as the Elks, usually decked out in various shades of violet. The Elks are one of the oldest community organizations in Central Alberta.
On Saturday, 165 guests and members of the Red Deer Elks Lodge No. 85 are gathering for dinner, drinks, speeches and live entertainment in honour of the 90th anniversary. The event is sold out.
“We’ve had a big impact in Red Deer and it will be a celebration of that,” said Nick Henger, the Elks secretary-treasurer and a past leader or “exalted ruler” of Elkdom in Red Deer.
“Most organizations don’t make it that long,” added Gene Watson, also a former exalted ruler and a well-know developer.
The Elks, a national, fraternal and charitable organization dedicated to families and improving the community, was first established in Canada in 1912. The Red Deer Elks Lodge was granted a charter on May 14, 1924, during a time when citizens couldn’t depend on the government for recreational services or even improvements to infrastructure. The Elks Lodge was one of the groups to step up, donating funds to build a children’s wading pool, among other projects in education and health care.
Over the years, they contributed money to the Salvation Army, the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre, the Central Alberta Women’s Emergency Shelter, the Red Deer Food Bank and various sport organizations, including ringette, minor hockey, soccer, junior golf and the Special Olympics. They continue to donate to these groups and will be presenting the final cheque to the Ronald McDonald House of Central Alberta on Saturday, marking the last installment of the Elks’ five-year donation of $200,000 to the Magic Room.
The focus of all Elks’ contributions and work is “family and children,” said Henger, who joined in 1976 after hearing about the group from a coworker.
In 1927, the Elks founded a popular carnival known for its cart and harness races. It morphed into an annual fair in 1945, helped out by affiliate Order of the Royal Purple (a organization celebrating its centennial this year) and featured wrestling and boxing matches. There were also the sponsors behind many local stampedes and chuckwagon races in the early 1950s, Watson said, which really elevated the lodge’s reputation.
Watson was recruited by his father in-law, Camille Lerouge — the same Lerouge who the local Catholic high school was later named after — when he was 27. Part of what attracted him was the fact that you didn’t have to be of a particular religion to join and membership was open to anyone of any ethnicity and background.
The Elks were also the original sponsor of the Edmonton Eskimos — which is “why they’re so good,” said Watson with a wink.
The lodge started with just 121 men but ballooned to 2,800 in its heydey, said Watson. There are about 130 now.
The biggest challenge is “staying alive,” said member Al Delmage, as retention and recruitment are no walks in the park currently.
“Thirty to 35 years ago when we joined, there was a necessity for a group like us because of a lack of government involvement. Now, they hand out a number of grants. … And anyone can host a casino night and get $20,000 out of it. Licensed fundraising has killed us,” said Delmage, who was an Elks transfer to Red Deer when he moved from Yellowknife, over 10 years ago. His daughter and son are still involved with the Elks and the Royal Purple in Yellowknife.
For more information, visit www.elksreddeer.ca or drop into the lodge at 6315 Horn St. during one of Elks nights held every second and fourth Monday of the month, or regular meetings held every second Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.