The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (B.P.O.E.) of the United States of America is a large community service organization. It was started in 1868 by a group of New York actors and entertainers known as "The Jolly Corks" who wanted to make their club into a service organization. Charles Algernon Sidney Vivian, a singer and dancer from London, had been a member of The Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes in England and provided the Elks with many of their original rituals and traditions. They chose the elk as a symbol of strength, nobiliy and loyalty.

Unlike other fraternal organizations such as Freemasonry or the Rosicrucian Order, the Elks are not a mystic order. They have dropped many of the original secret rituals. In the beginning, they had elaborate initiation ceremonies, meetings, secret handshakes and passwords. Reportedly, new members were blindfolded during the initiation rite and had to ride around the meeting room on a goat, the basis for the humorous 1901 poem "When Father Rode the Goat". Of course, some traditions do persist, like the solemn "Eleven O'Clock Toast" to absent collegues or the funny hats, jackets and titles (e.g. Grand Exalted Ruler).

The Elks are "committed to ideals of charity and patriotism". They provide money and services to youth, veterans, the disabled and the disadvantaged and are one of the largest providers of college scholarships in the United States. They support Scouting, Boys and Girls Clubs, 4-H, youth sports, debate and speech teams and the Special Olympics. Other programs support veterans, for example a lodge might "adopt" an area veterans' hospital and provide regular entertainment or simply visit the people. Elks participate enthusiastically in patriotic events (they were the first organization to recognize Flag Day on June 14, 1907) and have been known to give away flags, especially to new citizens.

The national headquarters is in Chicago. There are over two thousand lodges in communities all over the United States with a total membership of 1.2 million. All of the elected leaders, from local to national levels, serve without salaries. To apply for membership, a candidate must be invited to join, must be a citizen of the United States, must be at least 21 years old and must believe in God. In 1995, membership was opened to women as well as men.

The Elks also call themselves "The Best People On Earth". Famous Elks include: Presidents Warren Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Gerald Ford; entertainers Lawrence Welk, Will Rogers, Jack Benny, Andy Devine and Clint Eastwood; sports stars Vince Lombardi, Casey Stengel, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Jim Finks as well as members of Congress and others too numerous to list.

The B.P.O.E. has spread to Canada. The first lodge was started in 1912 in Vancouver, British Columbia. They are affiliated with the women's auxiliary The Order of the Royal Purple, now called The Royal Purple of Canada.

To learn more about the Elks:

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