Willoughby: The Aspen Elks: an inexhaustible supply of cigars and a chance to win a turkey

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Aspen’s Elks scheduled annual operas and musical plays at the Wheeler as fundraisers during the 1890s.

During Aspen’s mining days, the city’s residents identified many of the largest buildings by their builders’ names, such as the “Brown” or “Bowman Block.”

During my childhood, residents named a building by the business in them, such as “Tomkins’s” or “Sardy’s.” They referred to one building by its second-floor occupant, The Elks. That fraternal order arrived in Aspen after several others had set down roots, and outlasted most of them.

Performers in minstrel shows founded the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, or BPOE, in 1868 in New York City. They started it as a social club to avoid the city’s restricted hours for taverns. As the group expanded, they modeled themselves after the Masons and included secret initiation ceremonies, but the social entertainment component remained central. They sometimes used the noun “jollification” to identify a gathering.

Members had come to Aspen from Denver to institute the new group in late December 1891. The six starting members quickly grew to 30. Early the next year, they sponsored their first “social session” open to the public. The newspaper reporter who attended said of the event, “There were plenty of liquid refreshments and an inexhaustible supply of cigars.” Later in 1892, the Aspen contingent helped establish an order in Leadville.

At first the Elks did not have their own meeting hall. They shared space within the Patriotic Order of Sons of America Hall on Mill Street. Other fraternal orders shared the hall, and competition for members grew. More than 20 fraternal orders vied for the allegiance of Aspen’s men, including several groups of the Knights of Pythias, the Knights of Labor, the Robert Burns Caledonia Club and the National Association of Stationary Engineers.

During these early years, the Elks held annual fundraising events at the Wheeler. One of the most popular, in 1893 and 1894, featured a theater group that starred Patti Rosa. She had written a play, “Miss Dixie.” The event usually filled the theater and attendees heralded Rosa’s singing with thunderous applause. The Elks also booked the Peerless Pauline Hall. Her company offered an opera that Johann Strauss had purportedly written for her. Tabloids carried stories that spread Hall’s fame, albeit for her numerous marriages.

The Elks moved to their present location in 1892, when the building was called the Webber Block. The First National Bank soon bought the building and branded it with a new name. Newly built in 1891, the large, elegant building ranked third in price — $10 million in today’s dollars — after the Wheeler and the Jerome.

The Elks membership grew to nearly 300 by 1905, when they refurbished the hall and added new features, notably two 63-foot maple bowling lanes. Not the first lanes in Aspen, the Elks bowling alley nonetheless became the favorite.

Elks Hall also housed a handball court, pool and billiard tables, and a reading room stocked with newspapers and books. The elegant reception room welcomed visiting Elks and social gatherings.

Although the Elks came late to Aspen, they were one of few fraternal orders to carry forward into the city’s modern times. I walked past the Elks Building every day and noted its painted sign, one story high. This time of year I revisit my favorite Elks memory, that of the annual turkey bingo evening. Like any kid, I felt intrigued by a game in which my chance of winning was on equal footing with my elders’. And this event fed a dream that a child could take home the Thanksgiving turkey.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at