In mid-June, 1906, an immense 68-year-old elm tree that had become a landmark in Vincennes, was cut down. The tree stood on a lot on Busseron Street next to City Hall Place at Fourth and Busseron. Harry Gordon, an African American man, was paid $4, plus all the wood from the tree, to undertake the job. The reason the massive tree was felled was to make room for the new Elks Lodge building that was to be constructed on that site.
Vincennes Lodge No. 291, Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, a fraternal order, was instituted in 1894 with 39 charter members. Since that time, the Elks has met in at least three different locations. Prior to construction of their own building, the organization was meeting in space above the City Hall Drug Store at 320 Main St.
It was in March 1903 that the Elks acquired the property. The Vincennes City Hall stood on the corner of Fourth and Main streets, and there was open space behind the City Hall at Fourth and Busseron, known as City Hall Place. The new lodge building would be on Busseron Street but would front City Hall Place. The site was currently occupied by a two-story frame saloon and beer garden (along with the elm tree) owned by John Gatton. The purchase price was a reported $5,000.
Local architect Thomas Campbell, of the firm Campbell & Osterhage, designed the building, which would be of red brick with stone trim. Its principal feature was a two-story porch supported by enormous pillars. Sealed bids were received that spring, and in June the construction contract went to local contractor John Hartigan, who bid $19,300. The total cost of the building would be approximately $30,000 (more than $900,000 in today’s money).
By late summer 1906, construction was well underway. On Sept. 4, an elaborate ceremony was held to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone, with an address by local attorney James Wade Emison, one of the most popular orators of the day. Contents of the cornerstone included local newspapers, an American flag, and information about the Elks, including their constitution and by-laws.
In October, the second story was being constructed. The building was finally accepted by the Elks in July 1907, and they moved in later that month. They held their first meeting there on Aug. 22. The lodge room was on the second floor, decorated with a large elk’s head that had been purchased from a Cincinnati company. An elk’s head also greeted people at the front entrance, this one wired so that the prongs of the antlers were illuminated. The first floor was occupied by a reception room and lounge and there was a billiard room in the basement.
The dedication of the Elks Home took place over three days in the summer of 1908. June 23 was devoted to public tours, with some 1,000 people going through the building. The following day, the structure was open to members and their families, with a reception, dance, and card playing that evening. Finally, on June 25, the official dedication was held, with Elks from Princeton, Evansville, Terre Haute, Cincinnati, and many other locales descending on the city for the occasion.
At the time of the dedication, the Elks had 250 members.
The building would be occupied by the Elks for the next 60 years. In 1959, the Elks purchased the Vincennes Country Club, and the following year, local businessman Robert Green offered to buy the downtown Elks Home, offering $50,000 for the property. Green’s plan was to sell the building to the city for $25,000, for use as a community center and teen canteen. There was opposition to this plan among many Elks members so Green ultimately withdrew his offer and the Elks continued to use the building.
The old lodge building was finally purchased by the American National Bank and, in 1967, was razed for a parking lot. The Snyder Construction Company got the demolition contract and began work that spring. Thus, another beautiful old Vincennes building passed from the scene. The cornerstone was opened at that time and the mementoes placed there 60 years earlier were removed.
Brian Spangle can be reached at email@example.com. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published last year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.