Beyond the Blaze

Madison Elks Club members vow
to survive, rebuild after fire

Cleanup in progress but future is on hold

By Konnie McCollum
Contributing Writer

(October 2006) – Disheartened and disillusioned, the men diligently searched through the charred and sodden ruins, looking for anything salvageable amid the devastation that occurred in the early morning of Friday, Aug. 25. A piece here, a part there, slowly a few precious remnants from what once was a thriving and vibrant brotherhood were pulled from the rubble of the Elks Lodge fire at 420 West St., Madison.

Oct. 2006 Madison Edition Cover

October 2006
Madison Edition Cover

About to give up, the call went out that something big, something really precious had been found. Those dedicated Elks Club members who had sifted through the grit and grime all day long had found perhaps one of the most historic and significant items to the club’s heritage – the ledger that held the minutes of the Elks’ first meeting. Recorded in the book was the history of how the Elks Club began and who had been a part of this historic event.
Tony Steinhardt, a 40-year member, took charge of the historic book, which was found completely water-soaked in an old filing cabinet. With some advice from experts, Steinhardt carefully used white paper towels and a fan to dry the wet, ink-smeared pages.
The book was then taken to the Jefferson County Historical Society, where the staff plans to carefully copy each page in order to preserve the historic information that was nearly lost. “It is amazing that this particular book, which is so important to the history of the club, was found,” said Ron Grimes, the museum’s archivist.
Irreplaceable and priceless, in terms of sentimental value, the book stands as a reminder of the rich and historic past of the Elks Club, yet it also stands as a symbol of fortitude for the future, since club members have vowed to rebuild and continue the organization.
“We are in the process of planning and looking at every available option there is for our future, but we will continue,” said Trevor Lytle, Exalted Ruler (lodge president) of the Madison Elks Club.

Elks debris workers

Photo by Don Ward

Workers for Davis &
Lockridge Construction
haul out charred debris
from the Elks Club building
in downtown Madison.

In the predawn hours that morning in late August, a ferocious fire lit up the sky and quickly engulfed Lodge 524 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. The out-of-control blaze leapt to the roof of the building next door, the historic Old City Hall located at 416 West St. Three other buildings were also damaged before nearly 150 firefighters from nine firehouses in Madison and neighboring communities battled for three hours to put the fire out as TV News helicopters filmed the action from the sky. Forty-two firefighters were treated for heat exhaustion, Indiana State Fire Marshal Roger Johnson said.
When it was over, the Elks lodge had been decimated; the Old City Hall, which housed the Gardner Insurance Agency, had lost its top floor, and the other buildings had also sustained damage. Two families living upstairs were forced out of their homes. The two structures were considered “significant” among the 2,200 historic buildings in the recently designated National Historic Landmark District by the National Park Service.
Elks Club members had begun gathering as the word spread quickly throughout the community about the fire. They solemnly watched the building burn, knowing that more than just a building was gone; wonderful memories of past gatherings, community events, weddings, fun, friendship and camaraderie were also being destroyed.
The fraternal organization had completed a $250,000 renovation, including installation of a new air-conditioning system, just two years ago. The Elks housed a restaurant and bar and was home to Thursday night bingo games and community meetings, social events and weddings.
“It made me literally sick,” said past Exalted Ruler Bob Center, a 29-year member of the Elks. “My kids grew up in there, and my son’s wedding reception was held in there.”
Others echoed his sentiment. Roger Kittle, a 49-year member, was out of the country on a trip to England when the fire destroyed the building. “It was devastating and just tragic,” he said. Kittle visited the club several times a week to have dinner or simply meet his friends and socialize.
Wilbur Heitz, a 39-year Elks member, said, “I could hardly believe it.” Heitz, 85, joined the club because it does so much good for the community. “My grandfather was even a member of the Elks.”
Steinhardt said it was “totally disheartening” to see the damage the fire had caused to the building.

Rodney Lockridge

Photo by Don Ward

Rodney Lockridge, a partner in Davis &
Lockridge Construction Co. and an Elks Club member, holds up what is left of the
“11 o’clock hour” steel plaque that hung
in the lodge hall and has meaning in the
club’s ritual. Lockridge found several ledger
books and other artifacts that will be
turned over to the club.

Lytle said, “Think of all the history we are losing with that building.”
At first, fire officials had called the fire an accident, but as investigators sifted through the mess, they labeled it an arson investigation. There were several factors that led investigators to change their mind, officials said.
According to a member of the Elks Club, the cash register in the bar area had been broken into and several vending machines had been also been damaged.
Because a group of Elks had been playing cards in the building the previous evening until around 2 a.m. – a regular occurrence at the club – investigators said the fire must have begun sometime after that and spread rapidly in order to have consumed the building by the time it was discovered around 6 a.m. None of those in the group of card-playing members noticed anything amiss while they were in the building, officials said.
“A smoking ballast in a light fixture would surely have been noticed by one of the card players at some point during the evening if that would have been the true cause, as was originally reported,” said one member.
The Madison Police Department is leading the ongoing investigation but so far, no suspects or further information have been announced.
Both members of the Elks and citizens throughout the community are perplexed, however, over why anyone would want to torch the building. The Elks has a long and prominent history of community good works and fund raising.
Elks history and mission
Nationally, the Elks started in 1868 as a drinking club called the “Jolly Corks,” which was established to elude New York City laws about the opening hours of public taverns. Early members belonged to theatrical troupes in the city. It has since evolved into a major fraternal, charitable and service order throughout the country with more than 1 million members, both men and women, and 2,100 local lodges nationwide. Current members must be at least 21 years old and believe in God.

View pictures from
the Elks Club Fire

Madison’s Elks Lodge was granted a charter on Nov. 8, 1899. At that time, G.S. Taylor, an assistant deputy auditor for the county, was named Exalted Ruler. Each member paid $15 in dues and met at the Madison Cycle and Athletic Club.
The Elks building was erected in 1902 and, according to Elks members Mike Cosby, a 10-year member, and Bill Kindle, a 19-year member, the Madison club is the oldest in the Midwest that has operated continuously in its original building. Research is being done to confirm whether the club is the oldest in the entire country to stay in the same building, Kindle said.
Lytle said the current membership is about 325 men and women. The organization is a not-for-profit fraternal organization whose focus is charitable works, including veteran support, youth activities and patriotism.
At one point in the early history of the club, the Elks had their own band and were active in minstrel shows. “The minstrel shows were popular community events years ago,” said Grimes, the county museum archivist.
According to additional information at the historical society, the Elks band was also popular and played at the Madison Chautauqua Festival of Art each year and at other community events.
Many members cite the club’s charitable works as the main reason why they joined. The club’s youth programs are popular, and each year, the club sponsors a “Student Government Day,” in which high school students from Madison learn to run the city. One participant serves as mayor, while other students run the various offices at City Hall. The Elks Club donates the plaques that each participating student receives. The Elks organization also sponsors three scholarships each year for high school seniors from the area.

Elks post card

Photo provided

This post card shows what the Elks Club,
left, and former City Hall building, right,
looked like when they were built in 1902.
Elks Club members say their structure will be saved and rebuilt, once insurance adjusters are finished and an arson investigation by the Madison Police Dept. has been completed.

In addition, the local club participates in the national Elks’ Hoop Shoot program. In it, more than 3 million boys and girls from across the country compete in a basketball competition.
Only 72 players advance to the final competition to determine the national champion.
Locally, close to 200 students participate annually in the program, club officials said. The club runs the program and finances the expenses for any player who advances to the state competition.
The organization also supports veterans. Numerous fund-raising activities to support veteran needs are conducted by the Elks. For instance, the local chapter helps support the Veterans Administration’s van, which takes veterans to doctor visits and other appointments. They also hold benefits and fund raisers for other veteran services.
The building itself has been offered to the American Red Cross to hold its fund raisers and other local clubs that need a place to hold a fund-raising events. Kittle said the national organization is the largest contributor for cancer research in the country besides the federal government. The local club raises money by holding raffles, dances, parties and benefits.
Rebuilding for the future
Despite the devastation to their building, Elks members say the club will rebuild and prevail. “We are looking for a temporary building to hold meetings and continue our community work,” said Lytle.
He said the club is in a “wait and see” mode until insurance and other financial issues are worked out. “The rebuilding may take a few years,” he said. Apparently, the arson ruling has no effect on the insurance, which is provided by Aon, a Chicago company. “Insurance should cover most of the cost, although we were a little light on content insurance,” said Lytle.
The club is still paying off a loan for the remodeling project that was completed two years ago. Repaying that loan will likely cut into funds available for rebuilding, Lytle said.
“Relocation and stabilization are our primary focus at this point,” said Kindle, who is in charge of fund raising for the rebuilding efforts.” He said the club has already started fund-raising efforts, including the sale at the recent Madison Chautauqua of historic photos of the building and the Elks band. He said donations from other Elks’ lodges have also been pledged, including furniture and decorations.
The Jeffersonville, Ind., lodge, which was the sponsor for the Madison lodge when it first formed, is waiting to see what it needs to do in order to help. Other local service groups, including the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana, have pledged to contribute to the Elks Club rebuilding fund.
According to Lytle, structural engineer Russ Zeckner of Louisville-based Donovan Engineering has said in an initial report that the exterior of the building is structurally sound and can be rebuilt. Lytle said the report is good news because it will allow the building to retain its historical significance, which could make it available for certain grants.
The club is looking into all aspects of federal, state and local grants or financial aid to help in the rebuilding process. John Stacier, executive director of Historic Madison Inc., said the Elks building and former City Hall are important structures in the historic district. “They are so designated as important structures in that district, and therefore, research to determine what can be done and what’s out there is being conducted,” he said,. He added that HMI is “assisting the building owners in whatever capacity it can.”
The former City Hall building, jointly owned by Scott and Kathy Lynch and Seven LLC, parent company of Gardner Insurance, sustained heavy damage during the fire. The top floor of the building was gutted, while much of the bottom floor sustained water damage.
Robin Goodnight, co-owner of Gardner Insurance, said nothing important to her insurance business was destroyed. She wanted to re-assure clients the company is “100 percent in order.”
At this point, the insurance company has temporarily relocated to the former Hall’s Carpet building, located at the foot of Hanging Rock Hill on Hwy. 7. Goodnight said the owners are getting bids and weighing their options on what to do with the building.
The building, built in 1879 on the site of a former school for African American children, was originally intended to be a new school for those children. However, plans changed and, on March 19, 1880, Madison Mayor J.T. Brashier, who served from 1876-1882, and the city council held its first meeting in the building.
In 1925, the building received a new red-brick, stone-trimmed front, thanks to a generous donation by local resident A.H. Gibson.
The building housed the city government until 1994, when the Lynches bought it and converted the upper floor into living quarters and the main floor into their business office for Scott Lynch Realty. The main floor was later sold to Seven LLC, and the real estate company relocated to the Madison hilltop. Gardner Insurance had been operating in the building for about 15 months before the fire, and private residents were renting the upper floor.

• A fund has been established for anyone wanting to contribute to the rebuilding of the Elks Club. Send donations to Madison Elks Fire Fund, P.O. Box 207, Madison, IN 47250.

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