Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Migratory Elk Observed on the Banks of the James

In 1897, Joseph Laube was an undertaker who lived at 17 East Clay Street.  Because of his profession, his fraternal brothers probably thought he was a natural choice to represent the local Lodge of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks purchase of a burial plot for their membership.  For $300, Laube bought a small plot in a prime location in Hollywood Cemetery, thinking it would serve the needs of the membership forever.  The purchase agreement with the Hollywood Cemetery Company listed the terms of the sale, but also specified “that the ‘Elk’ monument in bronze as mentioned by your committee be erected in reasonable time.”  

The monument erected by the Richmond Elks Lodge on the
prominent site overlooking the James River is shown in this 1908 postcard.

The Elks were founded in 1868. They provided not only the friendly association of a fraternal organization but they also contributed to scholarships and local community building goals while promoting patriotism. Richmond’s own Lodge 45 was established in 1886.  Like most fraternal organizations, the Elk have their ceremonies and insignia, customs and traditions.  An interesting element of Elk ritual is the toast they term filled with “tender significance,” that is traditionally given among assembled Elk at 11 o’clock.  At that hour, all rise and toast members of the past:

“…Living or dead, an Elk is never forgotten, never forsaken. 
Morning and noon may pass him by, 
the light of day sink heedlessly in the West, 
but ere the shadows of midnight shall fall, 
the chimes of memory will be pealing forth 
the friendly message -- 

The same maudlin sentimentality heard in “The 11 O’clock Toast” is reflected in another Elk custom: the creation of burial plots for members.  Many early mutual assistance clubs often were organized around burial insurance, but few other American fraternal organizations have as many cemeteries of their own as the Elks.  This custom became popular all over the country, with many Lodges establishing their own cemetery section, and each one is usually identified by the name, “Elks Rest.”  These cemeteries, in keeping with their motto, “Once an Elk, eternally an Elk,” are almost always decorated with a statue of an elk on a high pedestal, signaling the resting place of their dead and the name of the organization. 

 A view of similar statues across the United States - click HERE to see more.

The management of the Hollywood Cemetery Company knew what they were getting in Richmond’s “Elks Rest” as they had no doubt seen these cemetery sections in many towns, each with the statue of the guardian elk. Amid the ornate memorials of Hollywood, and given the social stature  of their organization, the monument with the elk seemed perfectly appropriate and desirable.  

 This view shows the memorial that marks the grave of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the foreground.  Although the detail of the statue itself has been lost in this postcard image, the base of the Elks monument is visible against the sky at the right.

The spot purchased by the Elks was a choice location in Hollywood.  It was on top of a rise, which overlooked the graves of Jefferson Davis and his family.  Davis’ body had been moved and reburied in Richmond in 1893, and his tomb was one of the city’s many tourist attractions. The area below “Elks Rest” included some of Richmond’s most famous and wealthy, who vied for their eternal spot near Davises and Lees.  The burial of Fitzhugh Lee, former Confederate general and Governor of Virginia near the Davis family plot only added to the allure of this section of Hollywood for Confederate veteran and modern tourist alike.

In its first location, the “Elks Rest” section was on a commanding
hill, overlooking the river valley and the Davis section of the cemetery.

A few weeks after Fitzhugh Lee’s funeral in Hollywood Cemetery, Elks gathered to dedicate their statue of the elk on May 10, 1905.  Termed a “fitting tribute” to the deceased members of the Elks, its location meant hundreds of visitors to Hollywood’s shrine to the vanished Confederacy would have looked up and seen the silhouette of the elk against the sky.  It should be noted that, where many are genuine bronze statues, the elk in Richmond is instead an off-the-shelf item, perhaps available through the Elks organization.  It had a maker’s plate on the base, but unfortunately, that is now missing.  Nevertheless, as seen from below against the western sky, Richmond’s elk must have been a dramatic and memorable sight and remarked upon by many visitors to Hollywood.

The first burial in the Elks section was that of W. B. Jones, in 1902.  After that a steady stream of dead Elk made their way to what they assumed would be eternal rest in Hollywood Cemetery.  Every four or five years another Elk would enter “Elks Rest,” like in 1934, when C. B. Haynes, who lived on the corner of Park Avenue and North Rowland, was buried there.  Robert Green followed Haynes in 1937.  Joe Fanning, a foreman who lived at 3701 Ellwood Ave. was buried at “Elks Rest” in 1938.  Sixteen men were buried on the hill at Hollywood, their graves spread around the base of the elk statue.  Perhaps these were men without families, or travelers passing through Richmond with the restlessness of the Great Depression.  Whoever they were, from the local Elks or members of a distant Lodge, they must have been comforted by the knowledge that their final arrangements would be seen to in a dignified manner by their fraternal brothers.

 This plat of the original “Elks Rest” is from the collection of Hollywood Cemetery.

In 1939, a second agreement was drawn up with the Hollywood.  Finding that “the lot in question is not large enough for their purposes,” the Elks decided to buy a new and larger plot in Riverview Cemetery and sell their plot back to Hollywood.  Forsaking their premier location above the graves of Davis and Lee, members who had rested in peace for almost forty years were disinterred and moved to the new site.  The elk statue was taken down, and its base disassembled and re-erected on the new site.  The bodies of the sixteen dead Elk were rearranged around the new plot, with free space for new interments.  A large plaque was added, noting the date of rededication, 1940, with the inscription, “The faults of our brothers we write upon the sands, their virtues upon the tablets of Love and Memory.”

The placement of this plaque in 1940 signaled the
rededication of Elks Rest in its new site in Riverview Cemetery.

Perhaps it was the series of burials at Hollywood’s Elks Rest that came almost every year in the late 1930s that prompted the move to a larger plot, but the crush of expired Elk that the local Lodge expected never came.  There were only three more burials in Elks Rest after the new plot was established: Walter S. Burton was buried there in 1940, and Saul M. Davidson joined him in 1945.  Since the burial in 1957 of Charles Sprouse, no Elk has chosen an eternal home at Elks Rest for the last fifty-six years. 

Today “Elks Rest” is a quiet corner of Riverview Cemetery.

Today, we are in a period that has seen the decline in fraternal organizations of all kinds.  The Masons and the Eagles, the Elk and the Odd Fellows all face dwindling membership and struggle for relevance.  Once valuable benefits like the assurance of a burial plot have become obsolete.  They are today regarded as a quaint reminder of the same less sophisticated age that left America dotted with little cemetery sections marked by statues of elk.   As even the National Lodge of the Elks admits on their web site, “Some of these Lodge-owned cemetery plots, called Elks Rests, have outlived the Lodges which established them, while others have even been forgotten by their Lodges, passing almost invisibly through the years in peaceful repose while a lonely sentinel elk statue presides over its silent Lodge amid the changing seasons.”

Today the statue of the elk seems to look longingly toward its
former site, several hundred yards away in Hollywood Cemetery. 

This seems to be the case in Richmond.  Standing now in the far corner of Riverview Cemetery, the statue of the elk has lost most of its fragile antlers over the course of more than a century.  Its once impressive view from Elks Rest of the James River valley and the falls below has been lost to encroaching trees. The statue, which once was a dramatic part of the Hollywood Cemetery skyline, now seems to stare dejectedly off toward its original home, several hundred yards away, where it once shared attention with Jefferson Davis, Fitzhugh Lee, and other notables.  Nevertheless, the guardian elk, battered but unbowed, still maintains the vigil it began in 1905 and keeps watch over its “silent Lodge” in this quiet and forgotten corner of Richmond.  

 - Selden.

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