The Fulton Elks’ Rich History

One of my favorite childhood memories is Fulton’s May Day celebration. Often the first outdoor event of the year, May Day is a weekend of amusement rides, contests, yummy food and entertainment. But for decades the most exciting part for kids has been May Day’s bicycle giveaway. When I was in grade school, each spring students got a ticket and if you were a lucky winner, you got a new set of wheels to carry you through the last weeks of school and straight into the long summer.

May Day was the brainchild of our local Elks Lodge, which planned those fun events and raised money to pay for the shiny new bikes. Fifty plus years later, I still remember the excitement as April turned to May. A book recently loaned to me explained how May Day and the Elks got their start.

The book, “History of the Order of the Elks” begins in 1868, in New York City, where a group of actors regularly got together at a tavern. Often out of work, the men found ways to support each other during lean times. When money was more plentiful the group helped others in need, and soon they formalized their gathering into an official organization. When it came time to name their group, the men narrowed their choices down to two: the bison and the elk. In a slim margin of victory—bison, seven votes, and elk, eight—the group became the Elks.

The lodge’s original charter rules still ring true today. In part they state that the Elks are “an organization of American citizens who love their country and desire to preserve its cherished institutions; who love their fellow man and seek to promote his well-being; and who love the joyousness of life and endeavor to contribute to it, as well as to share it.”

That first New York City group became known as Lodge No. 1 and as the Elk’s popularity spread throughout the country, those Lodge numbers grew. In 1903, a group of Fultonians started Lodge # 830, pledging to abide by the Elks rules.

There was, however, one Elks rule which is no longer true today. For decades, all Elks Lodges were exclusively male organizations. That changed on a national level in the 1990s. Current Fulton Lodge Secretary, 35-year member Dean Salisbury, showed me records from the Lodge’s history. Dean explained: “In our city, Patricia Kitts was its first woman member, back in 1997. A few old-timers dropped out because of the change, but including women has really been a benefit to the Lodge. Women who’ve joined here do so for the same reason the founders started the Elks: to help our community.”

Dean shared more about how the Fulton Elks serve our area, including their support for veterans, helping local cemeteries maintain their grounds, a youth hoops contest, a soccer contest and a college scholarship program. “For many years,” Dean noted, “our youth programs won awards on a national level.”

Along with talking with Dean, old newspapers helped me learn more about the Elks, including its May Day program.  Beginning in Fulton in 1951, May Day originally invited high school and grammar school students throughout Oswego County. The weekend began with a “parade featuring local school bands, color guards, firemen and auxiliaries, veterans’ organizations, fraternal organizations and industry taking part.” The second day of the event offered its first All-American Soap Box Derby, with winners of the local contest heading to Akron, Ohio, for the national derby.

By the time I was old enough to hope I’d win one of those bikes, the mid-‘60s, May Day was a must-attend event for kids. A 1964 newspaper article noted that invitations had been sent out to the city’s CYO, YMCA, Scouts and schools. Children were invited to take part in the Youth Day Poster and Essay contests, with cash awards for the winners.

By 1972, Elks programs for Fulton youth were expanded to a full week. Included was a City Government program, where students visited a Common Council meeting to participate in municipal business. By the end of the week, Saturday, there was the usual ceremonies and contest and, of course, the 12 bicycles to be given away, two for each elementary grade level.

While talking about the Elks’ history in Fulton, Dean Salisbury gave me a tour of the lodge, located on Pierce Drive. “We’ve been here since 2002,” he said. “Before that, actually since the early 1900s, the lodge was on South First Street.” On our tour, Dean pointed out the fireplace and chandelier that were brought over from the Elks’ original location.

Also on display were brass memorial plaques, which listed over 100 names of original Fulton members, their date of induction and date of passing. Another artifact on display was a series of signatures from famous visitors to our local lodge over the years, including President Theodore Roosevelt, Governor Thomas Dewey and composer John Phillips Sousa. “They would be boating down the Oswego River and stop at our Fulton locks,” Dean said. “If they were an Elk in their hometown, they’d sign in at our lodge.”

On the day I visited the Elks, lodge treasurer Silvan Johnson was at her desk paying bills. I asked Silvan why she and her husband Paul joined 10 years ago. Her answer echoed the lodge’s founding ethics: “We joined to be able to give something back to the community, to be part of something bigger than just us—to help people.”

Dean agreed, “I wanted to use my time on something worthy, something to help my community of Fulton.”

As the Fulton Elks begin their 68th year of May Day, which will take place May 3 and 4 at the Lodge on Pierce Drive, I take a moment to remember the lodge members who’ve been providing support for Fultonians of all ages.

This 1982 photo show lucky Fulton children who won bicycles at the Elks’ annual May Day celebration.

This 1982 photo show lucky Fulton children who won bicycles at the Elks’ annual May Day celebration.