Fairfield Elks mark 50 years, even as neighboring lodges close
Gasoline was 27 cents a gallon, and the average cost of a new house was $12,500.
The year was 1961 and the Faifield Elks Club had just established a presence in town, albeit a nomadic one before the fraternal organization eventually established a permanent lodge on Brookside Drive.
Fifty years later, 10 of the founding members are still active.
"Time goes by fast when you're having fun," said 79-year-old Frank Chizmadia, current president of Fairfield Elks Lodge #2220.
"It's been a great ride," added Bill George, who was 30 years old when he became an Elk.
The anniversary comes at a time when arious fraternal, veterans and service organizations are dwindling. Elks lodges have closed in Greenwich, Norwalk and Westport, leaving the nearest lodge west of Fairfield in Stamford.
How is it that Fairfield's club is surviving in the 21st century when others are a memory?
"A lot of loyalty. A lot of volunteerism," George said. "The comradeship of members, the quality of our programs, the endurance of some of the veteran members and the enthusiasm of the younger members all lend towards a modicum of success."
The Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks is a nationwide fraternal organization committed to the ideals of charity and patriotism.
To that end, according to the Elks' website, Elks members, over 142 years have disbursed more than $2.69 billion in cash, goods and services to the nation's youth, veterans, the disadvantaged and handicapped, and in support of patriotic and civic programs.
Locally, members of Fairfield Elks Lodge #2220 make donations to the Elks National Foundation (the charitable arm of the BPOE), which returns funds to local lodges to support various programs.
In Fairfield, the Elks run a Hoop Shoot and Soccer Shoot, in which winners advance to district, state, New England and national competitions. Another major programs is its drug-awareness poster contest.
It awards scholarships to high school seniors and and with other Connecticut lodges each November to stage the state Special Olympics volleyball contest.
Members also volunteer their time throughout the year at the VA Hospital in West Haven, serving meals, donating gifts and extending an invitation to patients (military veterans) to attend the Elks' annual picnic, which this year takes place at the Fairfield lodge.
Last year the local lodge donated a new sound system to The Beanery (Fairfield's teen center). This year it donated two tabletop scoreboards to the Fairfield Police Athletic League.
Summing up the Elks' mission, George said, "Our focus is on youth and veterans."
George was one of the 15 to 20 core founding members that recruited others into the fold. When the lodge was instituted on May 28, 1961, the initial class totaled 192
Although it has hit the 50-year milestone, Fairfield's club has seen a significant drop in membership from its heyday. Once nearly 400 strong, membership is now just under 200.
Times have changed, according to Chizmadia.
Years ago, many members worked in Bridgeport when it was an industrial powehouse in the northeast, or worked in Fairfield at DuPont.
They could get to the lodge soon after the work day ended, hang out and return home at a reasonable hour.
Now, he said, the younger population is working in New York City, Stamford or Greenwich.
They leave home at 6 a.m. and often don't get home until 6 or 7 p.m., Chizmadia, acknowledging that people's lives are busier than in the '60s and '70s.
Even if people worked closer to home, Chizmadia isn't sure membership would be greater.
"When we came up, times were simpler," he said. "There weren't a lot of distractions. Between computers and everything else, there's so many other things to do."
But long before nearly every house had a computer, long before MP3 players and Facebook, meeting up at the lodge "was something that you looked forward to," Chizmadia said.
George added, "I don't think the younger generation is attracted to a membership-required activity.
"The older generation, their attitude was different. They were used to more organization in their life, whereas the younger generation is not of that mode."
He also believes residents in more metropolitan areas have more to do.
Yet in rural Torrington, in the Litchfield hills, the Elks lodge has nearly 2,000 members, he said.
Once a men's club, the Elks eventually admitted women. It was a no-brainer, as members' wives usually attended every function and helped with the cooking.
"They were already a part of it," said Chizmadia, who added he never joined the Elks to escape home.
"My wife knew where I was," he said.
At the Wi-Fi equipped lodge, which opens at 4 p.m. on weekdays and noon and 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, hamburgers, corned beef on rye and liver, bacon and onion sandwiches are but some of the offerings on the menu.
There are three TVs but the one at the bar is the most used, usually set to a sports channel.
Asked why he became a member, he responded, "My father was a charter member. I had no choice."
He was handed an application by a bartender nearly 50 years ago, when he turned 21 years old.
Wallace added that he stays involved "because of what we do in the community."
Chizmadia, reflecting on his 50 years in Elkdom, added, "I'm just proud I was an Elk and had the good fortune to meet so many people and make some great friends."
Anyone interested in learning more about the Fairfield Elks Lodge #2220 should call 292-5210.