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Empty Moose lodge leaves a void

February 23, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

Five years ago Tuesday, the Hagerstown Moose Lodge was the largest in North America.

Five years ago today, it didn't exist.

The building on Downsville Pike once owned by Lodge No. 212 is vacant, owned by a partnership that is trying to find a productive use for it.

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The thousands of Moose members - at its peak, the club claimed to have more than 10,000 members - scattered. Some transferred to other Moose lodges. Some joined other fraternal organizations. Some maintained memberships in the Loyal Order of the Moose International.

"It was the biggest when they shut it down. They didn't care about the members," said Maurice Jenkins Sr., who was lodge governor when it closed. "We weren't treated fairly."

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Moose International revoked the Hagerstown club's charter amid allegations of rules violations and financial problems.

The closing also coincided with a racial-discrimination lawsuit and the highly publicized membership rejection of a black man who had applied for membership.

Jenkins and several other former members said they believed that was the real reason the lodge was closed. Jenkins said he wished Moose headquarters had shown more support.

"They should have fought it a little harder," he said.

Civil rights activists who challenged the lodge's practices said Tuesday they believe Maryland clubs are more welcoming to women and minorities as a result of action taken against clubs like the Moose in the early 1990s.

"That doesn't mean that there is a clean bill of health out there," said Susan Goering, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the Moose lodge in 1992.

Goering said the ACLU launched an aggressive campaign of testing the policies of fraternal groups throughout the state after the Supreme Court ruled that laws banning discrimination in private clubs were constitutional.

"The ones in Hagerstown drew attention because they were so darn large and we knew that they did serve meals," she said.

That was key because the court determined that clubs could be considered public accommodations if they were sufficiently large and maintained public facilities like restaurants.

An appealing perk of membership in the Moose lodge was inexpensive dinners.

In 1991 and 1992, the ACLU sent black "testers" to try to eat at the lodge. They were turned away because they were not members.

But white testers who showed up later were let in and asked to join, Goering said.

The suit was settled in 1994 for $25,000 in attorney fees.

Goering said the ACLU has not tested private clubs in the last several years, but she said the tests had a deterrent effect.

"Part of testing is to put people on notice," she said.

Not everyone thought the reaction was fair. Jenkins said white nonmembers were admitted against club rules by one member.

"But that was just one member. That's not what the whole club was about," he said.

Eight days before the lodge closed, club members rejected an application by James Yates, a black Hagerstown man who was a volunteer with the Hagerstown Fire Police.

"We should have voted the black man in. I believe that was the last straw right there," said Charles Selby Jr., a Moose member who said he tried to convince fellow members to accept the application.

The closing of Lodge No. 212 jolted its members and many community organizations that benefited from its charitable activities.

"I believe it hit 'em pretty big," Selby said.

Many of the members joined the Red Men in Williamsport. Some joined existing Moose chapters in Martinsburg, W.Va., Frederick, Md., and Mercersburg, Pa. Others formed new Moose clubs in Williamsport, Leitersburg and Funkstown, although the Leitersburg club folded last year because of a lack of interest.

Selby said he kept his Moose International membership and might consider joining the lodge in Funkstown, which is building a club house off U.S. Alternate 40.

Other former members, though, expressed pessimism about ever reviving interest to its peak.

"They'll never get them back," said Jenkins.

Goering said she hopes private clubs have learned lessons from the Moose experience.

The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks Lodge 378 in Hagerstown in December admitted women for the first time in its 102-year-history, three years after the national organization lifted a ban on women.

"What happened at the Elks is exactly what we hoped would happen," she said.

Former Moose Lodge 212 members formed Funkstown Moose Lodge No. 2435, but club leaders said they want to steer clear of the controversies that dogged the former club.

"Our doors are open to everybody," said lodge Governor Franklin Spielman.

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