The Elks Club Group (1952)

The Elks Club building in 1949 (Sangamon Valley Collection)

Adlai Stevenson II’s 1952 presidential campaign attracted the most talented, eloquent political team ever assembled in Springfield (well, except for Abraham Lincoln working by himself).

Stevenson’s team of speechwriters and idea men (there apparently were no women) was known as the Elks Club Group, for the building at 509 S. Sixth St. (now the Bucari Commerce Building) in which they worked and some lived.

Among the group’s best-known personalities were such luminaries as Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., economist John Kenneth Galbraith, labor expert W. Willard Wirtz and writer John Bartlow Martin. But the Elks Club Group took in “dozens of young liberal writers,” both full-time and occasional, according to Martin’s book, Adlai Stevenson of Illinois (1976), the prime source for information on the composition and operations of the Elks Club Group.

“The Elks referred to themselves as ‘speech researchers’ who were ‘doing basic research work,’” Martin wrote.

For they understood that Stevenson was pained at the thought of “ghost writers.” Only once or twice did they meet as a group with Stevenson. … The Elks got instruction on policy by osmosis. “Ghost candidate” seemed a better phrase than ghost writers, from the Elks’ viewpoint. They rarely knew, except by a cryptic sentence from (Carl) McGowan (a top Stevenson aide), what subject Stevenson wanted to talk about or what he wanted to say on it. … It was (Stevenson’s) way. He really wished the writers weren’t there.

Stevenson

Stevenson refused to have a standard stump speech he could deliver repeatedly. He wanted new material at every stop, and he often was eager to tell an audience what it didn’t want to hear, Martin wrote.

“He warned the American Legion against flag-waving; he told labor unions he was not their captive. Schlesinger said years later, ‘It was a brilliant device to establish Stevenson’s identity. As a permanent device, it was an error.’”

Both habits put a lot of pressure on the Elks Club Group, but Martin writes that they worked together harmoniously, and they created a routine for themselves in Springfield.

After several hours of work each day, most members went to lunch at the Sazarac, “an obscure saloon,” as Martin describes it, at 229 S. Sixth St. (the Sazarac closed in 1980).

Walking past Coe’s bookstore, they looked for copies of their own books in the window, almost never seeing them. The Sazerac (sic) was small and dingy, with a round table beside the jukebox. Once when somebody started to put a nickel in the jukebox, Galbraith said to him, “I’ll give you a dime if you don’t play it.” Their waitress was a pretty girl too young to vote. She never had chocolate sauce for their ice cream and finally Schlesinger, (economist Bob) Tufts and Martin refused to leave until she had sent out for a can. … After lunch they went back to work at the Elks Club.

Phones there rang constantly, usually long distance. (Dave) Bell (a former aide to President Harry Truman) and Schlesinger were on the phone much of the time; the others wrote more rough drafts. They went to dinner together at seven-thirty or eight, usually stopping at the Elks downstairs bar for a drink. … They dined at Stevie’s (Latin Village), a steak house some distance away, or at some other out-of-the-way place, again to avoid the press. Afterward they worked, always till midnight, sometimes – the night before Stevenson left on a campaign trip – till 2 or 3 a.m. or later. … There was little to do in Springfield.

Sometimes the Elks blew off steam with parody speeches. “Once,” Martin wrote, “they composed an imaginary farm speech which began:”

Good afternoon, peasants:

I have during this campaign traveled the length and breadth of this broad land, looking upon the smiling faces of Americans every, and I can tell you in all sincerity that I have never seen anywhere such a bunch of ignorant, shiftless, selfish, greedy people as you farmers.

Despite the Elks Group’s hard work and intellectual firepower, Stevenson’s cerebral approach to campaigning was swamped by Dwight Eisenhower’s military background, better financing and common touch. In a way, the Elks Club Group even contributed to Stevenson’s landslide loss.

As the campaign progressed, journalists picked up a word … to describe Stevenson and his advisers: eggheads. The word may originally have been suggested by Stevenson’s baldness and by the intellectual background of the Elks. It became, as Senator (Joseph) McCarthy and Senator (Richard) Nixon increased their attacks, a word of opprobrium, well suited to the anti-intellectual climate of 1952.

Eight years later, however, the “eggheads” may have gotten the last word, as President John Kennedy adopted some of Stevenson’s ideas and many of his intellectual advisers. Schlesinger became a special assistant to Kennedy; Galbraith was an adviser and Kennedy’s ambassador to India; Wirtz served as secretary of the Department of Labor under both Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson. Like the others, Martin joined Kennedy’s successful 1960 campaign for president, and Kennedy later appointed him ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

More information: “The Tallest Elk in Springfield,” by Fletcher Farrar, Illinois Times, 2006; “All the Way With Adlai: John Bartlow Martin and the 1952 Adlai Stevenson Campaign,” Ray Boomhower, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, fall 2018 (free account required)

The Elks Club

The Springfield Elks Club had 2,300 members when its building was constructed in the early 1920s. But the building where Stevenson’s “eggheads” worked was designed as a civic center, not merely a sanctuary for clubmen.

A newspaper ad in 1922 showed plans for the new Elks building (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

The five-story structure included 102 sleeping rooms, more than half of them hotel rooms aimed at traveling businessmen, a 2,000-seat auditorium, a banquet hall with capacity for 750 people, women’s reception rooms and parlors (only men could belong to the Elks), a ballroom, a roof garden, a swimming pool, and a bowling alley.

Elks Club members could use their own separate suite of rooms, including a lounge, billiards room and card room – although planners said many of the out-of-towners who would take advantage of the new facility were expected to be Elks themselves.

A full-page advertisement in the April 9, 1922 Illinois State Register was optimistic about the building’s future.

The Elks plan to specialize in caring for the traveler. A certain number of rooms will be set aside especially for his benefit so that all will know they can secure comfortable accommodations in Springfield at reasonable prices. Our hotels, good though they are, welcome this service by the Elks club and promise to cooperate in the matter. Of course a large number of rooms will be available for members of the club. Already fifty have been reserved. There is no question that all rooms will be steadily occupied and bring in a big revenue.

The Elks facility was a popular venue for dances, meetings and banquets for nearly five decades, and long-term residents occupied many of the former hotel rooms. By the late 1970s, however, Elks membership and building usage were both slipping; only the first and second floors of the structure were in use toward the end.

As a result, the Elks Club moved out and sold the building in 1979. In late 2018, the renamed Bucari Commerce Building largely housed commercial office space.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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