Though the Moose fraternal organization was founded in the late 1800s with the modest goal of offering men an opportunity to gather socially, it was reinvented during the first decade of the 20th century into an organizational dynamo of men and women who set out to build a city that would brighten the futures of thousands of children in need all across North America. The city of Camden NJ, and one individual in particular, Ralph W.E. Donges, played a role in the Moose organization that is still bearing good fruit well over 90 years after the good deeds were done.
When Dr. John Henry Wilson, a Louisville, Ky., physician, organized a handful of men into the Loyal Order of Moose in the parlor of his home in the spring of 1888, he and his compatriots did so apparently for no other reason than to form a string of men's social clubs. Lodges were instituted in Cincinnati, St. Louis, and the smaller Indiana towns of Crawfordsville and Frankfort by the early 1890s, but Dr. Wilson himself became dissatisfied and left the infant order well before the turn of the century.
It was just the two remaining Indiana Lodges that kept the Moose from disappearing altogether, until the fall of 1906, when an outgoing young government clerk from Elwood, Ind., was invited to enroll into the Crawfordsville Lodge. It was on James J. Davis' 33rd birthday, October 27, that he became just the 247th member of the Loyal Order of Moose.
Davis, a native of Wales who had worked from boyhood as an "iron puddler" in the steel mills of Pennsylvania, had also been a labor organizer and immediately saw potential to build the tiny Moose fraternity into a force to provide protection and security for a largely working-class membership. At the time little or no government "safety net" existed to provide benefits to the wife and children of a breadwinner who died or became disabled. Davis proposed to "pitch" Moose membership as a way to provide such protection at a bargain price; annual dues of $5 to $10. Given a green light and the title of "Supreme Organizer," Davis and a few other colleagues set out to solicit members and organize Moose Lodges across the U.S. and southern Canada. (In 1926, the Moose fraternity's presence extended across the Atlantic, with the founding of the Grand Lodge of Great Britain.)
Davis' marketing instincts were on-target: By 1912, the order had grown from 247 members in two Lodges, to a colossus of nearly 500,000 in more than 1,000 Lodges. Davis, appointed the organization's first chief executive with the new title of Director General, realized it was time to make good on the promise. The Moose began a program of paying "sick benefits" to members too ill to work--and, more ambitiously, Davis and the organization's other officers made plans for a "Moose Institute," to be centrally located somewhere in the Midwest that would provide a home, schooling and vocational training to children of deceased Moose members.
In Camden, Ralph W.E. Donges, like his father Dr. John Donges before him, became involved in politics and community affairs. On September 23, 1904 he was named secretary of the First Congressional District branch of the Democrats. He had served as a legal aide to Woodrow Wilson prior to his election as president. An active member of several fraternal and professional organizations, he was already prominent in the Moose organization when he met the Vice-President Thomas Marshall on, Sunday, July 27, 1913. The purpose of the meeting was to arrange for Marshall to speak at the dedication of a home for fatherless children being started by the Loyal Order of Moose. Ralph Waldo Emerson Donges was presiding that year as Supreme Dictator. (The title of the fraternity's presiding officer was not changed to Supreme Governor until 1940.)
"I detest orphanages," Marshall had irritably responded to Donges in initially trying to get out of the assignment. "When I was Governor of Indiana I was forced in the course of duty to visit a number of orphanages. I thought they were terrible places, and I won't help you lay the cornerstone for another one."
Donges, then 38, reassured the Vice President. "It will never be that kind of orphanage," he said, referring to the dreary urban warehouses of abandoned children then common in the U.S.; places that got their income via donations from couples who would come to view children before selecting one to adopt. That's not at all what the Moose were planning, Donges insisted: "It will be a home and school for the children of our deceased members."
The orphanage the Moose opened up in 1913 is the Mooseheart Child City and School, a residential childcare facility owned and operated by Moose International. Located on a 1,200-acre campus 38 miles west of Chicago, the Child City is a home for children and teens, from infancy through high school.
Besides Ralph W.E. Donges, many men from all walks of life in the city were members of Camden's Lodge. Postcards refer to the Moose Lodge as being on Federal Street. The Moose Lodge was at 635 Market Street by 1924, and a new lodge was dedicated at 808 Market Street in 1931. Thomas A. Colsey was chairman of the building committee at that time.
By 1947 the Moose were quartered at 315 Cooper Street, remaining at that location through 1959. The Lodge moved to Cherry Hill in the 1960s.
In Camden the Moose sponsored a variety of civic and social activities, including amateur boxing tournaments during the Depression years.
Camden Lodge 111 had a women's auxiliary chapter, Women of Moose Chapter 385.
In 2005 the Moose have no presence in Upper Camden County. There are, however, chapters in the surrounding towns of Burlington, Hainesport, Lindenwold, Clementon, and Paulsboro.
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