ALTON | The Alton Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie 254 has been dissolved and area members are looking for a new nest to call home.
The Eagles resided in the nearly 100-year-old building at 424 E. Broadway since 1931 after forming the Alton Aerie in 1898 and officially incorporating in 1902.
“Unfortunately, we got caught up with similar problems other organizations are currently dealing with,” club member Mark Birmingham said. “A decline in new membership, aging current members and a younger generation who hasn’t yet grasped the purpose and benefits of organizations such as the Eagles, the American Legion, Moose and the VFW.
“It was not our decision on the local level. The decision to close and dissolve came from the Grand Aerie. We were far behind in our due payments to them and we didn’t have the financial ability to maintain the building, which needed a new roof, among many other things. It takes an active membership to keep the doors open.”
It was a more glorious time for the Eagles in the early 1990s, with high membership counts and a flux of incoming cash that helped with major renovations of the structure including a new kitchen, parking structure and expansion of the dining area in 1993.
“We were a civic-minded organization and we loved the work we did in the community,” Birmingham said. “We raised money for the Jimmy Durante Fund for diabetes research, the Max Baer heart disease research fund and the Golden Eagle Fund for retired Eagles. We always held a Christmas party for the kids and Mother’s Day events.”
With a membership peaking around 6,500, the Alton FOE Aerie 254 once was the largest aerie in the United States. Giving back to the community, the Alton organization provided softball and bowling leagues a longtime sponsorship over the last several decades. A portion of daily, weekly and monthly drawings would benefit area athletics.
“We would often have membership votes to help individuals in the area that requested help,” Birmingham said. “A family would come to us for help and we tried to help as many as we could. We also had a scholarship fund for the children of Eagles members over the years. Several kids went to college with the help of one of our scholarships.
“It’s really sad to see an end to all the good we did.”
Another factor Birmingham believes affected the Alton FOE was the Smoke Free Illinois Act that took effect on Jan. 1, 2008, and ended all indoor smoking in public areas, including restaurants, bars, private clubs and gaming facilities.
“The smoking ban really hurt a lot of bars, clubs and organizations,” Birmingham said. “That new law excluded a whole group of people. By the time we got the idea to put an outdoor bar and smoking area together, our financial situation was really taking hold on us.”
Volunteers kept the doors open for nearly a year after the Alton FOE was forced to lay off its entire crew. Bands still graced the dance floor until the final week the doors were open to members. Local resident and musician Chris Beldon of the classic rock group Smokin’ Oldies won’t forget the time he had performing for the Eagles.
“We began playing there in 2007 and 2008,” Beldon said. “We started off as a rock group and the Eagles members kept requesting oldies music. We took some time and learned music from the 1950s era and changed the name of the band. We played there every Wednesday night and loved watching the members dance until the doors closed. We’re playing at the VFW now, but we’ll really miss the group at the Eagles.”
Bluff City Bar and Grill owner Cathy Gross purchased the former location of the FOE Aerie 254 on May 16 and plans to open the doors for business at her new location by Halloween.
“We are sad to see this come to an end, but happy for Cathy (Gross) and we wish her well with the building,” Birmingham said.