One hundred and thirty years ago Monday, 10 Tacoma men met at the Svea Hotel and Saloon and formed the Swedish Order of Valhalla.
By contrast, the group today has more than three times that many members, which could be seen as a boom.
Formed as a social club that pledged to take care of its own, the order bought land in 1906 at what was then 12th Street and K Street for $2,500. Then they spent another $8,400 when members built a three-story lodge that featured space for two street-level businesses.
“That doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but the average salary that year was 22 cents,” said Dennis Anderson, a past president.
“I loved that old building,” said Jack Christofferson, the group’s secretary. “It had a huge kitchen and dining area, a balcony above a wonderful ballroom. It had a stage and a barroom. It was a neat building to roam around in.
“That building was the heart of the lodge. Leaving it was painful.”
Membership peaked in the 1980s at about 350, but by 1999 it had dropped significantly. That wonderful hall, then 93 years old, was in need of repair and remodeling.
“We reached the point where we weren’t going to have enough money if something happened, so we sold it in ’99,” Christofferson said.
Today, the Swedish Order of Valhalla meets once a month at a small rental off Sixth Avenue. There’s a kitchen and dining area in one building — used for socializing and poker games.
And the group meets once a month in another tiny building.
In both, there are photos and memorabilia from the rich history of an organization on the brink of disappearing.
“We were established as a Swedish society for social and benevolent purposes,” Christofferson said. “But it was never just about getting together.”
Anderson and his family have been tied to the order for four generations.
“My grandfather, Axel, was president, and my father, Wally, was president,” Anderson said. “I served as president, my wife, Georgia, is our current president and my daughter, Margo, is our youngest member at 31.
“I don’t know that she’ll ever be president, but that would be something.”
Anderson not only is a part of the lodge’s history, he knows quite a bit of it.
“This was a group that helped members find jobs. They established sick benefits so a family wouldn’t be in trouble if a working man was ill,” Anderson said. “There was a member who was hurt in a mill accident, and other members came to his aid.
“In the spring of 1889, the lodge voted to establish a brass band and bought all the instruments. There was a large choral group.
“In the 1920s, the lodge began playing cards. They found attendance for winter meetings was falling, so they added poker-playing after the meetings. Attendance picked up again.”
The lodge sponsored poker tournaments each year, fishing tournaments and huge picnics.
“My father told me the picnics were so large they could raffle off an automobile,” Anderson said. “As a kid, I can remember hanging out in the balcony at the dances, watching my parents dance. Then I’d go down to the benches in the ballroom and fall asleep until the dance ended.
“There were bingo games, raffles. Every November there’d be a huge breakfast.”
Christofferson remembered dinner-dances at the old hall and pointed to a sign from the pre-World War II years advertising a dinner and dance for 65 cents.
Members, typically, were members for life — beginning as young as 18. Anderson’s father was a member for 62 years. Recently another member, Gus Lovstrom, died at 98 — and had been a member close to 70 years.
For all its history, the lodge is losing ground.
Membership today is less than 40 members, most of them 55 or older. They still hold a poker tournament twice a year, but those huge picnics are now quiet family barbeques.
As late as the 1920s, bylaws were printed in Swedish. Today, only a few members speak the language.
“We accept that it’s going to end in seven or eight years,” Christofferson said.