You should probably be thinking about the decline and closure of this Eagles lodge

Even if you never danced there.

Fraternal Order of the Eagles East Portland Aerie 3256, at SE 50th and Hawthorne, has seen declining membership and may be sold and relocated. Photo: Google Maps via Portland Mercury.

I’m usually the first guy to say “good riddance” to half-used ol’ buildings in districts where many people would like to live/work/shop. And if the building above, which might be closing, were just another place where people I know sometimes go to dance, I’d be shrugging.

But here is the thing: the history of the Eagles is worth knowing and thinking about. Especially right now. And it should make us think at least twice about losing this space.

The Eagles were founded in February 1898 by six guys in Seattle, one week before the explosion of the Maine set off the Spanish-American War. They were theater owners — competitors — who had met up to talk about how to handle a musicians’ strike and ended up deciding to keep hanging out. They invited other people to join.

The Eagles spread across the country by becoming a combination life insurance/social club. In the years before Social Security, paying your dues as an Eagle meant you were covering your burial expenses in case of your death. It also meant you could hang out at a public place for cheap and meet people.

When people meet each other, interesting things start to happen. Advocacy from the Fraternal Order of Eagles was a significant force behind the creation of actual Social Security. Also of Mother’s Day.

Teddy Roosevelt was an Eagle. So were Eleanor Roosevelt, JFK and Ronald Reagan.

It was not a coincidence that the Eagles were founded in 1898, as the country was climbing back from the Panic of 1893 and the approximately Great Recession-sized crisis that had followed. This was also the very end of the Gilded Age, the generation-long period in which the U.S. economy grew faster than it ever has, and also in which U.S. economic inequality was almost as high as it has ever been.

This was the peak period of U.S. immigration; from 1870 through 1910, one in seven Americans was born outside the country. Only in the last couple years have we returned to that level. We were an extremely diverse and divided country.

Then, starting in the 1880s and 1890s, we decided to become less divided.

As the Gilded Age ended and what would become known as the Progressive Era started, Americans started founding and joining social organizations in massive numbers. As with the Eagles, there were often financial benefits of membership as well as social ones. And in many cases social relationships became political action.

Here are some groups that you may have heard of:

Knights of Columbus — founded 1882 in New Haven
AFL — 1886 in Columbus
Moose — 1888 in Louisville
General Foundation of Women’s Clubs — 1890 in New York
4-H — 1902 in Clark County OH and Douglas County MN
Rotary — 1905 in Chicago
NAACP — 1909 in New York
Boy Scouts — 1910 in Chicago
Urban League — 1910 in New York
Camp Fire — 1910 in Lake Sebago, Maine
Girl Scouts — 1912 in Savannah
Anti-Defamation League — 1913 in New York
Kiwanis — 1914 in Detroit
Lions — 1917 in Chicago

They were just clubs, basically. A lot of them were far from saintly. But what interests me is that joining formal organizations — often across class lines, and in the best cases across racial lines too — was a national fad.

It was such a successful fad that the echoes are still with us. There are still thousands of odd little buildings today on streets like Hawthorne, attended by rapidly shrinking numbers of mostly older people.

I don’t want to be a nostalgia monster. Lots of Americans join social organizations today. Portlanders in particular seem to be joiners. I like that about us.

Still, I am pretty sure that more groups like the Fraternal Order of Eagles are what our country needs right now more than anything else.

More than campaign finance reform. More than a healthy media environment. Even more than good paying jobs, maybe.

We need to be part of social organizations. We need to meet each other.

The Mercury’s article mentions that membership of FOE East Portland Aerie 3256 has fallen rapidly, from 144 to 88 in the last year. Next Monday, apparently, they’re going to meet to vote on whether to sell their building for a bajillion dollars.

The culture of this Eagles lodge isn’t mine, so I don’t think it’d be fair for 56 people like me to show up and decide to personally revitalize East Portland Aerie 3256.

But I can’t help but dream about the interesting things that might start to happen next.

Thanks to Robert Putnam, from whom I stole a lot of this thinking, and to Hawthorn Wright of Denver Avenue Press, who encouraged me to repost from Facebook.