The Mountain, and the Mantle Club - Tales of the Elkin Family
This is the third and final part of a family story that began in the January issue of THE BEE with a pile of discarded photographs. I appealed to readers for help in locating descendants of Rev. Thomas and Dessie Elkins, who had arrived in Sellwood in 1906, so that a collection of their long-lost photos could be returned.
A follow-up story in February reported on the success of that appeal, as the collection was handed over to Dave Elkin – a descendant who by coincidence now lives in Southwest Portland.
This month I am sharing two final stories that do not directly relate to the photographs, but which developed during my research for the two earlier articles. I think that BEE readers might find them intriguing.
The first recounts a remarkable ascent of Mt. Hood; the second summarizes what I have been able to glean about a mysterious fraternal organization with which two Elkin brothers, Ted and Ed, were involved.
As I write, the Winter Olympics are headline news, and my initial story recalls an unprecedented, and unrepeatable, climb of Mt. Hood. Ted Elkin, one of three sons of the Rev. and Dessie Elkin, was one of the people who'd planned and participated in that 1936 climb, which also connects to the second story, an account of the Mantle Club.
In 1933-34 a branch of a national fraternal and social organization, called the Mantle Club, was established in Portland. The exact purpose of the club was vague, and records are sketchy. However, in Portland, its activities centered around athletics. Beginning in the mid-1930's the sports sections of local daily newspapers – the Journal, Telegram, and Oregonian – listed bowling, ice hockey, basketball, and baseball teams that were all sponsored by the Mantle Club. Members were men between the ages of 21 and 40 who competed against other teams, and were sponsored by factories, banks, and insurance companies.
Edwin (Ed) Elkin and his younger brother Theodore (Ted) both joined the Mantle Club. Ted had been involved in sports since boyhood – last month's BEE photo showed him at age 16, as a player of on a Sellwood Community Center basketball team – but Ed was more at ease with numbers, as an accountant or financial auditor. Ed became Secretary/Manager of the Portland Mantle Club, which had an office in downtown Portland.
In order to draw attention to the Club and increase paying memberships, the Club decided to organize an ascent of Mt. Hood. This would not be an outing for a handful of men, but would include the entire membership – which, by June of 1934, numbered four hundred.
A "practice" hike was undertaken on July 7, 1935, by 83 participants. Mantle Club leadership coordinated with the highly-regarded climbing organization the Mazamas. After the initial hike, Mantle Club members, including Ted Elkin, spent a year planning the second climb. On August 9, 1936, the 400 members traveled to the mountain; and, after a "hearty breakfast of porridge, coffee, fruit juice, and toast with jelly", departed from the Mazamas lodge at midnight, in groups of twenty, at four-minute intervals. (Midnight continues to be the Mt. Hood ascent start time, so that hikers can reach the summit by approximately noon, to cope with snow conditions. Today, ascents do not take place after May, and recommence only when there is adequate snow in the late fall. Readers considering a Guinness Book record should know that the Forest Service now limits groups to a dozen climbers!)
The August climb was successful, and all 400 hikers arrived safely at the summit. Photos taken by Ted Elkin show grinning men, wearing sunglasses, their faces white with zinc oxide to prevent sunburn. By contemporary standards, their essential climbing gear was primitive – consisting of spiked leather boots and a climbing staff. Most wore ordinary canvas or wool work trousers, wool jackets, scarves and hats, with an occasional jaunty fedora. Small rucksacks contained metal canteens of water and lunch, followed (in many pictures) by a cigarette or cigar.
After eating at the summit, the party descended without incident. The most challenging point of the trip down was a three-foot leap over a "snow chute" (crevasse), achieved by clinging to a taut rope stretched across the gap.
The event merited front-page coverage in the Journal and Telegram newspapers but was ignored by the Oregonian. Movie footage was taken (the whereabouts of which is now unknown), and Mantle Club member A.L. Junken captured dramatic images of the hike from an airplane.
Conversation with Mazamas archivist Matthew Brock reveals that the signatures of the climbers are in the club summit logs, but they have no records of the advance planning or the event itself. According to him, this would have been considered an "acquaintance" hike – an event to encourage Mazamas membership. The most puzzling omission was that there was no story in THE BEE at the time. Elkin family members were well-known in the neighborhood, and one would assume that this event would have merited a Page One story and an interview with Ted. The only possible reason might have been that his mother Dessie was very ill at the time, and died just a week after the climb. Perhaps this story will belatedly make up for the omission.
The Mantle Club
A scrapbook owned by Dave Elkin's father Tommy, the son of Ted Elkin, contains newspaper clippings and photos of the climb, as well as a few pages from a local Mantle Club membership publication entitled "The Squirt of Ink". Understanding the organization's activities, which apparently continued until the early 1950's, is more challenging – to date, no club records have surfaced.
The predecessor of the Mantle Club was the Decimo Club, a fraternal and social club, launched in San Francisco in November of 1924. Its founder was an accountant named Hugh B. Monjar, who charged a $20 membership fee that he retained to cover the cost of managing club business. Within a year the Decimo Club had 300 members, and Monjar decided to shift club headquarters to the east coast, incorporating it in both New York and Delaware. By June, 1927 that club (also referred to in later accounts in the New York Times as the "Success Club") claimed 1,000 members, and abruptly raised its membership fee to $100, with a $2/month dues payment for local club activities. For every new membership, Monjar kept $12.50.
The Decimo Club also expanded beyond its original purpose of encouraging fellowship among its members, to educating them, through regular lectures, on how to "develop financial success". Monjar formed two shell corporations in which he sold stock and whose finances he controlled.
It was at this time that the U.S. Attorney General for the State of New York acted on a complaint about the unfulfilled promises of the Decimo Club – complaints that were later attributed by Monjar to jealous associates.
In 1929 Monjar and eight employees were charged with using the U.S. Mail to sell stock to Mantle Club members. Court testimony revealed that the Club "instructors" lacked professional teaching credentials. In fact, one had been a tailor; another a repairman for the telephone company; and a third had worked as a shipping clerk. Monjar denied any intent to defraud club members, but consented to an injunction barring him from selling securities or new "memberships", and by 1930 the Decimo Club was bankrupt.
However, by this time, the economic downturn which had begun with the stock market crash of October of 1929 was deepening into the Great Depression, which crushed the hopes of a generation of young Americans, and made them susceptible to high-flying financial schemes. As part of the settlement of the Decimo lawsuit, Monjar was still allowed to hold meetings and encourage his "disciples" on how to "develop strong character", especially through the support and encouragement of fellow club members. Although Monjar was forbidden from selling memberships in the now defunct Decimo Club, he decided to establish a new fraternal and social organization – to be called the Mantle Club.
He no longer focused his efforts in New York or New Jersey, but began to disperse his "message" into other states, including California, Washington, and Oregon. Between 1933 and 1934, the Mantle Club arrived in Portland; its first Secretary/Manager, presumably a salaried position, was Ed Elkin. At this time, the Elkin brothers – Ted, Ed, and Ed's wife – all lived with their widowed mother Dessie, in the family home on Tenino Street (the third brother, Arthur and their sister Susie had married and were living elsewhere in the Sellwood neighborhood).
In Portland, and probably Seattle, the Mantle Club was promoted as a fraternal and social organization. Members developed character and friendships at regular meetings, at which they listened to presentations on lofty topics such as Loyalty, Friendship, Courage, and Self-Control. The Club sponsored many athletic teams, in sports such as ice hockey, bowling, baseball, and basketball and tennis. The sports section of the daily newspaper in the mid-late 1930's was packed with lively accounts of games between teams sponsored by banks, insurance companies, factories, and of course, the Mantle Club. While Ed Elkin was engaged in the operations of the Mantle Club, Ted had found at least part-time employment as a manual arts instructor at the Catlin School in northwest Portland. And by 1939, he, too, was "with the Mantle Club" – presumably receiving some salary for organizing athletic events and selling club memberships. The positive ideals encouraged by the Club were on public display at athletic competitions, those two successful ascents of Mt. Hood, and service events – such as re-leveling the playing fields at Peninsula Park.
In June, 1937 Ted married Elizabeth Hobson, a P.E. teacher. The couple had met at an athletic event at a city park – she was a catcher on a woman's softball team – and by their own accounts, they were "smitten" with each other. Their honeymoon was apparently brief, since the week after their marriage Elizabeth was co-leading children's summer programs at Sellwood Park. During the school year she returned to her position at Sellwood School. She continued to teach for a year or two, until their three children began to arrive, and Ted, now in his mid-thirties, sought employment to generate a steadier paycheck.
They resided in the family home on Tenino Street, where they began raising a second generation of Elkin children. Ted continued to play on the Mantle Club basketball team – the "Mossbacks" – well into 1938, and was also involved in staging an "Annual Entertainment" at the "Public" (now Keller) Auditorium. By this time Club membership in Oregon had reached 3,000. The performance was composed of a series of skits and musical numbers, whose roles, male and female, were played by Mantle Club members. The evening's profits were given to the Red Cross, to help the residents of Bandon, Oregon, whose town center had burned in 1936 and then suffered a massive flood.
Public records are sketchy between 1941-1946, but one entry indicates that during World War II, Ted worked in a foundry in northwest Portland, that manufactured parts for the engines of Victory Ships. By the mid-1940's, between this job and family activities, it is doubtful if he had much spare time to spend on Mantle Club activities. It is also unclear how active the organization was during the war years, although Ed Elkin appears to have advanced to being District Leader of the organization, which included the City of Seattle.
It was in 1943 that H.P. Monjar again came afoul of the law. As a result of the market crash of 1929, federal laws had been passed in an attempt to curb future speculative trading (this sounds familiar). This time, Monjar was charged with violating the Securities Act of 1938, and "pyramiding" various businesses onto the Mantle Club. He was also accused of obtaining more than a million dollars in "loans" from Club members who believed it would be invested in their behalf, but which Monjar kept for his personal use. The trial began in February, 1943, and ended in June. A jury found Monjar guilty; he was fined $49,000 and sentenced to a five-year prison sentence.
It is not known how this turn of events impacted the members of the local Mantle Club, whose slogan was "Honesty, Loyalty, and Justice." The fate of its founder is clear, but the organization in Portland and Seattle appeared to continue, possibly independent of headquarters in the East. Perhaps meetings and friendships continued throughout the War, but without the level of earlier organized activities. According to listings in City Directories, the Club did maintain an office until the death of its last Portland Secretary, John M. Baranov, in 1955.
After the War, Ted Elkin left factory work, and became active in leadership in the Boy Scouts. In 1951-52 the Elkin family left Portland, living in several western cities before settling in Santa Monica, California. It was there that Ted died of a heart attack while playing football with his 15-year old son, Tommy, in late October, 1956.
Ted and Ed Elkin had a complicated relationship with the Mantle Club, whose extensive infrastructure and activities are still unclear. The stated goals of the Club were worthwhile, and many of their activities were positive. But the motivation of its leadership on the East coast was not so benign. I would like to hear from any readers who recall an uncle, father, or grandfather who was a member of the Mantle Club, because any additional information or records would help add fill in the many historical gaps.
My thanks to Dave Elkin, the City of Portland Archives & Records, and Mazamas archivist Matthew Brock for information in this article.