A Gift from the Odd Fellows

Last night I attended the delightful Dawson City showing of the David Mamet play, Boston Marriage. Two days earlier the KIAC Christmas Art and Craft Extravaganza filled a room with handicrafts and artwork.

On the same date there was a Karaoke Night with visiting artist-in-residence Curtis Grahauer. Two nights before that Grahauer offered a showing of a film, a work-in-progress.

Already this season there have been two musical events, a jazz concert and a folk-blues concert. Later this week there will be another in a series of monthly coffee house gatherings – which reminds me that I need to schedule some practice time.

All of these events take place in the ballroom at the Odd Fellows Hall on Second Avenue in Dawson. The ballroom is one of the most versatile performance and public event spaces in the town.

The Odd Fellows, or International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF), gets its name from the 18th century notion that it was “odd” for there to be a benevolent society of men whose main aim was to provide help to those less fortunate than themselves.

The emblem of the IOOF is three links of an interlocking chain, which represent friendship, love and truth.

The Odd Fellows came to the Klondike from the United States, where many of the Stampeders originated, and seven members established their presence in Dawson in 1901.

In 1907 they acquired the lot and a small, one storey building on it. Three years later they replaced their original meeting place with the building that stands there now. The Grand Ball that celebrated its opening is said to have attracted 500 people.

The Odd Fellows remained a presence in Dawson until 1964, when lack of membership forced it to relinquish its charter. The building sat vacant, was purchased by a local miner and later became the property of the fledgling Klondike Visitors Association (KVA).

The KVA once had plans to make the building its headquarters, but that did not happen and the place became a storage warehouse. In 1988, when it was in danger of deteriorating beyond salvation, the KVA gave it a new gravel pad, foundation and exterior.

It lay fallow until 1998, when the Dawson City Arts Society (DCAS) was formed to advance the arts in town.

DCAS negotiated the transfer of the building’s ownership, and, led by Greg Hakonson, undertook a full restoration of the place with funding from the City of Dawson, the Yukon government and countless hours of volunteer effort.

A year later the building opened for public use and the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture (DCAS’s program arm) took up residence. Naturally they celebrated their launch with a ball, appropriately named the “Odd Ball”.

As I indicated at the beginning of this essay, there is scarcely a week that goes by when some public event or program does not take place in this very flexible building.

The classroom area on the main floor is well used. Part of the building became the ODD Gallery, with year round exhibitions of art.

The hall houses the annual Dawson City Short Film Festival, the weekly drop-in painting group, the annual Youth Art Enrichment program, public meetings and forums.

If the original founders of the IOOF in Dawson could see their building now, they would, perhaps, realize that their benevolence has spanned the generations and left the town with an important piece of cultural infrastructure.

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