The final game of food bingo at the Hays Aerie of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, 112 E. Eighth, on Sunday was, perhaps appropriately, a blackout game.
Approximately 28 people, mostly women, gathered in the brightly lit west half of the windowless hall for the last of the every-other-week food bingo, so named for the homemade and store-bought baked goods given out as prizes.
Chartered in 1950, the Eagles lodge will close March 3. A dwindling and aging membership has made it difficult for the order to pay the bills for its building, let alone donate to causes in the community.
Dave Rupp, president of the order, called the numbers on the final day of food bingo as he has for many of the games in the last five years. As players filed by after the final game, several of the players told Rupp he’d always done a good job calling the numbers.
Diana Darnell mentioned she’d won the final game.
Many of the players Sunday echoed Rupp’s sentiment that it was a little sad to see the tradition come to an end.
“I’ll miss everything,” said Eagles member Steve Unrein. “It’s my special place. Something to do on the weekends.”
Unrein joined the Eagles four years ago and helped any way he could, calling bingo occasionally. He’s not sure yet where he’ll go for weekend activities.
“It’s too bad they can’t make a go of it,” he said.
“When you get down to 25 people, there’s usually seven or eight that do all the work,” Rupp said. “It had gotten to that point.”
Rupp said he’s tried to recruit new, younger members, but up and coming generations don’t seem to see it as an interest.
“There’s a lot of young people who volunteer for a lot of things, but this is a fraternal order,” he said.
Many don’t see a good reason to pay $30 in dues just for a place to volunteer and drink alcohol, he said.
The private membership was a way around Kansas’ liquor laws, Rupp said. The state was the first in the nation to prohibit alcohol, and didn’t change that until 1948 — 14 years after the United States ended prohibition. Even then, the sale of liquor by the drink was prohibited in public places such as open saloons. But law enforcement had no authority to take action against drinking in private clubs.
In 1965, the state passed the Private Club Act, which legalized the sale of liquor in private clubs, and liquor by the drink was allowed in clubs in 1979. The ban on open saloons was repealed in 1987.
Membership at the Eagles lodge started to dip at that point, said Carolyn Rupp, Dave Rupp’s mother. She and her husband, Bob, joined in 1953.
Now 82, she has tended bar four days a week for 30 years in the bar in the east half of the building. A folding wall separates the two, and on Sunday, the dark bar was a quiet contrast to the adjacent bingo room.
“When they started getting whiskey at the other ones, the beer joints and everything, after that it went down something terrible,” she said.
“They don’t want to pay dues if they can get their whiskey in the restaurants,” she said.
One difference the lodge has from an establishment open to the public is that smoking in the bar is allowed. When Kansas’ indoor smoking ban took effect in 2010, private clubs, tobacco shops and casino gaming floors were exempt.
“If they wanted to have a drink and smoke, they could come in here, and there’s still quite a few that do,” Rupp said.
But that might have contributed to the lodge’s membership decline.
“My kids were members for a while. But when they started having kids, they didn’t want to bring them here because of the smoke,” he said.
“We tried to get it non-smoking, but it didn’t pass. There’s not much you can do when the membership votes it down.”
Lodge members were hopeful the state would offer another advantage — slot machine gambling.
“We were trying to hold on because we were hoping they’d pass the one-armed bandits in private clubs. If they would have, we probably would have stayed open,” Rupp said.
But with now only 25 members in the lodge and 25 in the women’s auxiliary, the order has not been able to donate money to charities after paying the expenses of the building. Giving back to the community has been a foundation of the 119-year-old organization.
The property, owned by the Grand Aerie based in Grove City, Ohio, will be listed for sale, Rupp said. If no sale occurs, it will be auctioned.
Many of the bingo players Sunday expressed sadness at the closing and said the people are what they would miss the most.
“They’re all friendly and nice. We all get along,” said Rosetta Aschenbrenner, Ellis, who had 20 bingo cards in front of her.
“And you win nice prizes,” added her friend, Tina Keller, Ellis.
Along with Kathy Mendenhall, Hays, the women have been longtime attendees of the Hays food bingo. The three have discussed going to food bingo at the WaKeeney Eagles lodge now that it has ended in Hays.
Ikuyo Hosaka said she will miss the Eagles bingo, but she also plays at Bingo Haus, 1218 Canterbury, and the American Legion, 1305 Canterbury.
Hosaka sat with her friend, Jeanie Swift, a row of four cards between them.
“I like the caller. He’s nice and slow,” Swift said.
“We always have fun. That’s the most important is having fun,” Hosaka said.