On a sunny day in August 1914, 33 year old merchant tailor Joseph G. Prance was going about his daily business, perhaps chewing on a smoldering cigar while letting out a suit coat that had become too tight for its wearer or tacking a cuff on a new pair of slacks. The city of Detroit was buzzing with the news that war had broken out in Europe, and Prance may well have been thinking of that somber situation.
The door to his shop at 1188 Gratiot Avenue opened and in walked Allen S. Browne. Allen Browne was one of many enterprising businessmen who traveled around the United States establishing fraternal and civic organizations. Browne earned his livelihood by organizing lodges for the Loyal Order of Moose, but in his spare time, he also worked to establish other similar trade organizations with sick or insurance benefits for members. For every member a recruiter signed up, he received a fee.
Prance had met Browne only a few weeks earlier when he was trying to organize a group of Detroit businessmen under the title of the Loyal Home Fraternity, but the venture had failed. Brown had returned to Joe Prance's tailor shop to discuss a different type of organization; a fraternal group of business and professional men without insurance benefits. Joe listened to the proposal and added a few suggestions of his own. Ultimately he agreed to be the first member of this new organization. Likely, Joe was not aware of the impact his decision would have upon Detroit and the world.
Out of that conversation between a professional organizer and a respected but otherwise unremarkable tailor came one of the great service organizations of the world, Kiwanis International.
A private charter was soon issued to Allen Brown for the Supreme Lodge Benevolent Order Brothers. The membership of this new business fraternity flourished, but quickly grew tired of belonging to an organization known as BOB for short. With a helping had from Detroit's official historian, an Otchipow Indian phrase -- "Nunc Kee-wan-is" -- was adapted as a name. Loosely translated it meant, "We have a good time, we make a big noise." During a club meeting at the Griswold Hotel during the first week of January, 1915, the club dropped the first word, Anglicized the pronunciation, and approved Kiwanis as a name for this club which had attracted nearly 200 members in only six months. The corporate charter was returned by the state of Michigan, dated January 21, 1915, the recognized birthday of Kiwanis ever since.
The Motive of the organization was the reciprocal buying of goods and services, and was exemplified by their motto, "We Trade." However, the members soon realized that they could gather together and have a good time, but scratching each other's backs in business would not motivate them over the long run. Dissension arose over this selfish motive as members realized that mere economic profit was not a sufficient reason for sustaining the club; community service without thought of personal gain was a sounder motivation.
Club members also did not like Browne or the financial arrangement Kiwanis had with him. The initial membership fee, collected and kept by Browne, had risen from $5 to $10 by mid-July, 1915, and Browne legally "owned" Kiwanis. During a club meeting with Joe Prance presiding in the absence of president Don Johnson, accusations were made against Browne. They were later shown to be untrue, but a furor developed that left the first Kiwanian watching helplessly as the first Kiwanis club disintegrated before his eyes. Afterward, Joe Prance wrote: "Everyone started talking at once, all 173 of them. The meeting not only was getting out of control, it was a stampede. When the smoke cleared, we had about fifty members left." The members who remained reoriented their efforts towards helping other citizens through community service. Don Johnson diplomatically pulled them together, and brought the club to full strength with a membership drive.
Their first major Service Project was the adoption of a young ward who was completely supported by the group. They even changed his name to -- what else, -- Henry Kiwanis! Thus, the motives of fellowship, service and youth activities were established within the first year.
During the July dissension, Secretary Ottie Robertson and Allen Browne became disgusted and left to organize a club in Cleveland. It was a wise move; the club boasted a membership of 135 in ten weeks, and the enthusiastic members began building other clubs. The new club also stressed youth when it started a nursery school for underprivileged children. Kiwanis had stumbled, but it did not fall. Now with major clubs in Detroit and Cleveland, and others on the way, it was back on its feet.
The first Kiwanis convention, called for May 18 -19, 1916 in Cleveland, had over thirty clubs in attendance. The delegates elected officers and adopted a constitution. By 1917, there were over seventy clubs in Detroit representing 5,700 Kiwanians in two nations. The club had become international when Hamilton, Ontario was founded on November 1, 1916. The event was important enough that the Hamilton Spectator devoted fourteen pages to the new club and the achievements of Kiwanis.
During the next two years, Districts, including Alabama-Florida, were established, and the first issues of The Kiwanis Hornet were published. However, the fire over Allen Browne's contract still smoldered. Ten thousand members and 83 clubs were represented at the 1918 Providence convention when the contract was brought up for discussion. The fire flared again. Many Kiwanians recognized and honored Allen Browne's great contribution as the founder of Kiwanis. Yet others were uneasy and even angry that their organization was owned for profit. Finally, after much fervent discussion, the contract was reviewed, revised, and approved for one year. Then during the May 21 morning session of the 1919 Convention in Birmingham, Alabama, the matter was settled for all time. the delegates voted to buy Browne out. Thinking that the members could never raise the ante, Browne proposed a simple and electrifying proposal. Kiwanians could buy their organization for $17,500 in cash, if it were raised within 24 hours. The Kiwanis Club of Baltimore put up the first $500. The rest was raised within one hour, and a free and independent organization was established.
During 1920, longtime Kiwanis magazine Editor Roe Fulkerson had an inspiration. As he wrote many years later, "I have written for you probably 100,000 words, every one of which has been forgotten save two. God inspired me to write those two: 'We Build.' I am prouder of them than any other accomplishment of my life." Needless to say, they were adopted as the motto at the 1920 Convention. Two hundred and sixty seven clubs and 28,0900 members were now on stride with the words of Roe Fulkerson. They became the guiding force and inspiration for all the future work of Kiwanis. At the 1924 Denver Convention, the delegates adopted the name Kiwanis International and the six Objects of Kiwanis shown elsewhere in this booklet. In 1925, Kiwanis established Key Clubs International for service at the high school level, and in 1947, Circle K for college and university students. With these actions, the foundations of an international service club had been put in place within its first decade of existence.
This information was provided to the Florida District Web Page by Bob Henderson of the Kiwanis Club of Capital City.