The Gnome Club was founded on March 9, 1897, just six years after the founding of Throop College. It is Caltech's oldest surviving campus-related organization. In the beginning, the Gnome (Gamma Kappa) Club was a Literary Society. It provided an opportunity for training in debating, essay writing, and speaking, along with good fellowship. As the years have passed, its function has changed but good fellowship has remained central to its character.
The Gnome Club has never established relations with any other fraternity or society and has always maintained a strictly local character. The traditions of the Gnome Club may have come from far away, however. The island of Samothrace has been said to be the home of a race of Gnomes who were creative, industrious and concerned over the welfare of their fellow man. Study of the island and its inhabitants may have led to the Gnome Club principles of Courage, Loyalty, Truth and the ritual associated with those principles.
We can thank Gnome #13 for the Gnome Owl emblem. He was an active field worker in biology and one of the species he reported on was the Pygmy Owl, officially called Geococcyx Californiaus: Glaucidium Gnoma. A Pygmy Owl or Gnome Owl perched on a crescent moon is the Gnome Club's emblem.
Gnome #13 wrote of the Gnome Owl:
"It is a tenant of old woodpecker holes all through the San Bernardino Mountains. Early in May it may be seen sitting close beside its mate near the trunk of a pine tree, looking somewhat like a huge pine cone wrong end up. It is a very love-sick wooer and the indifference of petite Madame Owl is, we are all convinced, only feigned."
The year 1931 was a turning point for life on the Caltech campus. The Institute and its Board of Trustees decided to provide on-campus housing for undergraduates and so they built four student houses - Ricketts, Dabney, Blacker, and Fleming. This resulted in a dramatic change in undergraduate life and in the demise of nearly all of the fraternities then at Caltech. The Gnome Club was the only group to survive this upheaval despite a recommendation "that arbitrary steps be taken to prevent the continuance of those groups now existing" should they not voluntarily comply.
The Gnomes refused to disband - instead transforming themselves into an Alumni group. The friendships that had formed between fellow Gnomes was too strong to break. Gnome alumni fellowship continued and members continued to gather because they enjoyed being together. Even so, between 1931 and 1949 only six new members were added to the roster.
It was not until after World War II that the Gnomes began to accept new members once more. The new President of the Institute, Dr. Lee DuBridge attended a Founders Night gathering and found there the sense of tradition that was otherwise missing from life at Caltech. As a result, he made it possible for the Gnomes to begin growing again by permitting the initiation of selected graduating seniors. Fourteen members of the Class of '49 were the first to be initiated under these new rules, opening a new era in the Gnome Club's history. This new growth has allowed the Gnomes to carry on operations as a recognized member of the Caltech community, dedicated to serving the Institute.
The decade from 1949 to 1958 saw strong growth in the Gnome Club, with 167 new members added to the roster. The decline of the Beavers (a service group of active juniors and seniors and a major source of prospective Gnomes) along with other changes in student life led to a significant slow-down in the initiation of new Gnomes towards the end of those years. From 1959 through 1968, only 51 new members joined the Club.
In 1967, the Alumni Association was changed from a volunteer organization to a professionally managed one. This provided a big assist to the Gnome Club, helping with membership, mailings and supporting Club activities.
In the fall of 1970, the first women undergraduates were admitted as freshman and transfer students at Caltech. The Gnomes responded admirably by initiating three women from the class of 1974. This was followed rather quickly by other big changes in the Club. Founders Night in 1975 was changed from the traditional stag format and spouses and guests were welcome for the first time. Improved attendance in the years since then have proved the wisdom of those changes!
The history related in this page has been excerpted from "The Gnome Club, Throop and Caltech", edited by Theodore C Combs, 1986.