This is part of my occasional series on history, by studying Oakland Cemetery.
If you visit cemeteries often, you’ve probably noticed the tree stone monuments. Several can be seen in Oakland cemetery. Two organizations are given credit for their proliferation, Modern Woodmen of America and Woodmen of the World.
Joseph Cullen Root originally founded Modern Woodmen of America (MWA) in January, 1883. After heated arguments, Root was thrown out of the group. Root then organized Woodmen of the World, in 1890, which is perhaps better known. Root wanted to create a fraternal benefit society that would “bind in one association the Jew and the Gentile, the Catholic and the Protestant, the agnostic and the atheist.” He used the name ‘woodmen’ because he was inspired by a sermon that talked about “woodmen clearing the forest to provide for their families.” The Woodmen of the World organization is probably best known for its gravestones. From 1890 to 1900, WOW’s life insurance policies provided for special grave markers, free of charge for members. From 1900 to the mid- 1920’s, members purchased a $100 rider to cover the cost of the monument. By the mid-20’s, the organization had discontinued the grave marker benefit due to cost.
The society designed a four to five foot high tree trunk monument pattern for adults and three stacked logs for children. WOW would send a copy of the pattern to the local stone carver in the deceased woodman’s hometown, so that all of the tree stones would be similar in appearance, though they were not identical. Other decorations were added to the tree trunk to make each marker more individualistic. Many times, the tree stone pattern was altered; sized differently, cut in a different manner, or branches were added or broken off each time a family member was buried. Many of these tree show sawed or broken limbs traditionally symbolizing a life cut short.
An occupation or hobby in the wood industry has never been required to be a member of Woodmen of the World. Still, the main symbols found on the tree stones include axes, mauls, wedges, any type of tool used in woodworking. Doves became popular as well. The WOW motto “Dum Tacet Clamet” meaning, “Though silent, he speaks” was often inscribed as well.
WOW later created a simpler template of a log that would rest atop a regular gravestone. Members could order the log to be placed on a deceased woodman’s regular grave marker. A woodman emblem is now available and can be attached to a regular gravestone.
In one of the best known events in the Woodmen’s history, the company launches first a radio staion and in in 1949, a television station. One of WOW-TV’s first performers was local resident, Johnny Carson, who had a daily show called The Squirrel’s Nest. Meredith Corporation bought out the radio and TV station in 1958. In 1999, the Journal Broadcast Group from Milwaukee purchased the stations and the historic call letters were changed.
Woodmen of the World is one of the largest fraternal benefit society with open membership in the United States. The not for profit organization provides not only insurance, but also investment, bonds, real estate and mortgage loans to its members. Its 2010 financial performance included gross revenue of $1.2 billion. WOW is active in local communities, providing aid to senior citizens, the physically impaired and orphans. Woodmen of the World has partnered with the American Red Cross to provide disaster relief nationwide. Woodmen of The World Life Insurance Society is located in Omaha, NE.
Even though monument benefits have not been included in the WOW package for years, the society makes sure that “no Woodmen shall rest in an unmarked grave.” A fitting tribute to WOW members, and a brilliant way to augment those striking and outstanding tree stone monuments into cemeteries everywhere.
More history is available in a blog post by Joy Neighbors Woodmen of the World and the Tree Stone Grave Markers
And another blog post by Joyce M. Tice explains Woodmen burial rituals.