Woodmen of the World

Joseph Cullen Root, founder of Woodmen of the World.
Joseph Cullen Root, founder of Woodmen of the World.

Woodmen of the World

When Joseph Cullen Root founded the Modern Woodmen of the World in 1883, he envisioned it as part life insurance, part fraternal organization. The basic premise was, in a way, a play on Root’s name: a way for members to sink financial roots that would help provide security for their families.

A Woodmen policy.
A Woodmen policy.

The organization initially accepted as members only males in their peak earning years: age 15 to 52. When a member died, their compatriots would take up a collection to help sustain the widow and any children.

Before long, Root split from his Modern Woodmen organization, founding an offshoot group in 1890 with the similar but shorter name “Woodmen of the World.” By 1910, WOW had over one million members. This organization provided not only a life insurance policy to its members, but also a headstone as an added benefit for those who passed. This headstone benefit soon became unwieldy and expensive, and was dropped between 1910 and 1920. But is estimated that there are more than 45,000 of Woodmen of the World grave markers in existence across the nation in varying shapes, sizes and designs, all incorporating some version of the “tree” motif.

An early Woodman with his signature axe.
An early Woodman with his signature axe.

The symbolism of the fallen tree was deliberate. Once a living part of a mighty forest, the tree has been cut down to serve the useful purpose of sheltering humanity. The log also symbolizes the fallen woodsman himself, carried to his final resting place by the loving hands of his comrades and leaving his dependants a secure legacy through his forethought.

Thanks in part to the WOW organization, the “fallen tree” became a somewhat popular grave marker style between about 1900 and 1920. So not all burial markers with this motif were in fact erected by the Woodmen of the World.

Woodmen symbolism typically included the freshly-cut stump; axe, maul and wedge; and peaceful dove.
Woodmen symbolism typically included the freshly-cut stump; axe, maul and wedge; and peaceful dove.

Most WOW headstones weave in images reflecting the organization’s primary themes: the woodsman’s axe, a maul (hammer), and wedge. The stone carving may also contain the Latin phrase “Dum Tacet Clamat” ̶ though silent, he speaks. Or they may proclaim: “Here rests a woodsman of the world.” The word “rest” is said to be used deliberately; woodmen “never lie.”

Edgar Seamon's memorial at Genoa Cemetery.
Edgar Seamon’s log memorial at Genoa Cemetery.
A fanciful grave marker at Genoa Cemetery, with a child's straw hat
A fanciful grave marker at Genoa Cemetery, complete with a child’s straw hat carved on the side.

For a fascinating site that will help you locate WOW burials in seven Western states,  click here. (Link posted with the kind permission of the author, Jim Davenport, jimjanie_2@q.com).