Wyoming’s Woodmen of the World

I’ve walked through Laramie’s Greenhill Cemetery many times over the years and have been curious about the headstones carved to look like tree stumps. I finally decided to do a little research. You may already know this, but each intricately carved tombstone indicates that the deceased was a member of the Woodmen of the World fraternal society.

As is the way nowadays, I googled to find out more. I came across an interesting descriptive article from 2016 about fraternal orders, particularly the Woodmen organization, by Lisa Hix of the Houston Chronicle. I’ve excerpted from the article below.

Death was everywhere in 19th-century America: Fatal injuries, disease epidemics, and the Civil War made families acutely aware of mortality. For women and children, the death of a husband and father could tumble them into poverty. Only the wealthiest Americans bought private life insurance. Women were not allowed to take out policies on their husbands, and if the husband bought the policy on himself, the money wouldn’t be protected from creditors. 

And then, grieving families faced another layer of shame. In 19th-century America, taking charity was perceived as weakness. The thinking was, if a lack of industriousness made you destitute, well, then you got what you deserved. 

However, the middle and working classes did have a workaround. Men could join secretive clubs like the Freemasons and Oddfellows that provided networking, entertainment, and a moral education. If a man proved himself to be hardworking and of good character through his initiation trials, his social standing meant his family could quietly receive financial support from the lodge without the stigma of accepting charity.

Newspaper posting showing a note of thanks to Woodmen of the World for a $3,000 insurance payout in 1897 to a Laramie widow.
Permelia Roberts, the widow of Laramie resident John S. Roberts, received $3,000 in benefits from the Woodmen of the World organization after the death of her husband in 1897. Today this would be about $85,000. Article from the Laramie Boomerang, May 21, 1897.

After the devastating Civil War, well-established fraternal orders began to formalize their benefits into insurance subsidiaries. New secret societies known as “mutual beneficiary societies,” created with the explicit purpose of offering life insurance policies, sprang up around the U.S. Largely excluded from the original fraternal orders, women and African Americans even launched their own aid societies. Still, to join any fraternal order and receive its insurance benefits, you had to prove that you were no slouch — a hard worker with high morals such as thrift, self-reliance, discipline, and generosity. 

Parade float in Laramie in 1926 for Camp 2838 of the Royal Neighbors of America, an insurance society founded by women to benefit other women.
Royal Neighbors of America was founded by women in 1895 and was one of the first to offer life insurance to women. Shown is a parade float from 1926 for Camp 2838 of Laramie.
Box 8, Ludwig & Svenson Studio Photographs, American Heritage Center,University of Wyoming. 
(I see another blog post in my future. I have to find out more about the RNA.)

But fraternal orders weren’t all about restraint. Before the days of TV, radio, or fantasy football, fraternal lodges offered plays, rituals, and camaraderie, and allowed men to let loose, which kept members coming back for more. The clout of being an insider and the endless pursuit of mystical, esoteric knowledge ensured that men would make their insurance payments for decades to come.  The Woodmen came late to the party—incorporating in 1883 as the Modern Woodmen of America—but their leaders’ entrepreneurial innovations breathed new life into the fraternal insurance game. Founder Joseph Cullen Root, a Lyons, Iowa, businessman, seized the opportunity to create his own fraternal order when the mutual aid society Knights of Honor, which almost went under due to the 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic, was selling its local lodge. 

To avoid a similar financial pitfall, Root made fitness a requirement to join his order, recruiting rural young men from the “healthiest states,” which meant those outside industrial New England. In the Woodmen, he fused Christian philosophy and pioneer values with ancient agricultural rites. “At that time, Root’s thought was that a cleared conscience and a cleared forest were synonymous,” says Bruce Lee Webb, who co-authored the 2015 book, As Above, So Below: Art of the American Fraternal Society with Lynne Adele. “The axe is an instrument that clears the forest but is also useful for constructing buildings and making progress.”

Musical band of Pilot Camp No. 46 of Woodmen of the World, 1917.
Band of Laramie’s Pilot Camp No. 46 of Woodmen of the World, 1917.
Ludwig & Svenson Studio Photographs, Box 33B, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

After an internal dispute with the other Modern Woodmen of America leaders, Root left the organization in 1890 and moved to Omaha to form a nearly identical “speculative woodcraft” order: Woodmen of the World. One of his innovations was to provide free tombstones—Root believed passionately that no member of his order should be buried in an unmarked grave. So, for 10 years, the Woodmen gave its members grave markers in the shape of tree stumps, inspired by the Victorian Rustic movement. (For another two decades, the members put down $100 apiece to reserve theirs.)

At a Woodman’s funeral, his personalized 4- to 5-foot tall tree stump headstone would be revealed in an elaborate ritual. The local stone carver, who might alter the pattern, would add embellishments reflecting the Woodman’s personality, such as axes and doves. 

Laramie wasn’t the only Wyoming town with a Woodmen chapter. A search in the Wyoming State Library’s digitized newspaper database “Wyoming Newspapers” reveals that there were Woodmen camps in Douglas, Rawlins, Sheridan, Green River, Newcastle, Casper, Grand Encampment, Big Piney, and most likely other towns I may have missed.

Woodmen of the World exists today as WoodmenLife (officially Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Society) and is still based in Omaha, Nebraska.

By the way, if you’re looking for images related to fraternal orders in Southeastern Wyoming, a great resource is the Ludwig & Svenson Photographic Collection at the American Heritage Center.

– Post contributed by AHC Archivist Leslie Waggener.

#alwaysarchiving

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6 Responses to Wyoming’s Woodmen of the World

  1. Jan Botkin Therkildsen says:

    Thank you. This is fascinating!

    • ahcadmin says:

      I appreciate your comment, Jan. I’m glad I’m not the only one fascinated by Woodmen of the World and these headstones! – Leslie Waggener

  2. Germaine St John says:

    Very interesting and very informative. I had no idea about the history of this organization. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Dan Nelson says:

    Hi! I found this article on Woodmen of the World extremely interesting and informative. Thanks for posting it!

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