The Woodmen and their competing predecessors, the Modern Woodmen of America, were just a couple of the many fraternal insurance organizations that formed in the years after the Civil War.
A great article about the Woodmen appeared on today's Houston Chronicle website. Read the piece by Lisa Hix (incidentally, Dave Lettelier of the Phoenixmasonry Museum website is quoted):
Death was everywhere in 19 -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 19 -century America, taking charity was seen as a sign of weakness: The thinking was, if a lack of industriousness made you destitute, well, then you got what you deserved.
The middle and working classes did, however, have a workaround. Men could join secretive boys' 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.
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 United States. 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.
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 businessman in Lyons, Iowa, seized the opportunity to create his own fraternal order when the mutual aid society Knights of Honor, which almost went under because of the 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic, was selling its local lodge.
To avoid the financial pitfall that wrecked the Knights, 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, with Lynne Adele. “The axe is an instrument clears the forest but is also useful for constructing buildings and making progress.”
Wielding aluminum-headed axes, members of Modern Woodmen lodges formed marching units known as the Foresters that performed precision drill routines in military-like uniforms. Eventually, there were roughly 10,000 drill teams nationwide. Dave Lettelier, curator of the Phoenixmasonry Museum in Havana, Florida, says that such pageantry appealed to young men who’d grown up in awe of Civil War heroes. The fraternal beneficiary societies made signing up for insurance seem glamorous.
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: the 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 tombstone would be revealed in an elaborate ritual. The 4- or 5-foot-tall tree stump would be marked with the motto “Dum Tacet Clamet” (“Though Silent, He Speaks”) and rest on a stack of logs, each log symbolizing one of the deceased’s children. The local stone carver, who might alter the pattern, would add embellishments reflecting the Woodman's personality, such as axes and doves.Read the rest HERE.