Friday, June 7, 2013

Modern Woodmen of America and Tree Stones

Due to hand surgery  - I am out of commission for a couple of weeks.  Here, back by popular demand, are two blog posts about tree stones.  Today's blog on Modern Woodmen of America, and next Friday, we'll look at Woodmen of the World.

If you've spent much time wandering cemeteries, you’ve come across those realistic, but sometimes ornate, tree stone grave markers.  While intriguing, there are always questions concerning them: How did they come about?  What do they represent?  And is there a difference between the organizations MWA and WOW?  Read on…….

Joseph Cullen Root
Joseph Cullen Root founded Modern Woodmen of America in Lyons, Iowa in 1883.  Root was a member of several fraternal organizations and wanted to create one that would provide insurance benefits to a family when the husband/father died.   Most fraternal organizations at the time were tied to religious orders.  But Root imagined one without religious ties, a society that would “bind in one association, the Jew and the Gentile, the Catholic and the Protestant, the Agnostic and the Atheist.”
Root decided on the woodmen name after hearing a minister describe his congregation as ‘trees in God’s forest.” When first founded, modern woodmen were white men between the ages of 18 and 45, from rural Midwestern states.  The home office of MWA began in Fulton, Illinois in 1884 and moved to Rock Island, Illinois in 1897, where it remains today.

Royal Neighbors
of America
In 1888, the ladies auxiliary of the MWA, the Royal Neighbors of America (RNA), was started.  Their symbol was a five-petal flower.

Woodmen of the World Logo
In 1890, after a heated dispute, Root left the Modern Woodmen of America to found another fraternal insurance benefit society, Woodmen of the World (WOW or WOTW) in Omaha, Nebraska.

Foresters Drill Teams

The Modern Woodmen of America (MWA) became well known for their drill teams.  Known as the Foresters, over 10,000 units, made up of over 160,000 men performed nationally from 1893 through the late 1930’s.   The Foresters Drill Teams performed at parades and festivals across the country, and even entertained at the White House for President Hoover.

MWA TB Sanatorium
MWA members were also known for their community assistance.  The organization built a 1,000-acre, $1.5 million dollar tuberculosis sanatorium in Colorado Springs, Colorado in 1909, one of the largest in the country.  It was named as one of the most outstanding TB institutions by the American College of Surgeons. Over 12, 000 MWA members were treated there for free.   The recovery rate at the institute was an amazing 70%.  The facility closed in 1947 when drug treatments for tuberculosis showed promise and deaths began to decline. In 1910 MWA membership hit the one million mark.  By 1929 women and children were also being insured by the group.

MWA Marker
Founder Joseph Root wrote a funeral ceremony that was to be performed when a member died.  These ceremonies were held during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Today, memorial services are held during the month of June at each chapter to remember their deceased members.  

MWA Marker

Ornate and interwoven
MWA offered it's members the opportunity to purchase grave markers for deceased associates until the mid-1970’s.  Cemeteries around the country also have tree stone monuments, engraved with the MWA initials and symbols.  MWA did not supply these grave markers or provide any monetary assistance for their purchase for members.  Woodmen of the World did provide assistance for tree stone grave monuments for their members.

Prices for MWA Logo

Montgomery Wards
Tree Stone Marker

Tree stone markers were also available for purchase from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue and the Montgomery Ward catalogue during the early twentieth century.  A tree stone marker does not necessarily mean that person was a member of MWA or WOW.  Only if the organizations' initials or symbols are located on the stone does it indicate that the deceased was a member of one of these organizations.

The MWA doctrine includes striving for family financial security, positive family life and service to the community.  MWA symbols include the axe to represent industry, the wedge to signify power and the beetle to illustrate progress.  The logo is made up of the capital letters M W A.  Their motto remains “Pour Autre Vie.” – ‘For the life of another.’

Today, the Modern Woodmen of American is the nation’s third largest fraternal benefit society, with close to 750-million members.  The group has assets of over $9 billion.  Close to 2,200 chapters or ‘camps’, exist in the U.S., mainly in the Midwest and the South.  MWA meetings are held throughout the year, along with parades, and community events.  The MWA also supports youth activities and organizations throughout the country.  In 2008, Modern Woodmen of America celebrated their 125th Anniversary.

Friday, we’ll explore Father’s Day in the cemetery.  
Next Tuesday we’ll take a look at the second fraternal benefit society that Joseph Root founded, Woodmen of the World. This is the organization known for the tree stone grave markers.

~ Joy


  1. Thanks again for posting this --- I've seen several "tree stones" recently, so it's been fresh in my mind.

    I hope your recovery goes well, and you're feeling better soon. :)

  2. If you are one of the persons that love to wander cemetries, well, i'm one of the many who are scared to wander at cemetries. I go to cemetries to visit my dad and other relatives on occasions like father's day or birthdays with my mother but never alone. Anyway those stones look interesting. We don't have many beautiful stones like that in our cemetries.


  3. Angel, If you walk through and look for the beauty instead of the death, that might help. Plus, the older section is not nearly as scary when you think that those here have been gone a long time...

  4. Joy,
    What a surprise and delight to find myself at your blog. I just purchased a bridle rosette for my daughter. It had such a unique color and design with the initals MWA on it. I started Googling like crazy to find what the initals stood for, and eventually pulled up your post. When I read your introduction it enticed me to read on as I too, have always been interested in the inscriptions on grave markers. Well, I not only found my answer to what those initials on the rosette stood for, Modern Woodmen of America, but also to the unusual tree grave stone at the cemetery where we recently bought plots. My husband and I had often commented on how unusual the strange tree grave marker was there. We had never seen one before. It is so old though, we didn't notice any special markings. On our next visit to Rock Falls Cemetry in Harbor Beach, MI, we will definitely check out this tree grave marker more diligently. It's amazing how one thing will lead you to another and in the process, you hit upon that,"I learned something new today!". Thank you for your interesting and informative posting.....I will be checking back!

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words, Kathy! Tree stones have fascinated me for years, and so many tell a story about the person whose grave they mark. Let me know what you find on the old tree stone in Michigan. I'd love to see a photo too! Thanks for reading!