Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Are You a Tombstone Tourist?

Cemetery in snow

When someone asks what I do for fun, I reply that I’m a tombstone tourist.  It’s nice that there is a word to describe those of us who love to go to cemeteries.  Otherwise, we would have to do a lot of explaining, (which I did until I found ‘the word.’)

A winter sunset in
the cemetery
Brian Neighbors -
A Tombstone Tourist
Tombstone tourist is a term that caught on after Scott Stanton published his book by the same name in 2003.  (The book is about popular musicians and where they are buried.)  Before that, those of us who frequented cemeteries were known, singularly, as a ‘taphophile’ – someone who has “a passion for and enjoyment of cemeteries”. Or in the plural form, by the term ‘taphophilia.’ 

Neglected Crypt
Military Cemetery
Of course, there are other terms that attempt to describe those of us who love visiting graveyards, searching for tombstones and admiring mausoleums.  Just a few of the more popular are ‘grave hunter,’ ‘cemetery enthusiast,’ and ‘graver.’  All sound a bit adventurous, a bit like a PBS documentary title. But I prefer being called a  ‘tombstone tourist.’  It has a more up-beat sound and it makes more sense to me, because we are tourists – on a journey, making discoveries, enjoying ourselves, and our pursuit.   I know I am not a graver - it just sounds a bit odd and morbid to me.

Sunlit Mausoleum
Frankfort, Kentucky Cemetery
When asked what a tombstone tourist is, I can talk (at length) about the cemeteries I have visited, and the ones I want to, expounding on the treasures found there – the exquisite architecture, the impressive history, the genealogical aspects, the magnificent statues, the puzzling symbols, and the fact that I get to enjoy all of this – outside – without crowds, deadlines or paying an outlandish amount for an entertaining afternoon.

Sunlight on a stone
Old Cathedral,
Vincennes, Indiana
And we have history!  Tombstone tourists have existed for thousands of years.  In China, ancestor worship – where family members visit the graves of ancestors, decorate them and ask for their guidance or favor - has been in practice since ancient times. In numerous countries, pilgrimages are still made to the burial sites of saints and other religious figures, to honor them and seek assistance.

Autumn in the cemetery
A Tombstone Tourist Day for me
The advent of the internet has changed what we do, in a way.  Now, you can ‘visit’ a cemetery on line.  While it’s not the same as strolling through a windy autumnal cemetery, searching for an ancestor’s grave, it does make sense if time or finances are holding you back from making the trip.  You can still locate an ancestor’s final resting place on the internet, complete with a photo, on sites such as findagrave.com and interment.com.  Or visit the websites of some of the most famous cemeteries in the world and see them vicariously - still an adventure.

An undisturbed path
through the snow
Summer in the cemetery
But a true tombstone tourist relishes that walk among the stones, surrounded by nature and the elements.  There’s something about following a cemetery road or graveyard path, wherever it may wander, and being surprised, and delighted, by the great discoveries you make just around the bend.  Nothing can take that thrill away.

Tombstone Tourist?  Yes, that’s me!

~ Joy

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Circus Tragedy and Showmen’s Rest

Mourning Elephant
Showmen’s Rest is the nations’ most well known cemetery for circus artists and performers.  It was created in 1916 when the Showmen’s League of America purchased a plot at Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois for the burial of circus performers, circus hands and circus artists.  Five white elephant statues circle the plot, trunks lowered as a sign of mourning.  Burials were far between for the first two years, until that fateful morning in June when circus history was changed forever.

Wreck of the Hagenbeck-Wallace
Circus Train
It was around 4 A.M. on June 22, 1918, near Ivanhoe, Indiana when the 26-car Hagenbeck-Wallace circus train stopped to cool an overheated wheel-bearing box.  Although warning lights had been set out to signal that the train had stopped on the tracks, it was struck at full speed from behind by an empty troop train.  Three of the train cars, with sleeping circus workers in them, were destroyed by fire. Eighty-six performers, circus hands and roustabouts were killed as a result of the crash and fire. Many others injured. Fifty-six of the victims were buried at Woodlawn Cemetery at Showmen’s Rest.  The Showmen’s League of America donated the plots for the showmen’s burials.
Grave Stone for Jennie Ward Todd

Jennie Ward Todd
Among those buried were Jennie Ward Todd of the “Flying Wards.”  And the “Great Dieckx Brothers,” Arthur Dieckx and Max Nietzborn.

Row of Graves
Forty of the markers are engraved as “Unknown”  - “Unknown Female, number 48” or “Unknown Male, number 29”, and the date June 22, 1918.

4 Horses Driver & Baldy
Two performers were buried under their show names, ‘Baldy’ and ‘Smiley,’ as their real names were never known.  A few stones are marked only with the person’s job descriptions such as 4 Horse Driver, June 22, 1918.  Contrary to popular myth, NO animals were hurt or killed in the train crash.

The Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus was the second largest circus in the U.S. at the time.  Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey held the number one position.  Many Hagenbeck-Wallace show posters included the line “Presenting The Most Novel Elephant Acts Ever Seen.” 

Circus performers from around the country arrived to help Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus keep to their performing schedule for that season. All told, the circus only missed one performance, the night of June 22, 1918 when they were to appear in Hammond, Indiana. 

Mt Olivet Cemetery
in Hugo, Oklahoma
There are a few other ‘Showmen’s Rest Cemeteries’ in the U.S. – one is in Miami, Florida, at Southern Memorial Park.  This is the largest of the Showmen’s Rest Cemeteries, founded in 1952.  Another is located at the ‘winter home of the circus’, Hugo, Oklahoma at Mt Olivet Cemetery.  And another is located in Tampa, Florida near downtown.

International Clown Week
It is true that performers and actors never want to “leave the boards” of the stage, and at Showmen’s Rest, in Woodlawn Cemetery, that desire is understood.  Each year, International Clown Week http://performforthelove.com/showmensrest/ is held in early August.  A private memorial is held during the week for the circus performers buried there.  Then, on a Sunday afternoon, circus artists from across the world perform for the public at Showmen’s Rest. The events include circus acts, death-defying feats, family entertainment and general “clowning around,” as hundreds of clowns take part each year.  The event is billed as “a loving and festive remembrance of circus artists past.”

Showmen's Rest, Woodlawn Cemetery
As a theatre performer I can tell you, this is one of the most fitting and touching tributes any performer could ask for.  The old adage, “The show must go on…” is something every true performer believes. It is wonderful to see that it still does……at Showmen’s Rest.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Woodmen of the World and the Tree Stone Grave Markers

If you visit cemeteries often, you’ve probably noticed the tree stone monuments, especially in the West, Midwest and South.  As mentioned last Tuesday, two organizations are given credit for their proliferation, Modern Woodmen of America and Woodmen of the World.  Today we’ll explore the group that is responsible for the sheer number of them and why.

Joseph Cullen Root
Joseph Cullen Root originally founded the first group, Modern Woodmen of America (MWA), because he 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."  While he succeeded with MWA being that type of organization, heated arguments resulted in Root and another man being evicted from the society.

Joseph Cullen Root originally founded the first group, Modern Woodmen of America (MWA), because he 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."  While he succeeded with MWA being that type of organization, heated arguments resulted in Root and another man being evicted from the society.

Root kept the name ‘woodmen’ because he was inspired by a sermon that talked about “woodmen clearing the forest to provide for their families.”  Root saw Woodmen of the World as being an organization that would “clear away problems of financial security for its members.”

Supreme Forest Woodmen Circle
A women’s auxiliary for WOW was known as the Supreme Forest Woodmen Circle.  It was founded in 1892.  In 1895, Root and F.A. Falkenburg took control of the Circle and reformed it into the Woodmen Circle, which was incorporated into a separate fraternal benefit society.  In 1965, Woodmen of the World acquired it.  

Neighbors of Woodcraft
Another women’s auxiliary was formed in 1897, known as the Women of Woodcraft.  This organization encompassed nine western states.  In 1917 the Women of Woodcraft changed its name to the Neighbors of Woodcraft, to reflect the fact that both men and women were accepted in the group.  Neighbors of Woodcraft merged with Woodmen of the World in 2001.

Woodmen of the World Building
Woodmen of the World occupied the tallest building in Omaha, and the tallest building between Chicago and the West Coast, (19 stories) for many years.  In 1969 their current 30-story building was constructed.  It remained Omaha’s tallest structure until 2002.

Woodmen of the World Meeting
Similar to the Modern Woodmen of America, WOW became involved in the community by routinely holding dinners, dances and society events.  The organization also provided college scholarships for high school students and held summer camps for local youth.  By the beginning of the twentieth century, WOW had close to 1-million members and over 3,000 chapters or ‘lodges’ across the country.  By the 1920’s over one-quarter of American families belonged to some type of fraternal organization or society.

WOW Radio
In 1922, WOW began it’s own radio station, WOAW, as a way to reach out to thousands of people at one time.   At that time, WOAW’s 500-watt signal reached ships in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.  In 1926 the call letters were changed to WOW and the power was increased to 1,000 watts.  In 1935 WOW was granted the right to operate at 5,000 watts, making it one of the most powerful radio stations in the country.   

Johnny Carson
Then in 1949, the broadcasting company decided to launch WOW-TV. One of the first performers on the television station 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.

The Woodmen of the World organization was probably best known for its gravestones. From 1890 to 1900, WOW’s life insurance policies had a proviso that provided for the 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 the increased cost of the stones.

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.  

But other decorations were added to the tree trunk, thereby making 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.

Symbols found on the tree stones include axes, mauls, wedges, any type of tool used in woodworking.  (An occupation, hobby or interest in the wood industry has never been required to be a member of Woodmen of the World.) Doves became popular and are also found on many WOW tree stones. 

WOW later created a simpler template of a log that would rest atop a regular gravestone.  The WOW motto  “Dum Tacet Clamet,” meaning, “Though silent, he speaks” was inscribed on the log.  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.

Root declared that June 6th of each year to be ‘Woodmen Memorial Day” and woodmen who had died should be remembered and honored.  As with Modern Woodmen of America, Woodmen of the World held ‘remembrance celebrations’ when a woodman died.  A parade of members would march to the cemetery where the tree stone monument would be unveiled and dedicated in a moving ceremony held by the local lodge.

Today, Woodmen of the World is one of the largest fraternal benefit society with open membership in the United States.  The 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. 
WOW celebrated its 120th Anniversary last year.  Its motto has changed over the years to "Woodmen of the World -With You Through Life."  Although Woodmen of the World made the tree stones popular, they were in use by the Victorian Rustic Movement many years before WOW was formed.  The Sears and Roebuck catalogue and the Montgomery Ward catalogue also offered variations of the tree stone to its customers at the turn of the century.

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.