The image is both bold and secretive, seal and sigil, blunt of message and artful in its old-world, hand-crafted execution. At its center is the stump of a tree, big roots extended like a three-legged beast; on either side are crossed boughs, each leaf in perfect alignment. Ringed around the image in a practical, modern typeface are the words WOODMEN OF THE WORLD MEMORIAL.
Beneath the tree’s roots is a small scroll. More often than not–at least in our harsh climate–the words have been worn away. But if you’re lucky, you’ll find one that still has its Latin inscription clear enough to read: dum tacet clamat, “though silent, he speaks.”
Woodmen of the World grave markers were a new thing to this taphophile until just recently. Sure, any tombstone tourist has tripped over plenty of big granite monuments carved to look like tree trunks, piles of cut wood, or stumps carved with a common surname, sometimes with each limb separately marked for a departed family member. As gravestone fads go, these were a big thing in the 19th Century and the fever lasted well into the 20th. Pretty much any larger cemetery dating from this era will have its share.
But The Woodmen! Not every stump-like grave marker is for a Woodman. In fact, here in the city of Pittsburgh, they seem to be extremely rare. To find one, you’ve got to kiss a lot of lumber-looking frogs. Woodmen markers will have that impressive insignia bearing the organization’s name or the dum tacet clamat phrase. Each will almost certainly date within the 30-ish year period from the 1890s to the 1920s.
Annette Stott, professor of art history at The University of Denver, seems to be the authority on Woodmen gravestones. Her article “The Woodmen of the World Monument Program,”(Markers XX: Annual Journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies, 2003) is a great introduction to the relatively short history of Woodmen of the World’s (WOW) membership/insurance policy-gets-you-a-free-gravestone program.
Stott was writing from Colorado, which is perhaps not coincidentally where the Woodmen–a secretive, fraternal order in the mold of Freemasons and Odd Fellows–were founded in 1883. (WOW headquarters moved to Omaha, known as the “Sovereign Camp,” in 1890. The insurance side of the business–rebranded as “Woodmen Life“–persists to this day.) She describes a very particular couple of styles for the monuments the Woodmen initially offered to supply their beneficiary members in good standing upon death.
When and how the Woodmen spread east is unclear, but they sure found a lot of takers in the Mon Valley. I’ve had a devil of a time locating any WOW stones in all of my hundreds of walks through giant Allegheny Cemetery; exactly one found (so far) in equally huge Homewood Cemetery. (Though I haven’t put in the same amount of time there.)
But Dravosburg–WOWza yowza! Richland Cemetery, just uphill from the bridge to McKeesport, has dozens of Woodmen monuments. There are so many in this medium-sized memorial park that at a certain point, your author just stopped looking. You can’t bag them all and I had a cookout to get to.
Stott describes the two original designs offered by the Woodmen program as “a six-and-a-half-foot monument consisting of a shaft surmounted by a draped urn … or a seven-and-a-half-foot tree trunk with the Woodmen of the World emblems carved in high relief.”
There is nothing resembling “a draped urn” on any of the WOW monuments at Richland, but tall tree trunks with the Woodmen emblem are in no short supply there. There is a strong similarity in all of these, but they’re not cookie-cutter copies, either. The placement of severed limbs, design of the deceased’s name plaque, and the monument’s base all vary from model to model.
One of these (Peter Wersderfer, below) is decidedly more ornate than all the rest, but whoever decided to face the monument north–so it would be perpetually backlit–never considered the trouble that would cause photographers in the blogosphere a century later. Sigh.
Even though one being a “member in good standing” was the initial qualification to be in the Woodmen of the World’s monument program, one has to assume the big seven- or eight-foot tree trunks had to cost a lot more than a simple flat slab. Money came into the system somewhere and it wasn’t going to pay out evenly across-the-board.
So there are many Woodmen grave markers out there with no resemblance to trees or stumps or woodland anything. One can see by the examples below that there were a couple more common, much simpler designs and then a number of outliers that look like the monument carvers added the WOW emblem to other off-the-shelf models in their catalog.
Woodwomen of the World?
While there were undoubtedly many many ladies of the frontier who could accurately be described as “woodwomen,” it will come as a surprise to no one that a hundred years ago, a person required a Y chromosome to be eligible for the Woodmen of the World.
That doesn’t mean women were entirely excluded from memorials. Rather, as is so often the case, they arrived on WOW-branded markers partnered with their husbands or in their own separate, adjunct status.
Stott describes a particular version of this the Western U.S. “Women of Woodcraft, the female auxiliary of the Pacific Jurisdiction Woodmen of the World since 1898, also maintained a monument program.”
In Dravosburg, at least, there don’t appear to be any Women of Woodcraft, but rather a number of stones bearing typically female names and the seal-like imprint of the alternate Woodmen Circle. That title is objectively less cool than Women of Woodcraft, but we imagine the route to get there was pretty similar.
Woodmen of the Afterworld
Woodmen of the World grave markers exist for a relatively slim segment of history–approximately, the 1890s through the 1920s. This tracks with what we found in Dravosburg, although the earliest ones spotted are from 1907. The insurance program likely took some extra time to spread this far east.
Stott describes the end of things as a basic case of an unsustainable business model:
After 1928, no insurance certificates were issued with a monument benefit, and in 1932, with no new money going into the monument fund, it was decided to distribute to each member still holding a monument agreement the exact amount that they had paid in, plus interest. That ended the program.
Richland Cemetery has at least two markers that include the WOW insignia and fall outside this timeline. Clinton Shallenberger (d. 1935, photo above) and William Neel (d. 1945, below) both ended up with WOW-branded grave markers, but it seems unlikely they were paid for by the organization.
Were these “members in good standing” who’d paid enough into the program back in the day to find a grandfathered-in loophole? Or were they loyal Woodmen to the end who specified the organization’s seal on their gravestones–even if the family had to pay for it–as a dying wish?
We’ll likely never know–there may be as many reasons as there are after-market Woodmen of the World grave markers. Like their fellow crypto-brotherhoods The Freemasons and The Odd Fellows, The Knights of Pythias, The Frogs, and The Owls, there’s what’s known, what’s imagined, and what we’d rather leave untold to keep some mystery alive in this age of over-exposure, instant reward, and gluttonous narcissism. We can be grateful that maybe that’s something that might still be taken to the grave.
All photographs taken in Richland Cemetery, Dravosburg, PA., Sept. 2021.