Thursday, March 8, 2012

Woodmen 's Gravestones

It was late May, and although the nights were chilly, one sunny day three children who lived in West Naron Township in Pratt, County decided to walk to their grandpa Cubbage's house. He lived up in Stafford County, but the two little boys were confident they could find the way, and their little sister Mary, not quite three, was excited to go along. It was hard for her to keep up with her older brothers, but she did her best. Once they got away from their home, the grass on the open prairie was taller than they had expected, and although they were sure they were headed in the right direction, they grew tired and still saw nothing that looked familiar. A passing farmer offered to take them home, and both little boys eagerly crawled up into the wagon beside the man. As he started toward the children's family farm, one of the boys said, "Bring Mary home too when you find her."

With darkness falling, the farmer went directly to the Naron School House where he knew that the newly formed Woodman of the World lodge was meeting. The group immediately adjourned to organize a line of about sixty men carrying lanterns, walking closely so as not to overlook a little girl lost in the dark on the prairie. They searched through the night, and just before daylight they found little Mary in the timber on Jeff Naron's claim. Exhausted, chilled, and sobbing in a broken slumber, she was lying on the ground eight miles from where the children had begun their walk.

Woodmen of the World is one of the first fraternal benefit societies in the United States. It was founded by Joseph Cullen Root in 1890 and remains a privately held insurance company. Its roots go back to a time when the social safety nets for widows and children did not exist. Men formed lodges whose members pledged to take up a collection for each man's widow and children should any one of them die. From this system of helping each other grew the idea of a private insurance fund for members.

Today's members not only carry on the benefit of private insurance but also continue the commitment to serving their communities. The thing for which they may be best known, however, is the tradition that extended into the 1920s of gravestones in the shape of trees. The form varied from tall tree trunks to small stumps, and because they were hand chiseled, the details varied with the artistry of the carver. The symbols of the organization are the maul, wedge and ax, which often appear on the trees. Not every member chose a tree gravestone, instead displaying the symbols on traditional stones. In addition to the symbols, only the carver's imagination limited the flora and fauna that might appear--flowers, mushrooms, vines, scrolls with the deceased's name or message, with ropes holding scrolls. Two country cemeteries in Isaac's community have beautiful examples of these grave stones. In Neelands Cemetery is a beautiful tree trunk adorned with ferns and mushrooms, bark artfully rolled back to reveal the name "Neil." On the reverse side is an inscription: "Remember me as you pass by; As you are now so once was I; As I am now you all shall be; Prepare for death and follow me."

In another part of the cemetery is the Wilson family plot, a stump for Little Fay, as was common for children of Woodmen of the World members, a somewhat taller tree trunk for the father, and a traditional stone for the mother.

In the Prattsburg Cemetery several milles away is another tall tree trunk, this gravestone bearing the three symbols of the organization at the top of the sculpture, with a carved rope holding the scroll with the name of the deceased, David Johnson.

There was also a women's organization, called Woodmen Circle, of which Ella Beaman was apparently a member. Her stone in the Prattsburg Cemetery is a beautiful example of the forked trunk design, with a heart-shaped carving bearing the traditional Woodmen symbols resting in the fork and additional details in the trunk and base.

These Woodmen of the World trees were my favorite grave stones when I was a child, and others have told me they felt the same way, but none of us knew that they were anything more than pretty sculptures. The significance of the stones became lost to our generation.

Isaac was not a Woodman. His ambition was to help farmers through education and cooperation, and so, he joined the Farmers' Alliance, attempted to establish Reform Clubs, and supported the Peoples' Party. While neither the Woodman of the World nor the farmers' groups Isaac supported survive to the present day in his old community, they served the people of Isaac's time who faced great hardships by not having to face them alone.


Kim said...

David Johnson was my Grandma Neelly's father, so he would have been my great-grandfather. As a child, I always found that grave marker fascinating. I loved the story of the wandering children. Thanks for sharing!

The Blog Fodder said...

Graveyards have always fascinated me - the length of time people lived, the variety of family names. Slavic graveyards have a wonderful variety of markers, mostly tall and almost all have the picture of the person on the stone, as an enamel add-on or today laser carved onto the stone

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

The information about the children and their rescue by members of the Woodmen lodge came from newspaper accounts. It was a fun story to share, since the outcome was happy!

Busplunge said...

my great grandfather was a member and he is buried in Columbus Belmont Kentucky. Here is a link to a photo of his stone.

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Dear Busplunge, It is interesting to learn about all of the places where Woodmen of the World were active. Unfortunately, the link to your photo did not open when I tried to view your great-grandfather's stone.