Woodmen of the World
Aug 23, 2017 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Earlier this week I received a package – a box of bubble-wrapped treasures sent to me from my grandparents. These little gems are a link to my history: my great-great-grandma’s Bible, the costume jewelry grandma would wear for a night out on the town, and the beat-up metal cash box grandpa would carry to and from the shop every lunch break. Last night I was excitedly unwrapping these goodies and then, tucked under some pretty Crown Trifari clip-ons, there it was: an old brooch. And by old, I mean old. 1892 to be precise. Gracing its enamel face was the image of a tree trunk and bright bold letters – W. of W. What did it mean I wonder? A short Google search later and I found it – Woodmen of the World (also known as Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Society and now WoodmenLife). I was intrigued by this mystery brooch, so let’s discover a bit of its history, shall we?
Fun fact: The 19-story Woodmen headquarters was built in 1912 in Omaha, Nebraska and at the time of its dedication it was the tallest building between Chicago and the West Coast!
When my brooch was manufactured it was a couple years after the founding of this not-for-profit fraternal benefit society. It was established in Omaha by Joseph Cullen Root for the sole purpose to “clear away problems of financial security for its members” (much like the pioneers who cleared away the forest to make a future for their families). In addition to their life insurance offerings, they are known for unique tombstones (more on that later), donations of American flags, and even a brief stint in broadcast investment (which interestingly enough included an investment in a young Johnny Carson, who told jokes on the show “The Squirrel’s Nest”).
It makes sense that my grandparents would have this little brooch tucked away somewhere given that they only live a couple hours from Omaha. But why a brooch? Why not a dusty pamphlet? I think I’ve found my answer – the groves. Sounds cool, doesn’t it and a bit cryptic? So we know that Mr. Root liked the wordplay his name could leverage and he kept the theme going with the group’s female auxiliary. Its local units were called “Groves” and each grove was then led by a “Supreme Forest.” At its peak, the supreme forest was 135,000 voices strong. I have an inkling my ancestors were one of those voices.
Fun fact: Women weren’t the only voices included in the group – in the early 1900s Boy Scout & Girl Scout-esque groups were formed. In the 1970s they went by the names: Woodmen Rangers and Rangerettes and were nearly 120,000 members strong!
So about these tombstones…they were (as you can probably guess) in the shape of a tree stump and given to early members of the group. You can find them across the nation, but the program stopped in the late 1920s as the cost of elaborate carving rose. The design is quite detailed – including most of the symbols of the organization: the maul, wedge, axe, and then the dove of peace with an olive branch. Standard inscriptions include: “Here rests a woodman of the world” and “Though silent, he speaks.” These noble tree stumps serve as a very real reminder that the group is dedicated to charitable and patriotic causes. Each member these trees represent contributed to bettering their corner of the world. Their legacy lives on today in partnerships with the Red Cross for disaster relief.
Fun fact: Woodmens has distributed more than 2.5 million flags since 1947
All this data leads us back to our original quest – what’s in a brooch after all? While all of this history may seem static, it’s quite the opposite. For example, in 1934 the WoodmenLife Treasurer and U.S. Senator Morris Sheppard co-sponsored legislation to establish Federal Credit Unions. As a happy credit union user it’s very cool to know that the source of an institution I adore today has its roots (word play!) with Woodmen of the World. Beyond fiscal impacts, in 1953 (at the height of consumerism and excess), WoodmenLife established an award for conservationists and environmentalists that remains a prestigious honor to this day. As we’ve learned, something small can carry a big message. I’m so glad I found this plucky brooch under the bright shininess that sought to divide my attention. And knowing its living history makes me want to wear it out for my next adventure!