A fraternal society and insurance organization – WOW left its unique mark in stone in thousands of cemeteries around the US, including Florida.
In 1890, Joseph Cullen Root founded the Woodmen of the World (WOW) in Omaha, Nebraska. The purpose of WOW was to provide financial relief for families after the father died. At this time, the father remained the breadwinner of the family, but community support of fatherless families has largely disappeared. There was also the notion of “self-sufficiency” which put public pressure on families to not accept charity.
One of Root’s innovations was to provide free grave markers for WOW members. For about 10 years, members would get a tree stump-shaped marker as part of their life insurance benefits (this would likely be between 1890 and 1900). When this ended, WOW offered a $100 benefit that would be used for a marker (approximately between 1900 and 1920). Eventually the $100 benefit would also be discontinued.
It’s generally considered that the changes were tied to increasing costs of grave markers, but another likely element was that the marker program wasn’t all that important in connection with the life insurance benefits. The majority of WOW markers in Florida cemeteries are dated from 1900 to 1920 with a few as late as 1927. This falls in line with the dates that the marker benefits were offered. Since the Woodmen tree markers stop being used at the end of the 1920s even though WOW continued (it’s still a successful insurance company to this day) it shows that the popularity of the markers was tied to the marker benefits. Of course, the Great Depression likely had a hand in it.
Typically, local stone carvers would create WOW markers using some sort of basic template, likely to be provided by WOW, itself. The tree stumps are slender, stand around four feet tall and have a place for the name and birth / death dates of the Woodman as well as a carved WOW emblem. WOW’s motto: Dum tacet clamat (Latin for Though silent, he speaks.) is usually on the emblem or on some other part of the marker.
There are plenty of variations, including the most common being a stump resting on several cut and stacked logs (which some say represents the number of the man’s children). As can be seen in the examples below, it was common for some markers to be simple stacks of logs in one form or another as well as markers that were topped by one log. Additions to the stumps or logs were also used – woodworking tools such as axes and wedges are commonly seen.
Joseph Cullen Root (1844-1913) founder and 1st President of the Modern Woodmen of the World Insurance Company (“Modern” would quickly be dropped from the name), and Modern Woodmen of America (the precursor of WOW). Root was born in Chester, MA, the son of Aurelius Clark and Eliza (Abbott) Root. The family would move to Illinois and then to Iowa.
He attended Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, IA, Northern Illinois College in DeKalb, IL (which would become Northern Illinois University) and Eastman Business College in Poughkeepsie, NY, where he graduated in 1865. He became a lawyer in 1883 and served as mayor of Lyons, IA from 1886-87. Root married Louise M. Inslee (1849–1910) of Lyons, IA and they had two sons. The rather appropriately named Root would hold the title Sovereign Commander of the Woodmen of the World.
Both Root and his wife are entombed at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Omaha, NE. His family has a neo-classical mausoleum. There is also a marker nearby commemorating him which was placed by the Woodmen of the World. Oddly enough, neither the mausoleum, nor the WOW marker have any tree stump imagery.
The photos below are from 13 Florida cemeteries. While there are obvious similarities among many of the markers, especially the upright stumps, each marker is different, showing that they were individually handcrafted.
WOW members weren’t the only ones who used tree symbology for grave markers. There are similar markers with Masonic symbols instead of the WOW emblem in Florida cemeteries, including Walt Disney’s maternal grandparents’ marker in Ponceannah Cemetery in Paisley.
For additional information about the history of WOW, please check out: