The Mysterious Woodmen
While out driving in McKinney one day, heading east on White Avenue, I came across an interesting old building. The structure itself is nothing outstanding. It is a small, yellow-bricked building with a loose-gravel driveway surrounding it. There were no cars in the parking lot. The grass surrounding it was mowed and tidy, there were only minimal amounts of weeds growing up in the rocky parking area, and the bushes were neatly trimmed, suggesting that this building, though seemly empty, is still maintained by someone. What caught my eye was the writing on the outside of the building. In clear, but neglected, Times New Roman-style font was the title, “Woodmen of the World.”
When you come across something like this while driving, you have two options. Make a note to check on it later, or forget about it. I firmly believe that googling while driving should always be avoided, and I almost never have a pen and paper handy when I need one. I was curious about what I had seen, but not curious enough to remember to look into it when I arrived at my destination. By default, I chose the second option, and forgot about the building with the strange name completely.
Then, one day, while out for a walk Downtown, I came across another old building that caught my eye. The empty storefront most recently housed a restaurant. I looked up at the top of the building and saw the name “W.O.W. Home.” I was curious enough to snap a photo this time, and later googled the address and name of the building. I discovered that this building was once the meeting place of the Woodmen of the World. This triggered a memory of the building on White that I had wondered about previously. I was interested enough to do a little research about the Woodmen of the World, and to find out what this group was, and why they had two buildings dedicated to them in my home town. Woodmen of the World, your secrets are about to be revealed!!
Back around the time of the Civil War, there were no “social safety-nets” for people. Some would argue that this was a good thing, but, consider this. If you were a woman or a child back in this time, you had very few rights when it came to finances. A woman was not able to buy life insurance back in this time. Her husband could, but there were no guarantees that the money from these policies would go to his wife if he were to pass away. If the man had creditors, for example, his life insurance money would go to paying off his debts, not toward taking care of his widow and child. Because there were no government programs at this time to help poor families, people in desperate situations would have to rely on charity for basic needs. However, much like today, there was a social stigma involved in accepting this type of help. Many people were embarrassed to ask for help from charitable organizations or their neighbors.
The result of this was the founding of several fraternal organizations, which men could join for a variety of reasons. For one, belonging to one of these groups gave the members an air of social clout, and group meetings provided outlets for entertainment and socializing with other men. This could be beneficial when seeking employment or trying to start a business. Most of these organizations had membership fees, in addition to interesting initiation rituals. As an added benefit, many organizations also helped the families of their members out financially when the need arose. These groups were so popular that during 1890–1930, it is estimated that about one third of white, American men belonged to one of these societies.
The Woodmen of the World was one of these fraternal societies. The interesting part about this group specifically was that they offered safety nets for members in the form of life insurance policies. The group was founded in 1890 in Omaha, Nebraska, by a man named Joseph Cullen Root. As the story goes, Mr. Root was listening to a sermon one day, when he was inspired by the idea of “pioneer woodsmen clearing away the forest to provide for their families.” This concept motivated him to start a new fraternal organization, built on the principle that it should “clear away problems of financial security for its members.” Thus, the Woodmen of the World were born.
Much like other groups, the Woodmen had initiation rites that members had to endure in order to be inducted into the group. These were usually prankish in nature, intended to embarrass the initiate to some degree, as well as provide entertainment for the more seasoned members. One of the well-documented rites that prospective Woodmen were required to endure was a practice called “Riding the Goat.” A member by the name of Ed DeMoulin invented a novel mechanical goat which the initiate would be required to ride. The device would eventually flip the rider into the air, much like a typical mechanical bull. After the rider was flipped, the goat would fire blank bullets from its rear at the felled rider. This ceremony was routinely conducted in several chapters of the organization throughout the country.
The main characteristic that set this group apart from others was its membership requirements. Aside from the jaunty induction rites, initiates were also required to pass a fitness test before they could be admitted. This is not completely surprising, considering the fact that the purpose of the group was to provide life insurance for its members. Also, the group focused its recruitment on the perceived “healthy states” of the country, which generally meant any state other than those in industrial New England. Also interesting, the Woodmen were reported to see spiritual value in the clearing of trees to make way for farms and homes. They believed a cleared forest to be symbolic of a clear conscious. By clearing the way for civilization, men could rest comfortably, knowing they had made the way safer for those they loved. Membership fees collected by the group were funneled back into the community, often benefiting seniors, the disabled, and orphans.
One of the interesting services the group historically provided to its members was furnishing gravestones for deceased members. Root believed that no member should be forgotten after his death. As a result, the fraternity provided headstone markers for a time, which were usually fashioned in the form of a tree stump, symbolizing the group’s forest-clearing ideals. Most of these markers included some homage to the Woodmen, as well as the phrase “Dum Tacet Clamat,” which means “Though silent, he speaks.” The group provided these headstones from its founding in 1890 up until 1920. The benefit was discontinued due to cost. Wishing to find an example of one of these headstones, I took a trip to Pecan Grove Cemetery in McKinney myself and was able to find several examples of tree-stump headstones, indicating that the grave belonged to a member of the Woodmen of the World.
Membership in fraternal organizations such as the Woodmen began to decline in 1930, around the time of the Great Depression. Much of this was due to the fact that many members were unable to pay membership dues because of financial hardship. Another factor in this was F.D.R.’s New Deal, which brought about the establishment of Social Security. Knowing that the government would provide some help to their families in the event of their deaths led many men to decide that membership in one of these groups was no longer a necessity. However, the Woodmen of the World did not disappear after the Great Depression. The group lived on.
The group continues on today. There are over 900 active chapters of the Woodmen of the World still meeting and selling life insurance to members. The life-insurance provided to members is operated through a non-profit company called Woodmen Life. The group is committed to volunteer activities, and promoting patriotic and charitable activities in their communities. There is an active group that meets monthly in Waxahachie. Members get together monthly to have dinner, socialize, and discuss insurance premiums.
I was unable to find any record of a Woodmen of the World group continuing to meet in McKinney.
However, their interesting history lives on in our city, in a couple of old buildings, and some interesting grave markers in Pecan Grove Cemetery.