The history of this organization includes the erection of numerous distinctive tombstones depicting tree stumps across the country before 1930, a program to donate American flags, and broadcast interests that were to own the first television station where Johnny Carson worked.
The organization was founded in 1890 in Omaha, Nebraska, by Joseph Cullen Root. Root, who was a member of several fraternal organizations including the Freemasons, had founded Modern Woodmen of America in Lyons, Iowa, in 1883, after hearing a sermon about “pioneer woodsmen clearing away the forest to provide for their families”. Taking his own surname to heart, he wanted to start a Society that “would clear away problems of financial security for its members”.
After internal dissension within the MWA, Root was ejected from the organization that he had founded. When moving to Omaha, Root decided to start again with a new group he originally called the Modern Woodmen of the World. He soon dropped the “Modern”, and the organization became simply, “Woodmen of the World”.
Over the years a number of smaller fraternal organizations have been absorbed into the Woodmen, including the United Order of the Golden Cross in 1962, the Order of Railroad Telegraphers in 1962, and the New England Order of Protection in 1969.
The organization formerly owned a 19-story tower at 14th and Farnam Streets which was the tallest building between Chicago and the West coast at the time of its dedication in 1912. WOW built its current 30-story Woodmen Tower in 1969. It was Omaha’s tallest building until the completion of the 45-story First National Bank Tower in 2002.
The original WOW building was demolished in 1977. Also there are many buildings in which Woodmen of the World chapters meet, and some of these are notable buildings.
The organization played an important role in broadcast history, until it was forced to divest itself of these holdings because of its nonprofit status. On November 27, 1922, the Society began broadcasting on the radio station “WOAW”, with a signal that reached ships in both the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean from its 500-watt (later 1,000 watt, and eventually 5,000 watt) transmitters.[dubious ] In 1926, the station became WOW after the ship SS Henry J. Bibble, which had held the call sign, was retired from service.
The organization’s nonprofit status was to cause a legal battle over ownership of the station. In 1943, the station was leased to an independent organization, Radio Station WOW, Inc. The U.S. Supreme Court voided this lease, returning it to the Society, but keeping the license in the hands of the station. In 1949, the radio station began thetelevision station WOW-TV. Among its first performers was Johnny Carson, who had a daily show called The Squirrel’s Nest where he told jokes, conducted humorous interviews and staged various skits with wacky comic characters.
Stock in the broadcasting company was bought out by Meredith Corporation in 1958, effectively ending the society’s relationship with the station, but the use of the “WOW” call sign continued. The television station became to WOWT in 1975 to obtain FCC approval of its sale to Chronicle Broadcasting.
At the top of the organizational structure of the Woodmen of the World is the “Sovereign Camp”, which meets quadrennially. When the Sovereign Camp is not in session the WOW is run by a board of directors. States are called either “Jurisdictions” or “Head Camps”. Local groups are called either “Camps”, “Courts”, or “Groves”. There were 4,000 locals in 1979
Membership was originally restricted to white males between the ages of 15 and 52. By 1977 these restrictions had been relaxed, though 16 remained the minimum age. There were 802,000 members in 1979.
The Woodmen took their ritual and secrecy seriously at least through the 1970s. Members were initiated, given an annual password, and the constitution provided for an “Escort, Watchmen and Sentry”.
Today, Woodmen of the World provides financial services to approximately 800,000 members in the US. These include life insurance and annuities, cancer insurance, and access to mutual funds, 529 College Savings Plans and other financial services. Members are also eligible to receive a wide array of fraternal benefits. These include participation in a youth program, a camping experience for youth and senior members, disaster relief assistance, a prescription drug discount card, and monetary support for members’ orphaned children. Another aspect of the organization’s patriotic mission is the annual In Honor and Remembrance program, which pays tribute to the heroes and victims of the September 11th attacks.
The program includes conducting public ceremonies each year on September 11, and donating flagpoles and American flags to schools, fire departments, parks and other public places. More than 2,400 In Honor and Remembrance ceremonies have been held since the program began in 2002. To mark the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Woodmen of the World hung two 50 by 100 foot American flags on the Woodmen Tower. Twin beams of light, with a combined 10 billioncandela, illuminated the Omaha skyline each evening during the week of 9/11 in tribute to the World Trade Center.
With the Woodmen of the World/American Red Cross disaster relief partnership, the organization’s 800,000 members are encouraged to support the disaster relief work of their local Red Cross chapters. In 2005, following the Gulf Coast hurricanes, Woodmen of the World members reported more than 206,000 hours of volunteer assistance. This included preparing more than 175,000 meals for storm victims, evacuees and rescue workers. Woodmen of the World camp facilities in several states were also used as mass shelter sites. Woodmen of the World is one of the leading providers of American flags to schools and nonprofit groups. There are approximately 2,000 community-based Woodmen of the World lodges throughout the nation. Lodges conduct volunteer, patriotic and charitable activities that benefit individuals and communities. Woodmen of the World lodges have presented more than 1.4 million U.S. flags over the past 60 years.
One enduring physical legacy of the organization is distinctive headstones in the shape of a tree stump. This was an early benefit of Woodmen of the World membership, and they are found in cemeteries nationwide. This program was abandoned in the late 1920s as it was too costly.
Typically the headstones would include a depiction of the WOW relics and symbols of the organization. These include most notably a stump or felled tree (inscribed into a more generic monument in some cases, rather than the more noticeable instances of the entire monument being in the shape of the log or tree-stump); the maul and wedge; an axe; and often a Dove of Peace with an olive branch. As Woodmen “do not lie”, a common inscription was “Here rests a Woodman of the World”.
The Woodmen of the World had a female auxiliary called the Woodmen Circles from the early 1890s. Its local units were called local “Groves” and they were governed by a “Supreme Forest”, subject to the Sovereign Camp of the Woodmen of the World. The Circle eventually reached 130,000 members, but it was absorbed by the Woodmen in 1965.
During the Woodmen Circle convention of 1897, delegates from nine western states declared their intention to leave the national organization. They formed a new organization called the Pacific Circle, Women of Woodcraft”. It changed its name to the Neighbors of Woodcraft in 1917, but it merged with the Woodmen of the World in July 2001.
The first Boys of Woodcraft unit was founded in Jacksonville, Florida in 1903, by J.M. Taylor. In 1979 the Boys of Woodcraft Sportsmen’s Clubs and the Girls of Woodcraft merged into the Woodmen Rangers and Rangerettes. This youth affiliate had 115,471 members in 1979.