Woodmen of the World
During a recent visit to Elmwood Cemetery, I came across a monument for a man named Percy Finlay, carved in the shape of a massive tree (above). I noticed other, smaller gravestones nearby, also carved into logs or tree trunks. Can you explain this? Were all these people lumberjacks, or involved in the timber industry?
For years, our city proclaimed itself the Hardwood Capital of the World because of its location at the center of ancient forests in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi. As a result, quite a few industries here — Anderson Tully Company and Memphis Hardwood Flooring immediately come to mind — have a direct connection to lumber, so it makes sense you might think the employees would mark their graves with tree-shaped tombstones.
But look carefully at these markers, and in addition to the name of the deceased, you will usually find a round seal for the Woodmen of the World (left), and the stones you noticed mark the last resting places of Woodmen.
But they are not lumberjacks or lumber workers. Or at least, I should say, not all of them. Allow me to explain.
Woodmen of the World is actually a fraternal organization, much like the Elks and Masons and Shriners. It was founded in 1883 in Lyons, Iowa, by an insurance salesman named Joseph Cullen Root, but his name had nothing to do with the name of the group. Root decided to form a “mutual benefit society” that would provide all sorts of insurance services — including burial benefits — for its dues-paying members, after hearing a sermon about “pioneer woodsmen clearing away the forest to provide for their families.”
Root called his new organization the Modern Woodmen of America, but he clearly ran into difficulties because histories explain (for reasons never made clear to me) he was ousted from his own organization. So he moved to Omaha, Nebraska, and in 1890 formed another, almost identical group, which he called Woodmen of the World. In 2015, the name became WoodmenLife.
The newer group expanded quite rapidly, claiming more than 88,000 members within its first decade. In 1912, they built a headquarters building in Omaha that, at 20 stories, was the tallest structure west of Chicago. Within five years, membership had increased almost tenfold; an astonishing 750,000 men (and women) were Woodmen of the World.
Root originally limited membership, as did so many other groups, to white males, but also denied membership to others that he deemed risky for insurance, among them saloon owners, gunpowder factory workers, miners, and even professional baseball players. These restrictions were later relaxed.
The Woodmen established hundreds of chapters around the country, organized marching and drill teams called Modern Woodmen Foresters, broadcast news and music from their own radio station WOAW, built tuberculosis sanitariums when the disease was far more prevalent than it is today, partnered with the Red Cross to provide aid whenever it was needed, and did all sorts of good deeds.
But today, it seems, most people know them mainly for their distinctive tombstones. When a member died, his insurance policy provided a tombstone carved in stone (or cast in cement) in the shape of a tree trunk, with details like bark and vines and sometimes even a woodsman’s ax included in the design.
I encourage anyone to do as I did one lovely afternoon. Have your chauffeur drive you around the older cemeteries in Memphis — Elmwood, Forest Hill, and Calvary are my favorites — where you can’t help but notice how popular the Woodmen of the World markers were; in some places, it’s almost a forest of stone trees, their trunks cut off to indicate a life cut short.
At Elmwood, I located some two dozen Woodmen of the World markers. Most were the standard tree trunk design, with minor variations, as you see here (opposite page, bottom), but a few were more traditional gravestones, although they still carried the WOTW seal somewhere. They represent an interesting cross-section of Memphis society in the early 1900s. Effie East (1870-1912) was a clerk in a dry-goods store. Louie Wilson (1883-1915) worked as a mechanic. Mary Seissinger (1853-1905) was a housekeeper. J.E. Bell (1855-1919) was a streetcar inspector. William Deaton (1844-1919) sold Singer sewing machines. Erle Brown (1897-1918), at age 21, the youngest Woodmen of the World burial I could find at Elmwood, was a sailor.
As you surely noticed if you were paying attention, all of the death dates stop before 1920; that’s when the Woodmen decided to discontinue the tombstone benefit. Apparently all these fancy tombstones were becoming too expensive.
But what about that truly massive carved tree you noticed at Elmwood, T.J.? Well, that one is a bit of a mystery. It stands over the remains of Percy Finlay (1872-1913), and a plaque attached to the base of the tree says this about Finlay: “He loved his fellow man.” He was a very prominent attorney with the law firm of Finlay & Finlay, with offices in the Memphis Bank and Trust Building.
The mystery, however, is whether this is an “official” Woodmen of the World gravestone. I think not. For one thing, it’s much larger and much more intricately carved than the other WOTW markers nearby. Also, it lacks the WOTW seal that is, at least from my initial studies, always a part of the memorial.
Woodmen of the World — oops, I keep forgetting the new name is WoodmenLife — has a chapter in Memphis, and its members even maintain a Facebook page. The group is still very active all across America, still providing benefits and assistance to members, with their slogan, “Standing Strong for Generations.”
This attractive building stood at the southeast corner of Union and South Belvedere.
You’ve written before about the John Gerber Department Store on Main Street across from Court Square. But my mother says Gerber also had a Midtown location on Union Avenue. Where was it?
— E.W., Memphis.
Your mother has an excellent memory. I didn’t recall another Gerber store on Union, but after what seemed like months of diligent research, I turned up a Commercial Appeal advertisement (shown here) announcing the new “East Memphis” Gerber store, at the southeast corner of Union and Belvedere.
The store had its grand opening on November 8, 1941 — perhaps not the best timing, since one month later the U.S. would enter World War II, but despite the lean years that followed for our country, the Gerber store remained in business — specializing in women’s clothing — until the late 1940s. I don’t have a specific date, but sometime around 1950, Gerber’s closed there, and Morris Berliant opened a women’s store in the impressive building. He had been a buyer for Shainberg Department Store, and his wife, Sonia, had worked for Lynn’s Millinery Shop downtown.
Berliant’s remained in business until the mid-1960s, when that location became home to Interiors by Grenadier. Over the years, the busy corner changed hands many times, and I could list all those businesses but I really don’t want to. At some point, the nice building you see here came tumbling down; the corner is now a KFC.
Got a question for Vance?
Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine,
460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103