"No Woodmen Shall Rest In An Unmarked Grave" By Scott Black
A strong desire for a sense of belonging has resulted in a good number of fraternal organizations in our country's social history. These types of organizations once thrived especially well in small towns like Trilby and Lacoochee with their great percentage of railroad and lumber mill employees.
Walking through the Trilby Cemetery, you can see reminders of such a fraternal organization: The Woodmen. Their signature "tree trunk" gravestones make very interesting cemetery landmarks, but there are also other more simply designed monuments marking the graves of Woodmen members.
Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward actually first sold the tree trunk design to the general public through their catalogues, but it was the Woodmen organizations that made them better known when they adopted the design and put their symbols on it and made it a membership benefit beginning in the 1890s. These distinctive monuments, however, were only available for about sixty years when they had to be discontinued due to the prohibitive cost, but during that time many of them dotted the American landscape of cemeteries.
There were actually several Woodmen organizations. The original was Modern Woodmen of America founded by Joseph Cullen Root. However, following a disagreement, he left the MWA and started a rival group, which he called Woodmen of the World. MWA and WOW remain competing organizations to this day.
WOW had two independent women's auxiliaries, the first was named Supreme Forest Woodmen Circle (later known simply as Woodmen Circle) and the other women's group was known as Women of Woodcraft (later renamed Neighbors of Woodcraft when men were allowed to join). In fairly recent years, both of these auxiliaries were fully acquired by WOW.
While many would think of the Woodmen associations only as a fraternal organization, they were actually life insurance companies. The members of the local groups, known alternately as camps, forests, chapters, and lodges, were really insurance customers and the decorative gravestones were a life insurance benefit, first a guaranteed part of membership, but soon part of a $100 policy rider due to the expense, until the tree trunk gravestones had to be phased out completely and made into a $100 cash benefit instead.
The Woodmen organizations had originally adopted the gravestone program because of the concern about the ignominy of being forgotten in death. One of the promises to their membership was that "No Woodmen shall rest in an unmarked grave" and the original assurance of the conversation-piece monuments made Woodmen membership quite popular.
Each of the tree trunk gravestones had small differences in detail, some to honor a characteristic or particular interest of the Woodmen member. Smaller markers of three stacked logs or a tree stump were designed for the children of members. When the four to five foot high tree trunk monuments became too expensive for the organization, a single log was then provided to top the regular gravestone of a member. Eventually just a medallion was issued by the Woodmen to be affixed to the face of a member's gravestone.
The Modern Woodmen of America Camp 16701 at Trilby was chartered on May 23 1916 with 44 charter members, per my contact with their Corporate Communications Secretary at their Rock Island, Illinois headquarters. Corresponding checks into old issues of the Dade City Banner tell of a Modern Woodmen picnic that was held at Trilby that same month.
The women's auxiliaries of the Woodmen organizations were also once active at Trilby. Predating the MWA, the Dade City Banner mentions the Women of Woodcraft organization at Trilby in its February 4 1916 and May 26 1916 issues. The April 11 1919 copy of the Dade City Banner mentions the Woodmen Circle at Trilby, the other women's group. Both of these groups were aligned with the competing Woodmen of the World group instead of the Modern Woodmen of America.
This MWA camp had to be reactivated in late 1923 and the Dade City Banner of November 16 1923 names the following new officers and trustees: R.H. Pitts, Consul; J.E. Wade, Adviser; Elder E.L. Gillentine, Banker; Mr Pippin, Past Consul; R.M. Holt, Watchman; Mark Edwards, Sentry; T.J. Blitch, Secretary; Jesse E Stanley, Escort; Dr William Weakley, Camp Physician and trustee; and V.G. Mullins and Sam Branton, Trustees. In the April 11 1924 edition of the Dade City Banner, it states that Daniel Ogles was initiated into this MWA lodge.
According to the MWA headquarters, the Trilby Camp 16701 was dissolved on June 12 1934 and its members transferred to the Lacoochee Camp 16834. That Lacoochee camp was dissolved on December 13 1955 and the members at that time were transferred to the Dade City camp.
My inquiries to the Woodmen of the World headquarters in Omaha, Nebraska were unanswered, but the Dade City Banner mentions the Woodmen of the World camp in Trilby in its December 26 1924 newspaper. Long timers remembered that the WOW meeting place was with another fraternal organization, the Trilby Masonic Lodge, in their old two-story lodge building fronting the railroad tracks in Trilby. Almost ten years later, in the Dade City Banner of June 15 1934, it is reported that, by mutual agreement, members of the Trilby Woodmen of the World camp were transferring to the new Cypress Woodmen of the World camp at Lacoochee. They built their own building there.
Among the Woodmen gravestones at the Trilby Cemetery are differently designed representatives of the different organizations. The oldest apparently belongs to Gertrude Hays (July 11 1888 to February 15 1920), whose plain upright square monument bears the seal of the Supreme Forest Woodmen Circle. The husband and juvenile daughter of this young mother were likely gratified to receive the gravestone as a result of her life insurance membership in the order. When her husband, William Hays, died three years later, there must not have been any such arrangement for him. His eight year old daughter, Bernice, never marked the grave with anything other than the still existing wooden cross next to her mother's Woodmen Circle grave.
Constable Arthur Fleece Crenshaw was murdered along with a federal agent by moonshiners in a Prohibition era ambush on River Road, east of Dade City on October 4 1922. While his widow and children endured abject poverty following his tragic death and soon had to move to St Petersburg in order to get by, his Modern Woodmen of America membership provided him with a shaft type marker bearing the MWA symbol. Other Crenshaw family members are buried near him with temporary funeral home markers.
The funeral notice of Charlie A Richardson in the Dade City Banner of December 10 1926 states that he committed suicide on December 4 1926 due to "domestic troubles," possibly caused by the stillborn death of a son just a little over a month before and the death of a seven month old son in the preceding year. The situation of his passing apparently didn't negate his eligibility for a tree trunk grave monument with his membership in the Modern Woodmen of America. The two babies are buried next to him, as well as other family members who died in more recent times.
Walter H Edwards died December 15 1936, he also received a tree trunk gravestone by virtue of being a WOW member. The Dade City Banner of May 14 1937 reports that the Lacoochee Woodmen of the World Camp 664 held an unveiling cemetery of his gravestone at the Trilby Cemetery, a few months after his death. This was a common practice of both the MWA and WOW to form a procession of members and travel to the cemetery for a formal ceremony and unveiling when a new monument was put in place.
When Trilby merchant John W Stephens died on August 16 1935, the year before Walter H Edwards, however, he received a traditional gravestone with the Woodmen of the World symbol on it, not a tree trunk style monument. Perhaps his family waited a few years until after the organization ended its tree trunk program to order his gravestone.
In the Lacoochee Cemetery, there are some great examples of different Woodmen gravestones. While there are none of the tree trunk style, there are three that resemble stacked logs, the oldest of which belongs to Joseph Hosea Webb (November 2 1891 to June 11 1943). Nearby are the same-style graves of husband and wife, Jesse N Nobles (July 24 1882 to March 4 1947) and Kizzie Nobles-English (April 24 1896 to June 2 1962). Only Mr Nobles' grave has the Woodmen of the World symbol and his wife's identical gravestone must have been special-ordered, independent of the Woodmen organization, since she died a good while after the gravestone program ended. The other two Woodmen graves in the Lacoochee Cemetery are regular gravestones with the organization's symbol engraved on them: William R Morgan (October 24 1900 to November 5 1947) and John Edward Weeks (April 29 1905 to October 18 1951). The gravesite for Mr Morgan, however, has an interesting tree stump shaped metal marker next to his gravestone that may have been used to temporarily mark this Woodmen grave until the permanent gravestone could be put in place.
Other Woodmen grave memorials are located in various cemeteries in the area. Among those, at the small Oriole Cemetery, on the former P.K. Ranch property near the Rital community in Hernando County, several miles north of Trilby, is the tree trunk monument at the grave of Frank M Neisler (December 4 1884 to May 31 1917), which towers above the other graves there. The Dade City Banner of June 8 1917 mentions the arrival of his coffin at the Trilby Depot, bringing him back home after his death in Pennsylvania. His fraternal membership in the Woodmen organization enabled his grave in that cow pasture cemetery to be permanently marked.
Although the two competing Woodmen organizations are still in existence (Woodmen of the World in Omaha is one of the largest life insurance organizations in the United States), they no longer have much of a modern presence in our area. Their earlier identity as fraternal organizations in the Trilby and Lacoochee communities make them an interesting part of our local history and the presence of the various Woodmen gravestones, particularly the tree trunk variety, are a good reminder of that culture and its insurance benefit that was intended to guarantee that "No Woodmen shall rest in an unmarked grave."
Editor's Note: Click on the Gallery page to view pictures of WOW Headstones from both the Trilby and Lacoochee Cemeteries. These pictures were taken and submitted by Scott Black.