The attraction of the forest seems to be strong for founders of secret societies. In addition to the Fendeurs, the Foresters, and even the Carbonari, there have been several varieties of “Woodmen.” There have also been Wood-choppers (the Woodchoppers Association was a small beneficiary society founded as a derivative of the Foresters in Philadelphia in 1890) and an Order of Wood Gutters, which was a short-lived Masonic group of about 1847.
Modern Woodmen of America
The Modern Woodmen of America was founded in 1883 at Lyons, Iowa, as a life insurance and fraternal benefit society for white men aged 18-45. The racial criterion was later abandoned. There were 704,800 members in 1995, and the group published The Modern Woodman quarterly.
Joseph Cullen Root, who founded the Modern Woodmen of America, was an enthusiastic joiner; he was or had been a member of the freemasons, Knights of Pythias, Odd Fellows and the Ancient Order of United Workmen, to say nothing of being the rector of V.A.S. His new organization was founded as a fraternal benefit life insurance society, with rigorous limits on who might be admitted. Candidates had to be white males aged 18-45, from the 12 “healthiest” states (the Dakotas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wisconsin), and not inhabitants of large cities, even in these “healthy” states. Also excluded were “railway brakeman, railway engineer, fireman, and switchman, miner employed underground, mine inspector, pit boss, professional rider and driver in races, employee in gunpowder factory, wholesaler or manufacturer of liquors, saloon keeper, saloon bartender, aeronaut, sailor on the lakes and seas, plough polisher, brass finisher, professional baseball player, professional fireman, submarine operator, or soldier in regular army in time of war.” Anyone who took up one (or more) of these hazardous professions lost all coverage, but, provided he gave up anything to do with the sale of intoxicating liquors, he could regain some protection by filing with the Head Clerk an affidavit waving all rights to benefits in case of death or injury arising from the prohibited activity. Religion — or lack thereof — was not a bar to membership. The organization accepted “Jew and Gentile, the Catholic and Protestant, the agnostic and atheist.”
Life insurance was always the principal focus of the group, and the main reason that there was a secret-society overlay seems to have been that Root liked writing rituals. The lodges worked four degrees, in which forests and Roman courts figured as symbols in the proceedings.
After the schism that led to the founding of the Sovereign Camp of the Woodmen of the World (see the following), the Modern Woodmen disposed of much of Root’s ritual, though local organizations are to this day called Camps and regional lodges are called Districts.
The Royal Neighbors of America was the female auxiliary, but it became long ago an independent organization.
Supreme Camp of the American Woodmen
This group was founded on April 4,1901, in Colorado as a fraternal insurance company. The fraternal veneer seems to be thin over this insurance company, which until 1970 published a magazine, The American Woodmen Informer. No membership figures were available in 1995.
This was the former female auxiliary of the Woodmen of the World. It was absorbed in 1965 by the Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Company.
Woodmen of the World
The Woodmen of the World was founded in 1890 as a fraternal insurance society for those over 16. It publishes the Pacific Woodman, bimonthly, and boasted 22,000 members in 1995.
The Woodmen of the World was founded by three members of the original Modern Woodmen of America. Its precise relationship to the earlier body is unclear, but it may well be a result of the same schism that gave rise to the Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Society (see following). It was known initially as the Head Camp, Pacific Jurisdiction, Woodmen of the World; in 1916, it became simply Woodmen of the World, though it was also known as Woodmen of the World (of Colorado). Its fraternal character, in the sense of ritual and the like, was stronger than that of the original society. In 1962 it absorbed the Christians’ Mutual Benefit Association, followed in 1965 by the Pike’s Peak Mutual Benefit Association.
The society organizes social and recreational events, awards scholarships, supports orphans, and donates lifesaving equipment to hospitals.
Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Society
This organization was founded in 1890 as an insurance society for those over 16. It publishes several magazines: the monthly Chips and Woodmen of the World Magazine, as well as Shavings, which appears 11 times a year. There were 975,000 members in 1995.
In 1890 the stability of the Modern Woodmen of America was threatened by a conflict between Mr. Root and the chief physician of the organization, Dr. P.L. McKinnie. The Woodmen solved their problems by simply ejecting both men from the organization. Root then set up another organization in Omaha, Nebraska, which was almost identical to the one from which he had been expelled. Like his earlier organization, the new one prospered as a life insurance society — though the fraternal side still exists, complete with initiation ritual, and beneficiary members are still given an annual password. Only the initiatory degree, that of Obligation, is compulsory, however, though Root also provided three further degrees (Morning, Noon, and Night) to “Camps desiring to elaborate fraternal work.” Masonic influences are evident, though the implements are woodworking tools rather than stoneworking ones. There is the mallet or beetle, the wedge, and the ax.
This is the strongest of all the Woodmen organizations, with almost 150,000 more members in 1989 than a decade previously, though it has boosted its numbers over the years by absorbing a number of smaller fraternal benefit insurance groups: the United Order of the Golden Cross (1962); Order of Railroad Telegraphers (1964); Supreme Forest Woodmen Circle (1965); and the New England Order of Protection (1969).
Woodmen Rangers and Rangerettes
The Woodmen Rangers and Rangerettes were founded in 1903 as the youth auxiliary of the Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Company. Boys and girls, 8-15 years of age, may join. There were 139,000 members in 1995.
On our Download Woodmen/Forester Library we have published a number of rituals and other texts of these orders.