Cemetery Headstones like Tree Trunks

Woodmen Fraternal Organizations


The first time I heard of the Woodmen was when I researched the1897 axe murder of my third great-grandfather Thomas Boxell which is an unsolved crime. Joe Boxell, who was tried for the murder of his father belonged to the Modern Woodmen of America (MWA) in Howard Lake, MN. At the time of the trial, the newspapers speculated that the fellow Woodmen members, who were to be called as witnesses, might withhold incriminating information on Joe’s behalf.

It also came out during the trial that Joe’s father-in-law paid Joe’s annual MWA dues while he was being held in jail. He did this in the event that Joe was found guilty and was hung for the crime. Joe’s wife would then receive the $1500 payout to support herself and their two young children.

Joe was acquitted as the evidence was circumstantial and there were no witnesses or confession.  I did scrutinize the testimony of the witnesses who were MWA members, and the results added to the plot of my novel.

It was at the cemetery in Howard Lake where I saw my first Woodmen headstone. I didn’t know that’s what it was until I learned more about the Woodmen organizations started by Joseph Cullen Root of Lyons, IA.  In 1883, Root founded the Modern Woodmen of America. “He had operated a number of businesses, including a mercantile establishment, a grain elevator and two flour mills, sold insurance and real estate, taught bookkeeping classes, managed a lecture bureau, and practiced law. He wanted to create an organization that would protect families following the death of a breadwinner.

“During a Sunday sermon, Root heard the pastor tell a parable about pioneer woodmen clearing away forests to build homes, communities and security for their families. He adopted the term ‘woodmen’ for his organization. To complete the name, he added ‘modern’ to reflect the need to stay current and change with the times, and ‘of America’ to symbolize patriotism.” [Wikipedia ~ Modern Woodmen of America]

Less than a decade later Root was dissatisfied with MWA.  He left to organize the Woodmen of the World (WOW) in Omaha, NE. WOW offered grave monuments, “usually in the form of a tree stump, to families of deceased members. Sometimes these monuments have the motto Dum Tacet Clamat, which means ‘Though silent, he speaks,’ etched on the stone.” [www.usgennet.org/usa/ar/county/greene/historywood.html] Following suit, the MWA made “small aluminum stake-type gravemarkers featuring the MWA working tools—axe, beetle and wedge, and the motto Pur Autre Vie, ‘for the life of another,’ that families could purchase.” [Allamakee co. IAGenWeb – Misc. History] Both the MWA and WOW are still in existence.

MWA in Deer River

I do not know when the Modern Woodsmen of America camp was organized in Deer River, but by January 1902, they were recognized by the headquarters in Iowa and in February held their first Mask Ball.  The dance was at the Robinson Hall with tickets at fifty cents per person.

A Grand Success ~ Itasca News 2-28-1903

“The Modern Woodmen’s mask ball last Saturday night was without exception the grandest success in town for a year.  There were over a hundred tickets sold, and after paying all expenses the lodge has a gain of almost $40.00.

“The costumes worn were all homemade and some of them quite expensive.  Among some of the most attractive in fancy costumes were the Murphy sisters, Mrs. W.A. Everton, Miss Ida Maher, Miss Mayme Utigan, Misses Lena and Treacy Dosser and Mrs. A. Morrisey. Mrs. Morrisey took first prize for ladies’ fancy dress.  The prize was a fancy dish highly ornamented by hand.  The first prize among the male attire was awarded for a ‘cedar savage’ representative, whose suit was made entirely of cedar boughs laid and tacked as close as feathers on a bird, and a cap of dunce shape, which was made of cedar bark and totally overlaid with twigs.  This man also carried a little cedar saw made from cedar wood.  The prize was a silk handkerchief neatly hand worked.  The booby prize, a little rubber doll, was voted to Matt Jones, the fat man padded on stomach, breast, and stern with three pillows.

“The Foresters of the Woodmen headed by Chief Will Taylor, in their uniforms with shouldered axes made a very good showing in the Grand March. The Woodmen thank the community for liberal patronage, and the people who participated in turn thank the camp for the good enjoyment rendered. The supper provided by the Northern Hotel was a toothsome spread—63 people were served.”

The masked ball became an annual event and, when there were more families in the area, a summer picnic was also a great success. I also found evidence that the Woodmen aided members in challenging circumstances, such as illness.

Woodmen in “Bee” for Sick Brother ~ Itasca News 10-15-1921

“On Saturday, the word was passed around for a ‘bee’ to be held Sunday on the new farm of Joe Venne. 5 miles out on the Cohasset Road, and at 7 o’clock in the morning a crew of 25 MWA men and eight teams of horses started out for the brotherly act.  A full day was put in faithfully and as the sun slanted the tree shadows across the opening two acres of the new farm which Mr. Venne had cleared through the summer laid with its seed under beautifully plowed, and three more acres shone smooth and clean where before was brush amd stumps. 

“One hundred pounds of dynamite was used in the stumping, which together with the fuse and caps, was furnished by Woodmen members who could not be present at the ‘bee.’ As the visit was a surprise, and not to create any extra work in the Venne household, the men all brought lunch with them.”

MWA Picnic Day was Town Holiday ~ Itasca News 6-23-1923

“The annual picnic of the local lodge of Modern Woodmen held Wednesday at Deer Lake was the greatest success from the point of attendance and patronage ever recorded by a like event in this section of the state.  Nearly every person in town was out to the lake at some time of the day, and every business place in the town except the post office was closed part or all of the day. 

“Hundreds of autos lined the road between town and the lake all day and most of the night and throngs of the vehicles were parked on the lake shore all day.  The six-piece Grand Rapids orchestra playing for the dance in the evening was pronounced one of the finest of this section and the dance was a big feature of the program.  The Woodmen is a pioneer unit of Deer River and is now receiving due recognition.”

MWA in Bigfork

Beginning in March 1905, several events were held in Bigfork in hopes of starting a Modern Woodmen of America camp. However, it wasn’t until October that a local MWA organized. “Last Saturday night the Woodmen boys got together and commenced organization proceedings. There were sixteen all told who entered – a very creditable start and considering the timber the Camp is sure to be pushed forward with vigor and become a success as it certainly should be and will be.  As it was a late hour before business could be commenced the meeting was cut short – but while it lasted, under the able management of Messrs. C.M. King and Levi Cochran it was both interesting and instructive.  Next Saturday evening it is desired that all new members and others who intend entering should be present.  We should also welcome all other Woodmen to this meeting.  You should all make it a point to be there at 8 o’clock sharp when business will commence.  At 12 o’clock a supper will be spread.  Remember the date, Saturday, Oct. 28.” [Bigfork Settler 10-10-1905]

The Bigfork camp, impressed by the success of Deer River’s annual Mask Ball, decided to have a New Year’s Eve dance in 1907.

Woodmen Dance a Grand Success ~ Bigfork Settler 1-2-1908

“A rare treat was given the lovers of dancing at the Woodland Hotel last Tuesday night when one hundred guests gathered there and commenced dancing at nine o’clock.  The evening was an ideal one for such an occasion, and this, in connection with the good sleighing, afforded an excellent opportunity for visitors from neighboring towns to be present and our north neighbor, Effie, was well represented, there being about fifteen couples from that town.  Sixty-five tickets were sold and the spacious dining room in the hotel was the scene of a moving mass of humanity when the music started, and the merry throng glided over the floor in accord to the hilarious strains from the violin and piano.  The best of order prevailed throughout the entire evening and the floor manager, Joseph Rahier, also the committeemen, deserved much credit for the satisfactory manner in which the affair was conducted.  At 4:30 a.m. the ‘Home Sweet Home,’ waltz concluded the evening’s entertainment and as the crowd separated each and all declared that the Woodmen of this place might well feel proud of the occasion as it was the most pleasant social event in the history of Bigfork.”

The Bigfork newspapers were sometimes hit and miss, but it appears that the MWA did not take hold or did not last long in that community.  In February 1925, C.R. Skiff, an active member from Little Fork, was in town for the purpose of reorganizing the Woodmen Lodge. “The State Deputy’s attention was attracted to such a movement here and it is under his direction that Mr. Skiff is acting in this capacity.  Anyone desiring information will find him ready and willing to answer their inquiries.” [Bigfork Settler 2-19-1925]

Final Notes

Most of my research ends about 1930, and I do not have information as to whether a WMA was re-established in Bigfork, but I do know that the Deer River WMA continued to have the Mask Ball through 1929.

Woodmen Mask Ball was Well Attended ~ Deer River News 2-28-1929

“The annual mask ball given by the Deer River Camp No. 8616, Modern Woodmen of America, at the school gymnasium last Friday evening drew a splendid crowd and was a very enjoyable affair.  The floor was filled with dancers and the gallery packed with spectators. Gross receipts were approximately $270. Over $200 was received from the sale of tickets, nearly $40 from the lunch and the remainder from rentals of costumes.

Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Harstad won the prize waltz, with Mr. and Mrs. H.H. Parameter their opponents in the final elimination.  Prize for best lady’s costume was awarded Miss Signa Suomalainen, on an impersonation of Martha Washington.  H.J. DeWitt of Jesse Lake won first on gentlemen’s costume, with a ‘King of Hearts,’ regalia.  The most comic costume was awarded Wm. Truempler on a clever impersonation of Farmer Corntasseled.”

1 Comment

  1. youngv2015 says:

    This was very interesting. I look forward to reading how the Modern Woodmen of America figure in your historical novel. I never knew what the Modern Woodmen were all about, but are they the group that sponsored the Modern Woodmen of America speech contest in public schools? https://www.ccsd.edu/cms/lib/NY01913832/Centricity/Domain/18/2019%20Speech%20Contest%20Flyer.docx.pdf


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