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woodmen of the world tombstoneWOW: On the Search of Graves

By Steve Johnson, March 15, 2000

Jim Davenport travels the west in search of grave markers of Woodmen of the World members. He photographs them, takes measurements, and records the inscriptions. It's a hobby that has taken him to all over the Western United States.

One summer day while driving through the pine trees on a high mountain side, following what he'd been told was possibly the road to the cemetery in Alma, Colorado, Jim Davenport spotted what he was searching for, a Woodmen of the World tombstone. He got out his camera and notebook, measured the tombstone, recorded the inscription, and photographed it. A careful search throughout the cemetery showed there were no other such tombstones. Then, a year and a half later, a lady e-mailed him asking if he had any information on a WOW member buried at the Alma cemetery. He sent her the inscription and a copy of the photograph. The lady was thrilled to learn that her shot-in-the-dark paid dividends!

To Jim, WOW markers are as desired and elusive as truffles are to the French. Armed with his maps and lists he compiles from the local library, Jim and his wife use their keen eyes to spot the WOW markers as they walk through a sea of tombstones. It's a hobby that has grown into a passion.

About seven years ago, Jim was visiting a cemetery in Durango, Colorado, when he spotted a tombstone resembling a tall brown tree-stump with the inscription, "Here Rests a Woodman of the World". "I figured that they were some sort of logging association from the turn of the Century", says Jim. The death date on the marker was 1907. Jim visited the local library and learned that there was an insurance company called Woodmen of the World. "I went to the cemetery in Cortez, Colorado and found several Woodmen stones, but they were not the tree stump type, just ordinary tombstones but each had a circular design on them with a log, a dove, an axe, maul, and wedge, and the inscription, 'DUM TACET CLAMAT'".

woodmen of the world tombstone
Jim standing by a WOW marker at the Greenmount Cemetery in Durango, Colorado.

On a whim, he mentioned to his wife that he would photograph all the Woodmen of the World markers in Colorado. Little did he know what this comment would turn into. Says Jim, "My wife is used to my crazy ideas, but figured this would be a better hobby than collecting farm implements or old lawn mowers, and it seemed like fun thing to do".

Jim and his wife began searching the local newspaper archives for cemetery locations in their county. They contacted the local "guru" who gave them a copy of a map showing all of the known burials and cemeteries in the county. Jim later learned that she belonged to the DAR, was a genealogist, and was a member of the local historical society.

While driving home from a trip to Colorado Spings, Jim and his wife stopped by at a cemetery in Salida, and found a couple of WOW markers. One was a tree stump of an unusual design. "When I got home and developed the photos, I discovered that I had no reference as to how tall the stump was. That was when I decided to measure them." Now the hobby was getting serious.

The photographs, measurements and inscriptions get stored into a three-ring binder. Since the hobby started, he has filled up sixteen of these binders. Each page in the binder holds information for two tombstones. To date, he has personally visited over 200 cemeteries in seven states, recording more than 3,600 WOW markers.

Some of Jim's friends will help out by snapping photos of some WOW markers, but do not necessarily take measurements. "I just feel lucky to get the photos and inscriptions. I put them all into the binders with photo credits of course". But his wife is his biggest helper, locating cemeteries, and finding markers.

The couple will pick out an area where they have not yet been, and spend several days prowling cemeteries. "My poor old Colorado map is marked up with places we've visited. We lucked out and found an atlas of Colorado which indicates several cemeteries, and I found a wonderful book at the library that lists most of the cemeteries by county".

When Jim visits a cemetery, the other people nearby are usually curious to see a man taking measurements, jotting something into a notebook, and snapping pictures. "If they are a groundskeeper, especially the volunteers, they'll want to know what we're doing and many times will help us locate WOW graves", says Jim. "Sometimes they are a bit suspicious due to the increasing number of grave markers that are being stolen. But after talking a bit, they are usually most friendly and want to tell you stories about people in the cemetery."

But Jim caused one caretaker in California to become concerned, when he explained that he was "collecting tombstones". The caretaker reacted by asking Jim if he knew that collecting stones was illegal. "When I assured him that I only collected the photographs, he became friendly and led me to another small cemetery where I found a dozen more WOW markers".

woodmen of the world tombstone
A WOW marker found in Colorado. Notice the Axe, Maul, Wedge, and Dove, all indicative of WOW symbolism.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Jim, it is finding time for his hobby. Jim has made a career in law enforcement, and is only able to visit cemeteries on vacation time. "We probably get out about three times a year, and you can bet that those times are packed with cemetery visits". In 1967 he started out as a patrol officer for the City of Cortez, CO. Later, he was promoted to Detective, and then Chief of Police. He currently works as a chief investigator for the District Attorney. "I have done just about everything there is to do as an investigator but my 'love' for many years has been fingerprint work. Looking at crime scene fingerprints and trying to match them up with the perpetrators. It's quite a 'rush' when you find one that matches up."

Jim also served time in the military. "I served 10 years in the Navy as a hospital corpsman. Served on aircraft carriers, with the marines, and on submarines for the last 5 years of my career. I was also a navy SCUBA diver. I would have stayed for much longer but received a medical retirement for a heart problem."

In 1883, a man by the name of Joseph Cullen Root organized a fraternal society in Omaha, Nebraska, called "Modern Woodmen of America". One of the benefits of being a member was that upon death, the other members would pass around a hat and donate money to the widow. Membership was limited to white males older than 18 years of age. Later when passing around the hat became more frequent and costly, Root decided to sell life insurance to members. Modern Woodmen of America became a fraternal benefit society

Later, a womens's auxiliary started up called "Royal Neighbors of America. Both the male and female organizations grew steadily and in five years, Modern Woodmen had a total membership of twenty-four thousand.

In 1899, several members had a "falling out" with the leaders of the society, and separated to form a new society under the leadership of Fred A. Falkenburg, and named it "Woodmen of the World". Shortly after, tensions were high in the new organization, and Falkenburg moved to Denver to form, "Woodmen of the World, Pacific Jurisdiction". Today, the three societies remain as insurance companies. Woodmen of the World created women's auxiliaries called "Woodmen Circle" and "Supreme Forest Woodmen", while the Pacific Jurisdiction created an auxiliary called, "Neighbors of Woodcraft", which still exists as an insurance company in Portland, Oregon.

Up until 1935, when a member died, the society would donate $100.00 towards the burial expenses if the surviving family allowed the society's emblem and/or wording to appear on the stone. "This was probably a really good advertising gimmick, but that's just my guess", says Jim.

royal neighbors of america
A typical aluminum marker of the Royal Neighbors of America, the women's auxiliary to the Modern Woodmen of America.

Jim's hobby has taken him and his wife into seven states, including much of Colorado. "I can say that I've been to most of the cemeteries in the south part of the state, on a line from Rifle to Denver and east on I-70. There are a couple of small town cemeteries out on the plains along I-70 that I've not yet been to, but I will get there within the next couple of years. I've gone north from Denver as far as Loveland, but not east from there yet. I've been to Utah and found lot's of WOW stones in the Ogden and Salt Lake City cemeteries. One marble stump in Ogden is about 10 feet tall!! Nevada has a few, but they are far between. California has quite a few. I've found a bunch in the Phoenix, Arizona area, and some in the outlying towns. "

"New Mexico has a bunch of them in the Albuquerque area and scattered around the other parts of the state. During the last Martin Luther King weekend my wife and I ventured into the SE corner of New Mexico as far as Hobbs but not quite to Carlsbad as we just ran out of time. We got to several cemeteries in the SE part of NM including Roswell where we found a "forest" of WOW tree stumps in the South Park Cemetery. I've only been to one cemetery in Kansas. I guess when I get done in Colorado, I'll head to Kansas or Wyoming and see what I find there."

Traveling across the West means having to spend nights in motel rooms. "It is rare that when we go on one of our scouting expeditions that we really plan ahead as far as motel rooms, etc. We kind of plan the route we take to cover a specific part of the country and then catch as catch can for motel rooms. On a couple of occasions it has been quite an experience to get caught in some little town with only a 1940's type motel that hasn't been updated except for the addition of a TV and phone! Usually the restaurant facilities in the town match the motel!! But that's what makes life exciting and makes the trips memorable."

Jim's hobby has mostly benefited his interest in WOW markers. But there have been some people whom he has helped. Jim gets a couple a queries a week from people asking about a name, and will give them what information he has collected including a copy of the photograph. Jim has also signed up as a volunteer photographer on Cemetery Photos.

As to what plans Jim has for all the photographs and information he has collected, he does not quite know what he'll do. Some ask if he plans to write a book. "I don't know, that might take the fun out of it, and turn it into work", replies Jim. "I usually tell people that when I am gone it will be up to the kids to do with it as they please, which may mean 'trashcan'". But for the meantime, Jim does answer e-mails concerning his hobby, and tries to provide scanned photographs to inquiring people.

When asked what other people think about his hobby, he responds, "Some folks think that I'm crazier then a pet coon, but then one day while watching some of the rare TV that I do, I saw them interviewing a fellow who was trying to go to every McDonald's in the USA and eat something there. He has this big spiral notebook of every one that he had been to with the date and what he purchased there!"

- Steve Johnson

Steve is the editor of The Cemetery Column, and is the Webmaster of Cemetery Records Online.

All of Jim's WOW tombstone recordings (minus the photographs and measurements) can be accessed from...

You can contact Jim for any questions and comments about WOW grave markers at: jimjanie@fone.net

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