San Diego's Woodmen of the World

Discovered at Pioneer Park graves in Mission Hills

Matmail: At the old Pioneer Cemetery, or what's left of it, in Mission Hills there are several headstones with “Woodmen of the World” engraved on them. The Woodmen emblem sports crossed axes on a tree stump, a wedge driven into the stump, and a sledgehammer in the foreground. The words Dum Tacet Clamat are on the outer border of the emblem. Who are or were the Woodmen? — Mark J. Dossett, San Diego

Remember Howard Cunningham’s Leopard Lodge? Ralph Kramden’s Raccoons? Fred Flintstone’s Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes? Then you have some idea of what the Woodmen were about. Historically, they were a link in the chain of the old-boy network. Today they’re mostly an insurance company. The headstones in Mission Hills (Pioneer) Park are from the graves of prominent San Diego citizens at the turn of the century, which accounts for the abundance of Woodmen.

In the late 19th Century, any American businessman worth his fat gold pocket watch belonged to a lodge or fraternal order of some kind, for social and business reasons. The Elks, the Moose, the Masons, the Odd Fellows, or maybe the Woodmen of the World. These clubs gave the good ol’ boys a chance to get away from the women, eat and drink a lot, crack rude jokes, puff cigars, slap each other on the back, do some civic boosting, and transact a little business. Most of the groups were big on secret initiations and symbolic rites, fancy titles, and ceremonial regalia like capes and goofy hats and swords to solidify that male bonding thing. Another aspect of most of the clubs was their “benevolent and protective” nature. They offered financial benefits like burial or widows’ and orphans’ insurance and would rally to a member’s aid in time of need. (This form of association had its roots in the British “friendly societies” that dated back to the 1600s. Some people today encourage their return as an alternative to welfare.)

Woodmen of the World was founded in 1890 in Omaha by a man who envisioned the members as “woodmen clearing the forest for mankind.” Local clubs were called “camps.” According to newspaper records, beginning in 1892 we had Woodmen in San Diego (Miramar Camp, peak membership 568), National City (Linwood Camp), and Escondido. They seemed to be big on banquets for visiting high-ranking Woodmen, parades and drill team exhibitions, a friendly rivalry with Los Angeles’s Fiesta Camp, and log-sawing contests at their Fourth of July picnics. They also awarded gaudy merit badges designed by Jessop’s Jewelers. Ladies could belong to the Women of Woodcraft auxiliary, whose exalted poo-bah was called the Grand Guardian of Woodcraft. The Wood people vanished from the local news in 1903.

Today, the Woodmen of the World/Omaha Woodmen Life Insurance Society is most visible in the Midwest. The social aspect of the group involves family participation in patriotic causes and local and national charities. Membership is about 850,000. Similar fraternal benefit insurance societies are the Foresters and Lutheran Brotherhood. Men-only secret orders are fading from the contemporary scene. But they were a significant part of the great American business machine and the A-list social scene at the turn of the century.

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