SHIAWASSEE COUNTY — What would a cemetery be, perhaps, without a spooky tree or two.

Though not intended to provide a spooky presence, stone trees found here and there in cemeteries throughout the Shiawassee County area — and throughout the U.S. — provide a touch of the eerie more than a century after they were first placed to mark where members of Woodmen of the World rest.

Throughout the area, more than two dozen headstones and monuments shaped like tree trunks, logs, wooden chairs or benches, or even baskets stand out from more typical headstones.

While many area cemeteries hold hundreds of graves, only one or two “wooden” monuments are found in any of them. Many smaller cemeteries have none of the ornately carved monuments.

The unusual headstones arose after Joseph Cullen Root founded the Modern Woodmen of America in the early 1880s (which still exists).

According to brochures from the group, Root envisioned an organization dedicated to helping its fellow man, and “to minister to the afflicted to relieve distress; to cast a sheltering arm about the defenseless living ;… to encourage broad charitable views…”

The Modern Woodmen established the organization as an insurance company with the goal of making insurance widely available to anyone. The fraternal organization associated with the financial company and has lodges or camps still in operation throughout the country. The lodges have a say in the governance of the company and engage in volunteer activities in their communities.

Root left that group and founded Woodmen of the World in about 1890 after moving to Nebraska. Omaha is still the site of one of the organization’s main offices. The organization was men-only until 1957, but there was a women’s auxiliary prior to that.

Woodmen of the World is the group associated with the headstones.

“The headstones were a benefit of the organization,” said Laurie Perkins, Southern lower Peninsula historian for the Michigan History Center. “You couldn’t buy insurance (at the time). It was before labor unions (forced businesses to insure workers). You could buy insurance through fraternal organizations.”

Perkins pointed to groups such as the Gleaners, Odd Fellows, the ZCBJ and others that looked out for members.

“There were a lot of injuries (on the job),” she said. “This was all pre-OSHA.”

Originally the organization made grave markers available to its members, often in designs reflecting the image of the tree stump or sawed log, but eventually discontinued the practice sometime in the 1920s.

Sometimes the monuments include the motto, “dum tacet clamat,” Latin for “Though silent, he speaks,” etched on the stone. The group also has an emblem some stones include.

Not all members opted to have the tree-shaped markers, though many did add the emblem or motto to other stones.

The only local monument found to feature the emblem/motto belongs to William Orlando, who died Dec. 26, 1908. His grave in Ovid’s Maple Grove Cemetery features four stacked logs embelished with ferns and a lilly. Above that stands a tree trunk with two emblems, one featuring his name, and birth and death dates, and a second that is heavily worn with the WOW motto and logo.

All of the area monuments in the form of trees or logs date from the period when the Woodmen were providing stones. The earliest examples are both from 1880 — the John Gleason family at Wildwood Cemetery in Chesaning Township and Ida Farley at Riverside Cemetery (East) near Henderson — while the most recent stone is from 1934 — Wm. Griffith and family at Hillcrest Cemetery in Owosso.

Newspapers of the time typically made little mention of deaths. Few obituaries as they appear today were published.

However, Borden Hicks, whose marker in the Elsie village cemetery features a horizontal log with parchment draped over it bearing his information, garnered a mention in the Jan. 13, 1892, Owosso Weekly. Hicks was acknowledged as a resident of Elsie for more than 40 years who had gone to work in Arkansas and Missouri five years previously. His family was informed of his death from “brain fever” via telegram, and his body was expressed home to his wife and two daughters for burial. There is no mention of any groups or activities he was involved with.

While Woodmen of the World members often were buried near tree/log markers, many — particularly after the 1920s — were buried under more typical looking stones that included the Woodmen motto or other symbols.

After the organization quit providing tree trunk monuments it offered a “log” that could be attached to the top of nearly any marker. There are no examples of such a log fixture in the area.

While many of the tree monuments belong to one-time Woodmen, according to Atlas Obscura, in 1906 Sears and Roebuck began offering tombstones and monuments for sale via mail order — including some in the shape of tree trunks. So while many of the trees are for Woodmen members, those without emblems or mottos make it difficult to distinguish from graves for people who simply preferred the tree form.

“Sears sold everything,” Perkins said.

Montgomery Ward also offered grave markers and, in one catalog, offered various group membership logos to be engraved. Accordng to one vintage catalog, a Modern Woodmen of America logo ranged from $3 for a 4-inch emblem up to $8 for a 6-inch diamter.

Many of the Woodmen or Woodmen-like monuments include a variety of funerary symbolism.

A tree or log that has been cut first symbolizes a life cut short. Often such monuments mark the graves of young people.

According to Memorials.com, early Christians used the anchor as a disguised cross, and as a marker to guide the way to secret meeting places.

“A Christian symbol of hope, it is found as funeral symbolism in the art of the catacombs,” the website notes. “It is also an occupational symbol in sea-faring areas or the attribute of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of the seamen, it symbolized hope and steadfastness. An anchor with a broken chain stands for the cessation of life.”

The website states ferns represent sincerity and sorrow. Grapes or grapevines stand for the blood of Christ, God’s care or the last supper. Ivy represents immortality because it stays green forever.

Lillies, long associated with funerals, are markers of innocence, purity and resurrection, and are often associated with the Virgin Mary and used on women’s graves. They also represent marriage.

Oak leaves represnt strength. Christ’s cross was believed to have been made from oak. A squirrel, possibly with a nut, stands for religious meditation or spiritual striving. Poppies represent peace, rest, sleep, eternal sleep or consolation.

(2) comments

storm17

Thanks for the interesting article! Great to learn new things each day.

Pat Cook

wonderful story. Argus should do more of this. Thanks, Dan Also enjoy Piper Brewers' articles.

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