Woodmen of the World is a fraternal benefit society based in Omaha, Nebraska, United States, that operates a large privately held insurance company for its members.
The history of this organization includes the erection of numerous distinctive tombstones depicting tree stumps across the country before 1930, a program to donate American flags, and broadcast interests that were to own the first television station where Johnny Carson worked.
The organization was founded in 1890 in Omaha, Nebraska, by Joseph Cullen Root. Root, who was a member of several fraternal organizations including the Freemasons, had founded Modern Woodmen of America in Lyons, Iowa, in 1883, after hearing a sermon about "pioneer woodsmen clearing away the forest to provide for their families". Taking his own surname to heart, he wanted to start a Society that "would clear away problems of financial security for its members".
After internal dissention within the MWA, Root was ejected from the organization that he had founded. When moving to Omaha, Root decided to start again with a new group he originally called the Modern Woodmen of the World. He soon dropped the "Modern", and the organization became simply, "Woodmen of the World". Mergers
Over the years a number of smaller fraternal organizations have been absorbed into the Woodmen, including the United Order of the Golden Cross in 1962, the Order of Railroad Telegraphers in 1962, and the New England Order of Protection in 1969.
The organization formerly owned a 19-story tower at 14th and Farnam Streets in Omaha which was the tallest building between Chicago and the West coast at the time of its dedication in 1912. WOW built its current 30-story Woodmen Tower in 1969. It was Omaha's tallest building until the completion of the 45-story First National Bank Tower in 2002.
The original WOW building was demolished in 1977. Also there are many buildings in which Woodmen of the World chapters meet, and some of these are notable buildings.
The organization played an important role in broadcast history, until it was forced to divest itself of these holdings because of its nonprofit status. On November 27, 1922, the Society began broadcasting on the radio station "WOAW", with a signal that reached ships in both the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean from its 500-watt (later 1,000 watt, and eventually 5,000 watt) transmitters.[ In 1926, the station became WOW after the ship SS Henry J. Bibble, which had held the call sign, was retired from service.
The organization's nonprofit status was to cause a legal battle over ownership of the station. In 1943, the station was leased to an independent organization, Radio Station WOW, Inc. The U.S. Supreme Court voided this lease, returning it to the Society, but keeping the license in the hands of the station. In 1949, the radio station began the television station WOW-TV. Among its first performers was Johnny Carson, who had a daily show called The Squirrel's Nest where he told jokes, conducted humorous interviews and staged various skits with wacky comic characters.
Stock in the broadcasting company was bought out by Meredith Corporation in 1958, effectively ending the society's relationship with the station, but the use of the "WOW" call sign continued. The television station became to WOWT in 1975 to obtain FCC approval of its sale to Chronicle Broadcasting.
In 1999, Journal Broadcast Group changed the unusual three-letter radio call sign to KOMJ, later KXSP, for the AM station. The FM station became KQCH.
At the top of the organizational structure of the Woodmen of the World is the "Sovereign Camp", which meets quadrennially. When the Sovereign Camp is not in session the WOW is run by a board of directors. States are called either "Jurisdictions" or "Head Camps". Local groups are called either "Camps", Courts" or "Groves". There were 4,000 locals in 1979
Membership was originally restricted to white males between the ages of 15 and 52. By 1977 these restrictions had been relaxed, though 16 remained the minimum age. There wee 802,000 members in 1979.
The Woodmen took their ritual and secrecy seriously at least through the 1970s. Members were initiated, given an annual password and the constitution provided for an "Escort, Watchmen and Sentry".
One enduring physical legacy of the organization are distinctive headstones in the shape of a tree stump. This was an early benefit of Woodmen of the World membership, and they are found in cemeteries nationwide. This program was abandoned in the late 1920s as it was too costly.
Typically the headstones would include a depiction of the WOW relics and symbols of the organization. These include most notably a stump or felled tree (inscribed into a more generic monument in some cases, rather than the more noticeable instances of the entire monument being in the shape of the log or tree-stump); the maul and wedge; an axe; and often a Dove of Peace with an olive branch. As Woodmen "do not lie" a common inscription: "Here rests a Woodman of the World".