Ouachita National Forest, viewed from the Talimena Scenic Byway
Less formally known as Talimena Drive, the Scenic Byway uncurls along the ridgeline of Winding Stair and Rich mountains. Passing through southeastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas, its fifty-mile length includes the highest points to be found between the Appalachians and the Rockies; the wooded valleys of the Ouachita National Forest, rolling away to the south and to the north, belie the complex and ultimately hopeful history of an area obsessed with its trees.
I would have missed Talimena Drive had it not been for a friend’s suggestion that I take the more circuitous, though ultimately more interesting, route through the mountains while on my way to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. Quite apart from stunning vistas and emerging fall color, the more leisurely drive also would allow for a visit to the Muse Cemetery: an opportunity to confirm that my own muse hadn’t been interred while my back was turned.
Small but pleasant, well-maintained, shaded by a mix of hardwoods and conifers, the cemetery for the small Oklahoma town of Muse is ordinary enough. On the other hand, I’d never encountered this sort of tree in any cemetery.
Its attempt at treeness couldn’t be questioned. Truncated limbs and a bark-like texture certainly evoked the image of a tree, and the logs on which it rested confirmed the resemblance.
Like so many woodland and forest trees, it had a friendly vine clambering up its trunk.
As I circled the stolid stump, I expected to find a name and some dates, and I wasn’t disappointed. On the other hand, I was greatly surprised by a concrete emblem attached to the stone: a symbol which both solved and deepened the mystery.
It made sense that a woodsman might want his grave stone carved to resemble a tree, but the phrase “woodmen of the world” suggested that more than individual preference was involved. Looking around, I discovered my woodman had friends; it wasn’t hard to spot their tree-shaped stones in the midst of more ordinary markers.
R.L. Miller, a handsome 29-year-old at his passing, was born in 1889, and died in 1918.
His tree was decorated with a remarkably realistic lily that appears to be a calla: a common symbol of resurrection in cemetery iconography.
Jessie F. Easter, son of W.M. and L. A. Easter, was born in 1902, but died in 1921. It’s easy enough to imagine that a work-related accident took this young woodsman’s life.
The unusual grave markers these men share are known as treestones. In Douglas Keister’s Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, it’s noted that they first developed as a part of the Victorian rusticity movement, and remained popular with the general population from the 1880s to about 1905. For a time, treestones could be ordered directly from the Sears catalog.
When first adopted by the Woodmen of the World, the stones were provided free of cost to members. In time, the practice was discontinued because of rising costs, but Woodmen who wished could add an emblem to any traditional stone. The emblems often contained various tools of the the woodsman’s trade, such as axes, mauls, and wedges, as well as the phrase, Dum Tacet Clamat: “Though silent, he speaks.”
An early 1900s emblem
A more modern emblem
When Joseph Cullen Root founded the Modern Woodmen of America in 1883, in Lyons, Iowa, his purpose was to create a fraternal benefit society that would “bind in one association the Jew and the Gentile, the Catholic and the Protestant, the agnostic and the atheist.”
There was no requirement that a person actually be a woodsman to join. Root chose the word after being inspired by a sermon that highlighted “woodmen clearing the forest to provide for their families.” Hoping to develop an organization that would help its members “clear away financial insecurity,” the MWA promoted life insurance, and the same burial benefits common to many mutual aid societies of the time.
As so often happens, strife developed among the group’s leaders, and Root was thrown out of the Modern Woodmen of America. By 1890, he’d gotten his bearings and organized a new group: the Woodmen of the World. Over time, a Women’s Auxiliary was added, and smaller benefit and mutual aid societies were absorbed into the organization.
Today, under the name WoodmenLife, the group is headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, where it continues to provide insurance, investment, real estate, and mortgage services to its members. As a benevolent society, it also provides aid to senior citizens, the physically impaired, and orphans. Such aid has a long history; the Woodmen of the World were among the first to provide assistance to Galveston after the Great Storm of 1900.
The fact that Root was a Mason, a Knight of Pythias, an Odd Fellow, and a member of the Ancient Order of United Workmen — or that his memberships influenced the development of the Woodmen of the World — is hardly surprising. Fraternal orders were playing an ever-larger role in the social life of the country at the time. In his book, The Texas Supreme Court: A Narrative History, 1836-1986, James L. Haley writes:
In the 1920s, secret societies and mysterious lodges were in high fashion, and the business connections made in them were very much a way for a man to get ahead. Former justice William Ramsey, by way of example, not only was a member of the Woodmen of the World, but also was a Mason, an Elk, a Knight of Pythias, and a Red Man of the Improved Order. (His good standing as a Presbyterian was somewhat less exotic.)
Ubiquitous as membership in the Woodmen of the World was in Texas legal circles, the group had been involved in Texas lawsuits before, three of which had reached the Supreme Court. The insurance premiums that members paid were tied to the group’s expenditures the year before, giving members who were judges a financial stake in the outcome of a legal action: thus requiring their disqualification from hearing the case.
In each of the three instances, the members of the Supreme Court had certified their recusal to [Texas Governor] Neff, causing him to appoint special justices. In each instance, he had appointed non-Woodmen male members of the bench and bar to perform the duty.
This system of selecting alternative justices worked perfectly well, until 1925.
In 1924, a lawsuit was appealed to the Texas Supreme Court involving the Woodmen of the World. Trustees for the [Woodmen] were claiming two tracts of land in El Paso under a verbal “secret trust.” The supreme court was asked to decide whether it would review the decision of the El Paso Court of Civil Appeals in the case, styled Johnson v. Darr (114 Tex 516). If the high court agreed to review Johnson v. Darr, it then had to decide whether to uphold or to overturn the decision of the El Paso court.
At the time, the Texas Supreme Court was composed of three members: a chief justice and two associate justices. On March 8, 1924, Chief Justice C.M. Cureton certified to Neff that he and the two associate justices, Thomas B. Greenwood and William Pierson, must excuse themselves from hearing the appeal because of their membership in the Woodmen of the World. The law provided that the governor should immediately appoint special justices to hear the case.
During the following ten months, Neff evidently attempted to find male judges or attorneys to sit on the special court. However, according to H.L. Clamp, the Deputy Clerk of the Supreme Court from 1902 to 1953, each time Neff offered an appointment to a male judge or attorney, the lawyer responded that he, too, was a member of the Woodmen, and therefore was disqualified from serving.
Not until Jan. 1, 1925, only a week before the case was scheduled to be heard, did Neff finally appoint the special justices: three women, who could not possibly be members of Woodmen of the World because that organization did not accept women members.
Texas’s all-women Supreme Court ~ first in the U.S.
On January 2, 1925, the Dallas Morning News reported:
All records were shattered and at least three precedents established on Thursday, when Gov. Neff appointed a special Supreme Court composed entirely of women. It was a healthy New Year gift of recognition to the woman barrister of today.
This is the first instance a woman has been appointed to sit on the supreme bench; it is the first time a higher court is to be composed entirely of women; and it is the initial case where a majority of the judges will be women.”
When Neff asked Clamp if the appointment of women to the special supreme court would be legal, Clamp opined that the appointments would be legal if all eligibility rules were observed: each justice should be at least 30 years old, and should have practiced law in Texas for a minimum of seven years.
Two women initially appointed had to decline, as their time as practicing lawyers fell some months short of the seven-year requirement. Eventually, Hortense Sparks Ward, Hattie Leah Henenberg, and Ruth Virginia Brazzil were sworn in, and the first all-female Supreme Court in the United States took the bench.
On May 23, 1925, the special tribunal met for the last time, announcing that it had found in favor of the Woodmen of the World. Thirty-two years later, in 1957, the Woodmen of the World admitted the first women to its membership.
Musing over the circuitous route this story traveled — from the Muse cemetery and its treestones; to the Woodmen of the World; to the Texas legal system’s fascinating intersection with the group — I can’t help remembering a bit of advice offered to me when I first began roaming the Texas Hill Country. “Be careful about rolling over logs, or messing around hollow trees and stumps,” my neighbor said. “You just don’t know what you’ll find under there.”