If you’ve ever flown into Omaha or seen the movie About Schmidt, you’ve seen this building.
So what does that have to do with cemeteries?
If you’ve spent any time ambling among the grave stones, you’ve probably seen the Woodmen of the World (WOW) seal on a number of markers. I talked about WOW a little in my post on Wyuka Cemetery. But because WOW’s founder Joseph Cullen Root is interred at Forest Lawn, I’ll share a bit more about it.
A native of Massachusetts, Root was born in 1844. In 1865, he graduated from Eastman Business College in Poukeepsie, N.Y. He operated a number of businesses, including a mercantile, a grain elevator, and two flour mills. He sold insurance and real estate, taught classes in bookkeeping, managed a lecture bureau, and practiced law. Needless to say, he kept busy!
Root was a strong believer in membership in fraternal organizations. Along with being a Mason, he was a member of the Knights Templar, the Knights of Pythias, and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
In July 1882, Root heard a sermon by the Rev. Sidney Crawford about “pioneer woodmen clearing away the forest to provide for their families.” This inspired him to to organize Modern Woodmen of America as a society which would “clear away” problems of financial security for its members.
On January 5, 1883, Root established Modern Woodmen of America. He served as the first Venerable Consul of Pioneer Camp No. 1 and the first Head Consul of the new order. In 1888, the Royal Neighbors of America was established as a ladies auxiliary, with a relationship to the parent order similar to that of the Order of the Eastern Star to Masonry. By 1889, there were 42,694 Modern Woodmen.
In 1890, conflicts within the order’s hierarchy compelled Root to resign and move to Omaha. On June 3, he organized Woodmen of the World. The name resulted from his desire both to maintain the name “Woodmen” and to build an order international in scope. They also offered insurance benefits to their members.
In 1913, Root attended Woodmen of the World conventions in Florida and Ohio, and visited camps in Southern states. He died in Hendersonville, N.C. on December 24. His body was returned to Lyons, Iowa where a ceremony was held in the Congregational Church before his interment at Omaha’s Forest Lawn.
When Root died, Woodmen of the World had nearly 700,000 members and over 10,800 camps. Insurance in force amounted to over $927,000,000. Through 1913, the society had paid $553,004 to beneficiaries. More than 45,000 Woodmen monuments could be seen above the graves of members throughout the country. Women of Woodmen was a group that also arose out of WOW.
As a fraternal order, WOW is pretty much gone but as an insurance company it is going strong. Now called WoodmenLife, it provides financial services to approximately 800,000 members. The Woodmen Tower (WoodmenLife’s central office) was once the tallest building in Omaha until 2002. It’s featured prominently in the movie About Schmidt, starring Jack Nicholson, who plays the role of a retired Woodmen insurance agent.
Forest Lawn has its fair share of amazing statues. I know I didn’t see them all but I’d like to share a few. The Barlow monument is one of the first I saw. It was created for prominent banker, Milton T. Barlow.
I couldn’t find out anything about who made this bronze, but the shrouded figure motif reminds me of the Wasserburger monument and the Graves monument (“Eternal Sience”) by Lorado Taft (at Graceland Cemetery in Chicago).
A prominent lawyer in Omaha, Myron Leslie Learned was married to Mary Poppleton Learned, an author and music critic. Her father, A. J. Poppleton, was one of Omaha’s pioneers as the city’s second mayor and a member of the First Territorial Legislature.
The Learneds owned a large estate up in the hills past Florence, where the oldest grist mill (which I visited) in the state is located. It overlooked the Missouri River and was called Walden Woods (echoing Thoreau).
Myron died in 1928 and Mary commissioned up and coming Chicago sculptor Nellie V. Walker to do a bronze in his memory. The daughter of a monument maker, Walker couldn’t afford to go to art school and worked as a legal secretary for six years before she could afford to attend the Art Institute of Chicago.
Interestingly, Walker worked and was good friends with Lorado Taft (who created “Eternal Silence”). Only 4’8″, she was known as “the lady who lived on a ladder.” One of her best known works is of Iowa senator James Harlan in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C.
in 1931, Walker visited Omaha to see the finished work at Forest Lawn. She continued working for many years after that and settled in Colorado, living to the ripe age of 98.
Over where there’s a long row of mausoleums and monuments, three members of the Swanson family are represented. Yes, the company that invented the TV dinner began in Omaha.
Carl A. Swanson, a Swedish immigrant, arrived in Nebraska in 1896 to work on a farm near Wahoo. He moved to Omaha, where he continued studying English, business and accounting. After teaming up with John Jherpe and Frank Ellison, he eventually grew a successful business. During World War II, C.A. Swanson & Sons became one of the largest suppliers of poultry, eggs and powdered eggs to the military.
Carl’s two sons, Gilbert and Clarke, took over after Carl died in 1949. There’s a story that the overpurchase of 500,000 turkeys that were sitting in 10 refrigerated railroad cars led to frantic Swanson executives scrambling for a way to keep them from going bad. According to Swanson executive Gerry Thomas (now deceased), the actual facts were a little different but nonetheless, the company had a lot of turkey it needed to sell quickly.
Thomas is credited with perfecting an aluminum compartmentalized container with turkey, cornbread dressing and peas (sold in stores for 98 cents). Pan Am had been using a similar method for in-flight meals since 1944. Because the box design looked sort of like a rectangular television screen, the product was dubbed the TV Dinner.
Unsure of success, Swanson produced 5,000 of the meals and they instantly sold in the first year. The second year, a jaw dropping 10 million were sold.
TV dinners are now produced in microwavable-safe containers instead of aluminum trays. The Smithsonian Institute inducted the original Swanson TV dinner tray into the Museum of American History in 1986.
The monument for Walter Clarke Swanson is definitely unique. Thanks again to Marta Dawes of Graveyards of Omaha.com, I know that it’s signed “”Bruno Innocenti, 1963.” Innocenti was an Italian sculptor. Honestly, the first thought that popped into my head was “Touchdown Swanson” when I saw it.
The Swanson name lives on in Omaha through the W. Clarke Swanson Public Library, Swanson Elementary School, Creighton University’s W. Clarke Swanson Hall, and the Durham Museum’s Swanson Gallery.
I could write much more about Forest Lawn but it’s best experienced in person so if you’re ever in Omaha, don’t leave without stopping by.
I also recommend a trip to nearby Glenn & Flav’s Alpine Inn, which serves some of the best fried chicken in a relaxed setting. We headed there after we left Forest Lawn.