Pur Autre Vie, which means for the life of another
Modern Woodmen of America (MWA) is a
leading fraternal life insurance society in the United States,
with more than 750,000 members and assets of more than $6
billion. In addition to providing insurance and financial
services, Modern Woodmen maintains nearly 2,200 local
chapters, or "camps," and 700 youth service clubs. The group
provides an array of free community benefits, such as youth
educational programs on topics such as bicycle safety,
scholarship programs, and a national student speech contest.
MWA is strongest in the Midwest and the South.
Modern Woodmen was formed in Lyons, Iowa on
January 5, 1883 by Joseph Cullen Root. Born December 3, 1844
in Chester, Massachusetts, Root moved to Illinois and Iowa at
a young age. He attended Iowa's Cornell College, Northern
Illinois College, and graduated from Eastman Business College
in Poughkeepsie, New York. He then operated a number of
Root became involved with a number of
fraternal societies over the years, most notably the
Freemasons, which he entered around 1877, as well as the
Knights of Pythias, the Odd Fellows, and the Ancient Order of
United Workmen. He also led Vera Amicitia Sempiterna, a
fraternal benefit society exclusive to the state of Iowa. He
founded Modern Woodmen in 1883, organizing the new society
around the lodge system.
Fraternal benefit societies were typically
formed by groups of immigrants or religious orders. But Root
envisioned one that would "bind in one association the Jew and
the Gentile, the Catholic and the Protestant, the agnostic and
the atheist." Membership was at first limited, however, to
rural residents of midwestern states (Illinois, Minnesota,
Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, North Dakota,
South Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio).
The health and moral requirements were
vigorous. Members had to be white and between the ages of 18
and 45. A whole slew of dangerous jobs also were grounds for
disqualification, writes one historian in a Rochester, New
The organization's mission was to help
families survive after the loss of a breadwinner. MWA also
arranged for community building events through its local
chapters, called "camps." These included meetings, parades,
and baseball games.
The name Modern Woodmen alluded to the
foresters who cleared the land to build their communities, an
image Root culled from a sermon by a local preacher. There was
also an element of connection with Root's own name, notes one
historian in the Scottish Rite Journal. A patriotic reference
was added later, and the group became Modern Woodmen of
Modern Woodmen relocated to Illinois after
being incorporated in that state on May 5, 1884. First located
in Fulton, the head office moved to Rock Island in 1897.
By 1889, noted the New York Times, the Woodmen had 40,000
members in Iowa and neighboring states. The group also spawned
other organizations. A ladies' auxiliary, the Royal Neighbors
of America, had been formed in 1888.
After a heated dispute with MWA Head Physician
P.L. McKinnie, Root left MWA and launched another fraternal
benefit organization, the Woodmen of the World Life Insurance
Society, formed in Omaha in 1890.
The group's most visible ambassadors were the Modern Woodmen
Foresters, a precision drill team that performed at numerous
parades and competitions around the country between 1890 and
the early 1930s. According to MWA, more than 160,000 men
drilled in 10,000 units over the years.
At the turn of the century, MWA was among the largest
of the 188 fraternal insurance companies doing business in the
United States, reported the New York Times. These groups had
several million members overall.
MWA raised $6 million to pay war claims during World War I.
As the New York Times reported, however, influenza and
pneumonia deaths nearly caused the group's general fund to
drop precariously from $10 million to $640,000 between October
1918 and March 1919.
The group also had been touched by another epidemic,
tuberculosis (TB). In the 19th century, the highly infectious
disease had been the leading cause of death in the United
States. In 38 years, the Modern Woodmen Tuberculosis
Sanatorium treated more than 12,000 members (all of them male)
at no cost.
Monument Park, its site nine miles northwest of Colorado
Springs, was later renamed Woodmen Valley.
According to the Gazette of Colorado Springs, there were 16
other TB sanatoriums in the Pikes Peak region. MWA's facility,
which opened on January 1, 1909, was not the first, but it was
one of the largest. The region's altitude, dry climate, and
clean air were the basis of the therapy. A hearty diet
including six raw eggs and up to ten glasses of milk per day
The isolation of the area was another factor in
managing the highly contagious disease. According to the
Gazette, the sanatorium's tree-lined campus had space for up
to 200 patients, housed in individual, octagonal tents (a
local doctor had designed them after teepees). The complex had
its own dairy and cows.
The sanatorium claimed a 60 percent cure rate. It closed on
May 1, 1947 after new drugs became the preferred treatment for
TB. The site was sold in 1950 and eventually came into the
hands of the Sisters of St. Francis Seraph, who operated it as
a health retreat until about 1980. Some of the historic
structures, including the dairy barn, were razed in a 1994
fire. MWA kept up its high moral standards in the 20th
century. Bootleggers were banned from membership during
A.R. Talbot had become president of Modern Woodmen in
1903. A native of Warren County, Illinois, he had been
president of the Nebraska legislature as well as a law partner
of William Jennings Bryan. Talbot remained in office for more
than three decades and was succeeded in November 1938 by MWA's
treasurer, Oscar E. Aleshire of Chicago.
From shortly after MWA's founding to about 1950,
members wore a variety of different types of jewelry. These
included rings, cuff links, necklaces, and other articles that
have become collectors' items. Symbols representing the
society and its values included the axe (industry), the wedge
(power), and beetle (progress).
There were about 200 fraternal benefit societies in the United
States in the early 1990s, reported the New York Times, with a
combined customer base of about ten million people. In 1993
A.M. Best Company rated 42 fraternals and found Modern Woodmen
to be one of the top six. Assets were then more than $2
billion. While some of the largest fraternal benefit societies
were open only to members of certain faiths (particularly
Lutherans and Catholics), membership in Modern Woodmen was
open to anyone except residents of Alaska, Hawaii, and Nevada.
Total revenue reached $609 million in 1995, when assets were
more than $3 billion.
Modern Woodmen began a three-year, $25 million renovation of
its Rock Island, Illinois headquarters in 2001. Two
subsidiaries were soon added: MWA Financial Services, Inc. for
investments and MWABank for banking products.