-by Greg Hoots-
Modern Woodmen of America is a fraternal organization founded in 1883 in Lyons, Iowa by Joseph Cullen Root. Root was an esteemed businessman who had been very successful in a variety of enterprises ranging from operating a bookstore to the management of multiple flour mills and a grain elevator. Root later engaged in the real estate and insurance businesses before becoming a revenue collector for the Federal government. By the late 1860s Root had studied law and was admitted to the bar and pursued a successful practice.
While engaged in business and government work, Root became heavily involved in fraternal organizations, and he held membership in scores of organizations. He was a 33rd-degree Mason, a member of the Oddfellows and a Pythian, and Root was considered the leading authority on fraternal organizations in America.
In 1883 Root sold his interest in all of his businesses, resigned his political affiliations and closed his law practice before forming the Modern Woodmen of America, a fraternal benefit organization. When the organization was founded, it maintained very narrow membership regulations, creating a desirable pool of individual for whom the organization would provide insurance services. Initially, membership was limited to males, ages 18-45, from the “healthiest” states which included Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, North Dakota and South Dakota. The Woodmen operated in rural areas only, and workers in dangerous professions such as railroad workers, miners, gunpowder factory workers, aeronauts, and sailors were prohibited from membership. In addition to providing insurance services, in 1907 a tuberculosis sanitarium was opened by the Woodmen in Colorado Springs, Colorado, providing free treatment for its members.
In 1898 the Royal Neighbors of America was founded to act as a social organization for the wives of the members of the Modern Woodmen of America. Like the Woodmen, the Royal Neighbors held meetings, events, and offered social services for women, while their primary objective was to offer life insurance for their members.
Both the Modern Woodmen and the Royal Neighbors organizations had significant memberships in Wabaunsee County and throughout the Flint Hills. In the 1890s and the early 1900s, the Woodmen had local chapters at virtually every town in northeast Kansas, and the organizations held a picnic and regional meeting, known as a Log Rolling, at a selected town, annually. St. Marys, Kansas had hosted the 1898 picnic, and Wamego had hosted the 1899 event. Both events had drawn thousands of attendees to the picnic and the accompanying parade, so when Alma was selected for the 1900 Woodmen Log Rolling, Alma merchants and city leaders were excited about the prospect of thousands of visitors coming to town.
Members of the Alma “camp” of the Modern Woodmen of America worked in earnest in promoting and preparing for the Log Rolling scheduled for August 30, 1900. Several members of the Alma chapter traveled extensively in Northeast Kansas, visiting many Woodmen chapters, inviting them to the annual Log Rolling picnic. Members of the lodge lobbied for sponsorship from Alma business interests and the City fathers.
While the event bore the name of a “Log Rolling”, no logs were actually rolled. The log and accompanying axes were symbols or logos of the organization, and every chapter had a very large log that was displayed in their lodge building, and some of those logs were displayed in parades, events, and at the annual picnic.
Both the Santa Fe and the Rock Island railroads ran numerous “specials”, passenger trains dedicated entirely to riders bound for Alma. Every boarding house and hotel was booked for both Wednesday and Thursday nights, and the town was in a frenzy of excitement as the day of the event drew near. On Wednesday thousands of visitors descended on Alma, and scores of floats, wagons, and huge logs mounted on wagon axles filled the streets. A festive atmosphere prevailed. The Log Rolling event was held at Liederkranz Park, located less than a mile southwest of Alma, but due to the huge crowds, an overflow of visitors were directed to Schmitz’s grove, an adjoining property.
By Thursday morning, the crowd estimates were set by the press at 7,500 to 10,000 visitors, making this event the largest ever held in the history of Alma. The Grand Parade was scheduled to begin at 10:00 am, but it was delayed for an hour as a Rock Island “Special” from the west was late in arriving in Alma; but insofar as it was known that several hundred visitors from Alta Vista would be aboard the train, the parade was delayed until the train’s arrival. At 11:00 am the parade was underway, measuring over two miles in length. After the parade marched up and down the length of town, prizes were awarded for best floats and best drill teams in a variety of categories. There was a “biggest log” competition with many of the area camps bringing their lodge’s log mounted on wagon wheels.
All of the parade participants and spectators moved to Liederkranz Park and enjoyed a meal that, like everything else, was running two hours behind schedule. All was good, as the keynote speaker, Senator J. P. Dolliver from Iowa failed to appear at the event, allowing the huge throngs of partygoers the opportunity to eat lunch. Bands performed all afternoon and visitors enjoyed field games and competitions. There was some excitement when one of the platforms used as a stage collapsed injuring a young boy.
Another attraction to the event was the appearance of the first automobile to enter Wabaunsee County. The car was brought to the event by rail by its owner Terry Stafford of Topeka, Kansas; and while at the Log Rolling picnic, Mr. Stafford sold the car to a man from New York for $650.
At 4:30 pm the world-renowned Brammer family, performing balloonists, were scheduled to hold an ascension of a manned balloon from which the pilot would parachute. All did not go well. The September 1, 1900 issue of The Alma Signal reported on the spectacle, noting, “The balloon was a big one but on account of the strong wind was a disappointment to the crowd. After ascending a few hundred feet the balloonist cut loose and as the parachute failed to open, he had a narrow escape.” One has to wonder how the crowd could have possibly been disappointed.
At 8:00 pm, a “pyrotechnical display” was presented to the crowd with “$250 in fireworks” displayed, followed by the Grand March and Ball with the Manhattan Orchestra providing dance music for the balance of the night.
The entire event was declared by the press and participants to have been a great success. The Woodmen camp from Onega, Kansas was named the site of the 1901 Log Rolling.
After the event concluded, as more than 50 passengers were waiting at the Rock Island depot for a departing train, the depot building caught fire and burned to the ground. Fortunately, no one was injured in the fire, but the depot, barely a year old, was a complete loss. It was speculated in the press that the fire originated from a spark from a passing train or a tipped lantern.
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