On display at the Western Illinois Museum as the Artifact of the Month for February is a wooden goat. Although this Artifact may appear to be a child’s toy, it is not. This goat played a part in the initiation rites of a fraternal organization called the Modern Woodmen of America.
Joseph Cullen Root founded Modern Woodmen of America (MWA) in 1883 in Lyons, Iowa. Organized into units called camps, the purpose of the Woodmen organization was two-fold: to provide recreational fraternity and to provide financial security to its members with a life insurance policy as a membership benefit.
A member of numerous fraternal organizations, Root got the idea for establishing the Woodmen while listening to a sermon. The sermon told the story of the good that came from woodmen clearing timber to build homes and providing security for their families. Root saw the need for a modern organization for working men that would provide security, and so he created the Woodmen. According to Root, the Woodmen would symbolically “clear away” financial difficulties for its members and provide security for member’s families.
The organization grew slowly after its founding in 1883, so in the 1890s the Woodmen began looking for ways to increase membership. To become part of the MWA, a new member had to go through an initiation ceremony. The wooden goat became part of the Woodmen ceremony to enliven the initiation rites to attract members.
The DeMoulin Company of Greenville, Illinois had been making ceremonial axes for the Modern Woodmen of America and the Woodmen leader asked if the company had any merchandise that might help boost membership. The DeMoulin Company believed that the Modern Woodmen could attract more members by making their initiation rites more entertaining. To this end, the company came up with the idea for the Woodmen to add props to their initiation.
So in 1894, the Modern Woodmen of America revised their ritual and introduced the "Fraternal Degree," a degree that involved a series of mock-somber ceremonies all involving various trick or gag props designed to make the candidate look foolish while making the other members laugh.
The most well known of these gag props was the wooden goat. The goat was designed to take initiates on a short but wild ride and make the experience memorable for the new member and give big laughs for the members administering the initiations.
To use the goat, the candidate would be blindfolded and then placed on the goat. A Woodmen member would then push the goat around bucking haphazardly until the rider eventually fell off or was tossed on the ground. Eventually the DeMoulin Company sold a variety of goats with titles like “The Fuzzy Wonder”, “A Low Down Buck”, and “The Rollicking Mustang Goat.”
Although of similar design, the wooden goat on display at the museum does not seem to be a model from the DeMoulin Company catalog. It appears to be a handmade version, constructed out of wood with one heavy iron wheel at the front. Looking like a wheelbarrow, at one end the goat has wooden handles worn smooth from use. At the other end is its face with black-painted round eyes and nose. The entire piece measures, from end to end, about 35 inches long, and about 34 inches high. Perhaps the local Woodmen camp decided to take matters into their own hands and built this goat for their ceremonies, rather than going to the expense of buying a ready-made one from the DeMoulin Company.
Besides the goat prop, the DeMoulin Company sold numerous other devices for gags at fraternal ceremonies. Although these gags and pranks may seem cruel as a way to have a laugh at someone else’s expense, they reflect the sensibilities of a different era. The sting of initiation was soon forgotten when the new member could join his fellow Woodmen in giving the next initiate the same rites.
After the Modern Woodmen began using the DeMoulin Company gag products in their initiation rites, its membership grew from 40,000 to 600,000. By 1910, the membership totaled one million.
Making the initiation rite more entertaining to the membership reflected the changes that were happening in American society at this time and why fraternal organizations were so popular. The popularity of lodges rose dramatically in the 1890s and peaked just before World War I. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were the heyday of fraternal organizations and was called the “Golden Age” of fraternal lodges. At this time, there were countless fraternal groups such as the Modern Woodmen of America, the Knights of the Maccabees, the Odd Fellows, the Knights of Pythias, and others. Hundreds of thousands of American men belonged to, in some cases, three or four organizations at a time.
The huge popularity of fraternal groups can presumably be attributed to the economic and social benefits offered with membership in some of the lodges. Many of the orders were established as a way of providing health insurance or death benefits to those who otherwise would have no insurance coverage at all. In the days before government support of any kind, membership in a fraternal organization was sometimes the only way a man could provide security for his family.
From the very beginning of the town’s history, Macomb has had its share of fraternal organizations. The Macomb Masonic lodge was organized 1843, the Knights of Pythias, was organized 1882, The Independent Order of Odd Fellows in 1854, The Golden Rule association was organized 1885, the Ancient Order of United Workmen was organized 1876, and the Independent Order of Good Templars was organized in1883.
The exact date of when the Macomb camp of Modern Woodmen of America was established is not known, but it is known that the Woodmen were very popular in this area. It can be presumed the Woodmen had been in the Macomb area beginning around 1896 because The Macomb Daily Journal of July 5, 1900 reported about the fourth annual picnic of the Modern Woodman (sic) County Picnic Association. The 1900 Fourth of July picnic and parade was held in Macomb and Woodmen attended from camps from Macomb, Good Hope, Industry, Prairie City, Adair, and Fandon. A photograph of the parade shows the massive crowd in attendance with on-lookers hanging out of windows around the Square. The museum wooden goat was presumably owned by one of the area Woodmen camps.
From an essay by Heather Munro