Friday, June 8, 2012

A Woodman of the World

It’s kind of unusual for me to write a blog about one particular cemetery monument. However, I stumbled upon one last weekend in North Carolina that I just had to share.

The particular monument in question resides in Elmwood Cemetery in the lovely city of Charlotte, NC (which is right near the South Carolina border). In this land of NASCAR and pulled pork sits the Severs monument – a reddish-brown log cabin carved from one 15-ton piece of granite.

Tree stump "W.O.W." monument
The sculpture is about eight feet high, eight feet long, and four feet deep, belonging to one Henry Clontz Severs (1842 - 1915). Severs was a member of the fraternal organization Woodmen of the World. Although it’s fairly common to see Woodmen (WOW) memorials in the shape of a tree, I’d never seen a log cabin before. What was the significance to Severs? (while tree-themed monuments are not always associated with the Woodmen of the World, Severs’ cabin actually has the circular WOW symbol carved on the back).

According to Wikipedia, WOW was founded in 1890 in Omaha, Nebraska, by Joseph Cullen Root. Root, who was a member of several fraternal organizations including the Freemasons, had founded Modern Woodmen of America in Lyons, Iowa, in 1883, after hearing a sermon about "pioneer woodsmen clearing away the forest to provide for their families". Taking his own surname to heart, he wanted to start a Society that "would clear away problems of financial security for its members." As I read about Henry Severs, it became obvious how he exemplified these goals, figuratively as well as literally.

Severs was a wealthy Charlotte mercantile businessman, who built a fortune in housing, which may, on the surface, account for his monument being in the shape of a house. But why a log cabin? Though he was a Woodman of the World, that organization typically provided a simple tree stump monument as a benefit to its membership (this program was abandoned in the late 1920s as it was too costly).

As it turns out, Severs was a true pioneer, expanding the city of Charlotte westward by purchasing land and building houses. When he died, he left seventy homes (which made up the section of Charlotte known as "Severville") to his family and descendants. So he, like the pioneer woodmen who cleared away the forest, also worked toward establishing a way to provide for his family and heirs, i.e., easing their financial burdens after his death.

Severs was born to German immigrant parents while they were aboard ship crossing the Atlantic from Germany in 1842. This, incidentally, was no isolated trip. A vast migration of Europeans to the United States occurred between 1820 and 1870, with the largest wave being German (followed by the Italians, then the Irish). The writer Kurt Vonnegut's great-grandparents, incidentally, were among that German wave.

While in his twenties, Severs fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, and upon his post-war return to Charlotte, became a successful real estate developer. By the end of his life, Severs had built seventy houses and was one of the most successful businessmen in the city. An account of his life in the History of North Carolina describes him as an upstanding and fair citizen, stating that “no man in the history of the city was more greatly respected for sterling worth of character.

So the fact that he made housing his life, it’s rather clever that he had his memorial carved in the shape of a home, possibly symbolizing his own pioneering spirit with the log cabin design. It also integrates design elements associated with Woodmen of the World. The memorial sits at the top of a small hill and is the centerpiece for the Severs family plot. Many of his heirs also have the Woodmen of the World symbol carved on their headstones, as you can see in the photo directly above. I like the rope handle on the door - it's a nice touch. This would indicate to me that Henry Sever's door was never locked, open to all. This and the fact that he provided for his family in so many ways, make his a fitting story for Father’s Day.

Severs' Log Cabin monument, Elmwood Cemetery, North Carolina