The Florances were descendants of French Huguenots, those hard-working protestant Calvinists from the lowlands who suffered merciless persecution in the past for over 100 years, even though at times they had held positions of power in European governments. Many fled to America where they were viewed as fierce, fearless, fun-loving people who laughed at all obstacles, and they prospered. This pretty much describes the Florances I knew.
Ernest "Deak" (sometimes spelled Deke) Florance married my mother's sister, Laura. Born in 1895, the son of William and Dolly Florance, Deak had a sister Viola who married Merton Rose. Will and Dolly lived with the Roses in the huge yellow Sears Roebuck farmhouse that still stands on the Pre-Emption, about a half mile north of theGlen Road.
Deak's farmhouse and buildings were at the end of a long driveway to the west. A successful dairy and grain farmer, Uncle Deak was a man for me to hold in awe and admire, and his place was a seductive change from the pious and sober people I lived with. Grandma Dillistin also quietly admired this well-proportioned handsome man who performed prodigious feats of work and daring with good humor.
I would work for him at the slightest chance, to associate with his slightly wild horses (Dad called them "'half-broken broncs") and his sweating, swearing, drinking, high-spirited hired hands, who like their boss took complete honesty for granted. For them, to be avoided were politicians, the clergy, and the lazy. Illness could be suspected as temporary laziness, injuries would probably heal themselves.
To sustain all, some three to four barrels of apple cider and a keg or two of wine were stored in the cellar each fall. In summer, batches of home brew fermented in the pumphouse in the front yard, where Aunt Laura bottled and capped the brew when it was ready. With this ample and enticing store, visitors appeared frequently—and on Sunday mornings they came in numbers.
The Sunday-morning group happily engaged in competitive shooting and barnyard wrestling. The loser at wrestling was the one that got tossed into the manure pile. In season, Sunday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas mornings found them prowling the hilly woodlands in search of rabbits, foxes, and other game. During planting and harvesting the fun was put aside for work.
I rarely got to watch these Sunday activities, for parental discipline took me to the Dundee Baptist Church services to hear the Reverend Thomas Carter preach the "Damning Wages of Sin." Often on our return trip in the 1924 "Star" touring car, we stopped at the Florance farm for mother to visit her sister. Dad and I would go out to the barn to see the men at their work or play, and often he would come away muttering something about "heathens" especially after little Ernie Hamlin, wet with sweat from unloading grain bundles, would devilishly ask, "Carter get pretty drunk today, did he, George?" Then Ernie would chuckle away at his own view of preaching.
A boy of ten to fourteen could learn many things from this swashbuckling crew that he would never hear about at home, and my father was apprehensive about the time I spent with them. Grandma Dillistin, however, repeatedly referred to Deak as a good manager—"Unlike your father." Of course this would get her into a pretty good fight with my mother.
A few years before, Will and Dolly Florance had sold the farm to their son Ernest, then continued working for him. Will a tall slender man, wore a gray mustache and steel-rimmed glasses, spoke in a moderately high-pitched voice, and probably was the toughest of them all. In 1927, one evening after work, Will led the team of horses he had been working, from the wagon house, where he had just removed their harnesses, to the pasture back of the barn to release them for the night.
No one witnessed the accident but the accepted reconstruction is that the moment he slipped the halters from the horse's heads, they broke into exuberant bucking and high kicking in celebration of being relieved from the day's toil. One of the flying hooves struck Will in the face, breaking his jaw which left it permanently turned about thirty degrees to the left. There was further injury to his face, and one eye was lost. Will was found unconscious on the ground. He was taken to the Geneva General Hospital for a brief stay, then was brought home for a few months recovery. As expected, he came back to work laughing at himself, complaining of nothing except the difficulty in eating his normal complement of victuals, and his new speech impediment.
Will wore his jaw in that off-center position for the rest of his quite long life.
Near Tragedy In The Silo
Each autumn, Deak, like many dairy men, harvested the still nearly green corn crop for ensilage and stored it in tall silos that stood high and close to the barn. This required a large work force, in large part made up of neighborhood work-sharing farmers, some bringing teams and wagons. The corn was cut and bound into long bundles by means of a corn binder, that dropped them in the field to be picked up by men with teams hitched to wagons with hay racks. The shocks were then hauled to a silo-filling machine that was connected to the silo by a vertical pipe that extended into the top where a curved section entered a roof opening.
The machine, a combination chopper and blower, was belt driven from the belt pulley of Deak's steel-wheeled International 10/20 tractor positioned nearby. The corn shocks were unloaded from the wagons and fed into the machine by hand. Feeding the machine was dangerous—men had lost hands, arms, and their lives feeding corn shocks into the roaring, vibrating wheel of knives. Today, I'm sure safety regulations would forbid the manufacture and use of equipment with so few safety devices. Deak always fed the machine himself, he unwilling to assign the danger to others. It was all hard work. Besides the men driving the wagons, there were two or three men loading in the field, two men unloading and feeding the ensilage machine, and three men inside the silo to tramp down the silage around the perimeter to seal it against air and water. These last three men had the most monotonous job, constantly pumping their legs into the soft material as they slowly circled the inside of the dark and damp cylinder where pungent corn bits rained down from the blowpipe above them. On this occasion I, a twelve- or fourteen-year-old, was the water and errand boy for all work stations, at the same time a very interested spectator.
On this late afternoon the cutting machine temporarily broke down. The three "trompers" solaced themselves from their cider jug, and awaited the next onrush of silage. Sitting on the soft corn particles, they passed the jug a few more times and apparently fell asleep. Down on the ground I watched the repairs for a lengthy time until the machine resumed its monotonous roar. After awhile I climbed the ladder inside the silo access chute to near the top where the trampers were working, to make a routine check. I was horrified to find only their hats showing above the silage level. I scrambled down the chute to tell Uncle Deak of the dangerous situation.
The power was shut down, and at Deak's order, men hurried up the ladder chute to dig out the buried trampers, who were in no condition to go down the ladder without ropes tied around their waists, manned by men lowering them from above. The neighbors headed for home except for the three inebriates lying on the ground.
Uncle Deak: "Edwin,, want to give me a hand to get these fellows home? Think we might see some fun before we get back."
I wasn't too sure how much fun this might be, knowing Deak as I did, but I helped load the three, stretching them out on an empty hay wagon. Deak clucked up the horses and headed up the Pre-Emption to make the deliveries. At the first stop the "fun" started when the farmwife and her daughter came storming out of their house armed with brooms and horsewhips to launch fierce attacks on Deak and me, but mostly on Deak. I guess the word had preceded us. Deak, laughing uproariously, shielded himself as best he could, and as we left he seemed to enjoy the excitement. The rest of the deliveries met with about the same welcome.
We turned for home. Deak: "See what can happen to you when you drink mor'n `you can hold?"
I nodded and asked, "Can I drive the team home?"
"Yep, I guess you're sober."
© 1989, Edwin N. Harris
Drinking in America: A History by James Kirby Martin and Mark Lender reports that Americans in colonial times drank almost six gallons of pure alcohol per capita annually and today the level is about two gallons for each person. The authors state that alcohol was more common at family dinner tables then, and that drinking on the job was common. They wrote that without liquor, soldiers would not fight, voters would not vote, mourners would not mourn, and workers would not work.