SUGAR CREEK TWP. — Francis E. Smith is the epitome of what life used to be.
He helps his neighbors. Builds machinery. Plows fields. Splits wood. Hammers nails. Reveres his tractor. And still works hard at age 84.
Dressed in a pair of brown Carhartt coveralls splattered with oil stains, and a black baseball cap, his weathered hands are the product of a lifetime of doing things the right way.
From his boyhood days on a 250-acre dairy farm in Litchfield, Minn., he has learned a lot about living and how people should be treated.
“I always got along with people,” he said. “Why be a drunk and a bum and a bully? I don’t like bullies who don’t treat poor, helpless people right. I always do what’s right by everyone.”
With his folksy humor and charm, Smith is an endearing person with a penchant for storytelling and a mind for engineering. He talks easily about earning an honest living from sunup to way past sundown, and scoffs at the notion of a 40-hour work week. Everything he has, he got by the sweat of his brow.
Simple, yet hectic life
He also practices the beliefs he holds dear.
“If I pull someone out of a ditch, I tell them not to pull out their wallet and open it and wear out the hinges because one day, we can even the score,” he said. “I might need pulled out of a ditch. I don’t smoke or drink, and I know right from wrong.”
Smith leads a simple, yet hectic life in the heart of Amish country on a five-acre farm on Millersburg Road, about four miles from Mount Eaton, Kidron and Brewster and eight miles south of Massillon. His 2014 115-horsepower blue New Holland tractor and cab is his pride and joy and his sole mode of transportation. His home is heated by a wood-burning stove where he cooks his food.
The stove is fueled with wood he cut and hauled to the door of his house where trailers laden with firewood sit waiting to be unloaded.
There are 55 wood-burning stoves in Stark County just like his that are still operating. “I know because I built them,” Smith said.
His love for machinery — whether it’s working on trucks, cars or farm equipment — is just as much a part of his life as living and breathing.
He retired at age 70 after working 33 years at Slates Body Company in Canton. On his second day on the job, he was promoted to shop foreman over 13 employees. When he had a slow day at work, he used his “head to engineer” other things, including his wood-burning stoves.
Over the years, he’s continued “retirement” by working 17 years at Sunny Slope Orchard, a hefty stone’s throw from his house. Every year, he plows the fields so owner Isaac Yoder can plant more apple and peach trees and strawberries.
“He’s a great guy,” Yoder said. “You’d think he was closer to 60.”
Smith has a full schedule of other jobs lined up this spring and summer. There’s a neighbor who needs four trees removed that were uprooted by recent high winds, and farmers with fields to plow, and possibly disk and harrow so the ground is well-prepared for planting crops. He works on a “fee farming” basis, getting paid for work done.
“Farmers are always working,” Smith said. “Sometimes at 10 p.m., we’re just getting started.”
One of 14 children, Smith said he inherited his father’s workaholic ways. At age 6, Francis Smith was driving a hand-clutch John Deere tractor on the family farm, pulling light loads. He was on his own at 14.
His father was a strict disciplinarian who demanded that he take two weeks off from school every spring to help with the farm, a decision his mother disdained.
“I learned what to do by watching my dad,” Smith said. If his dad would check on him then leave without saying a word, he knew he was doing a good job. “Dad didn’t cut me any slack.”
In 1957, he was drafted by the Army and worked on ”anything that had wheels on it.”
While at Fort Hood, Texas, he met fellow Army buddy Elvis Presley in 1958 at an ice cream shop outside the base.
“I shook his hand and introduced myself,” Smith said. “He was the nicest fellow. No one hated him or was jealous of him because he was just a poor boy when he grew up, too.”
A fitting example that hard work does a body good, Smith has never been hospitalized, and is thankful for his good health. When he went to the doctor 15 years ago for a rash on his arm that turned out to be shingles, the doctor asked when he last had a physical.
“When I joined the Army,” he replied. “I’m a coward when it comes to going to the doctor. I don’t even want to think about not being able to work. I got enough to do if ever I slow down.”
Smith, who was married for 19 years before getting divorced, has a son and daughter, Earl Warren “Huck” Smith of Tuscarawas County, and Emily Walton, who lives a short distance from her dad in Wayne County, and who is president of the Tuscarawas Valley Steam Association.
When he takes a breather from work, he listens to the radio, reads the Farm and Dairy newspaper, buys tools, goes to steam shows, livestock auctions and flea markets, and lunches with friends.
Jolene Limbacher is a correspondent for The Independent in Massillon.