- Florence Miles
Florence Sophia Miles celebrated her 100th birthday on October 4, 2022, outdoors at the Sterling House in Richmond. She was able to say her final goodbyes to her intimate family and to her numerous friends. The next 20 days were a process of letting go of the life that she led.
Florence was born on a farm in Cross Plains, Wis., to the German farmers Agnes Virnig and Otto Schulenberg. Her life was hard and challenging from the beginning. Tongue-tied for six years since birth, Florence had an aunt who finally took it into her own hands to release her from a communication bondage. Florence learned to talk and, throughout her life, pronounced words in an endearing way.
- Florence Mills
She had little schooling, not going much beyond the sixth grade. She fondly remembers riding five or six miles on a horse with her brothers, sometimes racing to get to the school. When they could use the open car and pile in the rumble seats for the long ride to school, it was a treat. School was not an everyday affair, as she was kept home frequently to do the women’s work on the farm from an early age. Florence did it all. She helped prepare and cook the food, kept the fires, and did the laundry work. She worked the gardens and helped deliver her mother’s babies. Her beloved mother’s last baby resulted in the death of both. Florence carried that day throughout her life.
During World War II, she took a job in the Ray o Vac factory, making vehicle and communication batteries for the war effort. She received performance award ribbons and citations for her work, and, even in her nineties, she could demonstrate with her quick hands how to put a battery together. It must have helped her in her later life, when she was always playing with a large spread of bingo cards — she was known to be quite successful in her winnings.
She also worked in the café as a short-order cook and waitress. It was frequented by soldiers training for the war, and, one day, Frank Miles of Huntington walked in and asked her for a date. They married on October 14, 1944. They had only had a few days together when Frank was ordered in the middle of the night by the military police to report for a ship bound to Europe. When Frank left, Florence‘s father demanded that she quit her job and come back to the farm to work.
When the war ended, Frank went back to Wisconsin to convince Florence to move to Vermont, where they bought a farm outside Huntington Center and became dairy farmers for the next 38 years. Frank, a woodcutter, was new to farming. This phase of life wasn’t easy on Florence. Being of German descent, she encountered pushback from veterans and townspeople ripped apart from the war. Germans were not popular in postwar America. Florence buried her pain and buried herself in the running of their new farm. By the early '70s, their herd sported the highest herd average in Chittenden County — quite an honor for a Vermont hill farm.
Florence loved the farm animals. They started with workhorses to work the land, and built up their herd to 33 milkers with the accompanying young heifers that replaced the tired milkers. Frank and his son John did the fieldwork, but it was Florence who kept the farm working and functioning. Florence did it all, rarely missing a day of milking. Having two young children in the early days of the farm was no problem. She put them on a sled or wagon and placed them in apple boxes to keep them close while she milked. When they were older, of course, they pitched in.
An average day for Florence started at 4 a.m. Always first awake, she’d wake up the boys, walk to the barn and call for the cows. Some mornings you could hear the echo of her voice across the hills. She’d drive them across the road and into the barn. With three milking machines, she went down the line and attended each cow. She would drag the milk pails out to the center aisle and often carried 30 or 40 pounds to the milk house to dump it. After milking, she ran to the house and cooked breakfast. She did cleanup, as Frank directed field chores at 9 a.m. She did the barn chores and fed the animals. She would let them eat and then turn them out to the pasture. She would then go back to the house to cook lunch.
Lunch was always big. Florence made sure everyone ate, even if five or six people from the town showed up unannounced. If you showed up to work, you always had lunch or supper. You might not get paid, but you didn’t go home hungry. Florence would clean up, maybe tend to her bees or the blackberries before starting her afternoon barn chores at 4 p.m., and finished up milking at 6 p.m. She then would run up to the house and have another big meal for supper all ready to go.
Florence could put together anything in a matter of minutes; there could be eight types of meat on the table at once and always a large chicken meal on a Sunday noon. Potatoes were planted and stored throughout the year. She’d peel them all. After supper, she’d clean up and then, at 9 p.m., she’d walk to the barn to talk to her cows and poke up the hay once more. Sometimes she didn’t go to bed right off, and you would find her, flashlight in hand, picking up night crawlers so the boys could fish the next day.
Whenever Florence took a vacation, the farm barely functioned. Milking was chaos, and meals were unimaginative. Frank would lament that the ‘’Old Lady’’ was still a few days from getting home. She called him “Old Man.”
It wasn’t easy living with a World War II vet. Florence worked harder than the average person, and she often lacked social stimulation. In some ways, she was isolated between Camel’s Hump and the surrounding hills. She could stuff her feelings and participate in small-town gossip and verbally fight back like a wildcat, but beyond the farm, her life was limited. She was loving and selfless and did what she could to navigate the ups and downs of her life. If Frank had his beer hidden in the maple trees, Florence had her blackberry brandy hidden in the back room.
At times over the years, she suffered in silence and endured what she called her “women’s troubles,” along with other physical ailments. She ended up in the hospital a few times and literally cheated death more than once to make it to 100 years. She lost her teeth from a cow foot. She was knocked down and kicked by cows. She had barn roofs fly away over her head during storms. Lightning drove her to the barn floor more than once. Mean bulls chased her into trees. At 97, she was still using her four-wheeler to patrol the farm, but the keys were taken away from her when she was found tangled up in a horse fence. Despite all this, she loved her bees, loved her maple trees and loved her cows. She never had a cross word for them.
If there was one thing that stood out in Florence’s life, it was her dexterous hands. She was adept in butchering deer, bear, all types of wild game, beef and chicken. Her knives stayed with her throughout her life. They had been sharpened so much that very little remains of the blades today. The sheer weight that shifted through her hands over the 100 years is phenomenal. Her hands held her world and defined who she was. Her amethyst rosary stayed with her throughout her life and remained in her hands in death.
This is the Huntington River Valley. It was her home. She never bragged and never talked about herself unless asked. What she accomplished was without fanfare. She has disappeared like the morning mist hovering over the river. Her voice can still be heard echoing between Camel's Hump and the surrounding hills.
"Co boss ... Co boss ... Co bossy ... Come on home.’’
Florence was buried in Huntington Cemetery on October 31, 2022.