If you like to brag about how long ago your ancestors came to America, you might not want to compare notes with Florence (Beil) Dout. One of her ancestors, Sir William Beil, arrived in America in 1651 – just 31 years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
Some time between then and now, a branch of the Beil family settled in the Shenango Valley, near New Hamburg.
“My parents lived here all of their lives,” Florence said.
Florence, born in 1919, grew up on their farm, which bordered the Shenango River. The large farmhouse had only a wood-burning stove in the kitchen for heat.
“When we would get up on winter mornings,” Florence said, “there would be snow dust inside the windows.”
She had seven siblings: five older (James, Charles, Helen, Ralph, and Howard), and two younger (Marie and Richard). They got their elementary education at a two-room elementary school in New Hamburg, and secondary at Fredonia High School.
“When we were kids, we made our own fun,” Florence said. “There were other kids in the neighborhood. We played tag, played ball, and swam in the Shenango River.” Florence also enjoyed church youth activities, particularly with Christian Endeavor.
They were a very close family that was blessed with a lot of musical talent.
“A couple of my brothers could really sing,” Florence said.
Florence’s daughter, Dottie Stefanak, remembers enjoying Sunday afternoon family musical sessions.
“ My grandfather played the fiddle,” she said. “He never had any music education, but he was very good. I will never forget him playing ‘Listen to the Mockingbird.’ It would sound just like a bird. My uncles all played stringed instruments, such as guitars and banjos.”
Unfortunately, Grandma Beil wasn’t able to enjoy the music because she was deaf.
“We learned to look directly at her and enunciate when we talked with her,” Dottie said, “so she could read our lips.”
Florence’s father, Jim Beil, was a farmer and a carpenter – and a creative individual who made the best of things for his family in hard times. Before electricity was brought into the area, he set up a gasoline engine powered generator and installed lights in their house, as well as a pump to bring water into the house from a nearby spring. They continued to use this setup for a while, even after the area was electrified.
Jim was also a successful entrepreneur. On his farm property that bordered the Shenango River, he created Red Arrow Park. For just twenty-five cents per carload or fifty cents per truckload, visitors could enjoy the amenities for a full day – including a campground, picnic shelters, and a home-made version of a water park. Visitors could change into swimsuits in the bath house; then swim in the Shenango River, jump or dive into it from several diving boards, or drop into it from a swinging rope.
Jim Beil built everything for the park, including the featured attraction: a sort of double sliding board that channeled sled-like carts, side by side, from a height of about 30 feet, into the Shenango River. The only difficulty was that riders had to drag the carts out of the river and carry them up ladders to the top of the slide.
Living near such a place and having free access to it might be any child’s dream. But Florence and her siblings were a bit too near.
“We didn’t get to swim too much because we had to work on the farm and in the park,” Florence said, “and we made and sold nine gallons of ice cream a day in the park.”
At a square dance in the Oddfellows Hall in New Hamburg, Florence met a boy named Art Dout, from Sharon. He became a regular visitor to the park. He had his own trucking business, with his own dump truck. On occasion he would clean it out, load it up with friends, and head out to Red Arrow Park.
In 1937, not long after Florence graduated from high school, she and Art got married. For a while, they lived with Art’s parents, on Maple Drive in Hickory Township. Their first daughter, Dottie, was born in 1938. A second daughter, Juanita, was born in 1940; sadly, she passed away that same year. Art’s father also passed away that year.
The coming of World War II dramatically changed things for the Douts and the Beils. The construction of Camp Shenango brought about the demise of Red Arrow Park. While it wasn’t actually on the property bought up for the new military installation, there was a lot of military activity very near the park. The soldiers would march down Hamburg Road and conduct training maneuvers in the area. Jim decided it was best to close the park.
Both Florence and Art went to work at General American. Art welded parts together for tanks. He had to be good, because the welds had to pass Florence’s inspection. She climbed into the tanks, propped up x-ray film along the welds, and stood safely behind the tanks while the welds were x-rayed.
Fortunately, the war didn’t result in personal loss for the Douts.
“All of my brothers were called up by the draft board and took physicals,” Florence said, “but none of them had to go into military service. Some didn’t pass the physical, and some were deferred for working on the farm.”
That left the family together to enjoy some good times. They continued to spend every Sunday at the Beil farm, and went together on day-long excursions into the mountains near Kane and Warren, PA.
“We would get up at 4 a.m.,” Dottie said. “Mom would pack a whole meal because my grandfather wouldn’t eat out in a restaurant. We’d spend the day and come back in the evening. I was just a little kid, stuck in the back on those scratchy mohair seats, with all these people. When I saw the Mercer courthouse, I was happy, because that meant we were almost home.
Sometimes Florence’s family would get together and go to the Pittsburgh Zoo or Lake Erie.
“There would be a whole caravan of us going,” Dottie said.
Art was exempted for most of the war because of his work at General American, but he received a draft notice right at the end of the war.
“He was supposed to report for induction on a Friday,” Florence said, “but on the Monday of that week, the draft board notified him that he didn’t have to report because the war was over.”
After the end of the war, both Florence and Art were laid off from General American. Art started working as a foreman with Dunbar Slag, which made blacktop and paved roads. Their third daughter, Wanda, was born in 1947.
Unfortunately, in 1950, injuries suffered in an automobile accident put Art out of work for a while. Florence started working as a custodian in the Hickory Township schools to provide income for the family.
After Art returned to work for Foster Grading out of Jackson Center, Florence worked for the Farrell Candy Company, and then for Philadelphia Candies. She worked there ten years, until she had a heart attack in 1974.
“Dad worked heavy construction,” his daughter Dottie said. “He loved digging roads and operating large rollers and bulldozers. We’d see him on a bulldozer on the side of a hill and think, ‘Daddy, don’t do that.’ He’d go away every summer, wherever they were building a road.”
In 1975, Art had a heart attack and open heart surgery.
“Art was a hard worker who worked long hours,” Florence said. “I don’t think he ever missed a day of work until he had a heart attack. He went back to work four months after his open heart surgery.”
Through the years, Florence did church work and sewing. She made each of the grandchildren a quilt for their graduation, and for some of the great grandchildren. She still has enough for all the great grandchildren to get one for their graduations.
Florence served her community in a number of ways. She sewed bandages for the Cancer Society, and did sewing alterations for the residents of St. Paul’s Homes. She got a pin for helping with Red Cross blood drives for more than five years. And she drove children from lower income families in Wheatland and Farrell for recreational activities.
After Art and Florence retired, they traveled a lot. They visited all the states except Alaska and Hawaii, stopping at most of the attractions such as Yellowstone National Park and Mount Rushmore.
“On one trip we drove down to Florida, then to California, up the west coast, and back across the northern states – all around the edge of the country,” Florence said.
Florence and Art have three grandchildren, five great-grandchldren, and a step-granddaughter whose daughter is her only great-great grandchild. Every one of these is or will be a college graduate or bound for college. Each is (or will be) in a professional career, including several in pharmacy.
These descendents ensure that the family that Sir William Beil founded in America more than 350 years ago will continue to serve their communities for many years to come.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 4, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2010