A Man Called Flossie
Flossie Alexander Butrum (1884–1947)
Flossie Butrum spent the bulk of his 62 years working other men’s farms, sharing quarters with other men’s wives and children. He never married, nor did he ever own a home where he was free to drive a nail or paint a wall to suit himself.
The wages he earned — that was something over which he did have dominion. And so, as odd as others may have found it, he chose to keep his greenbacks close. No bank account. No silver. He told folks he didn’t like the way silver money jingled.
That eccentricity likely cost him his life.
Born April 16, 1884 in Allen County, Kentucky, Flossie Alexander Butrum lived a stark existence that contrasts sharply with the clown’s name his parents gave him.
It was not an inherited name. His grandfather, James L. Butrum, was a Union Army veteran whose first wife died of consumption at 25, leaving her six-year-old boy to the tender mercies of a stepmother. That boy, sensibly named James Allen Butrum, was Flossie’s father.
A lifelong farmer who could neither read nor write, James Allen mostly migrated short distances between farms in Macon County, Tennessee and its northern neighbor, Allen County, Kentucky. He and wife Rena raised three boys — Gilbert Francis, Thomas Everett, and Flossie.
The brothers were grey-eyed with black hair. Gilbert, the oldest, worked the land until his heart failed at age 72. Married 43 years, he and wife Mattie had no children. Thomas, the youngest and tallest, abandoned farming in young adulthood to work in sales. He never married. At 83, he fell while walking in downtown Indianapolis and died of a subdural hematoma.
Flossie, the middle brother, still lived on his parents’ farm in 1910, but by 1918, he was working for wages on Lesley B. Hanes’ farm near Westmoreland in Macon County. That same year, he filed his World War I draft registration, citing his mother as his nearest relative. Rena also had left the farm by then, relocating to Nashville probably in the fall of 1916.
That’s when her husband entered Nashville’s Central State Hospital for the Insane. James Allen Butrum died there January 26, 1918. According to his death certificate, colitis killed him; the contributory condition was insanity. He was 17 days shy of his 69th birthday.
Flossie remained on the Hanes’ family farm; the 1920 census shows him living with Lesley, wife Ollie and their two children. When Hanes moved his family to become the proprietor of a grocery in Brownsburg, Indiana, Flossie was left to find employment and another surrogate family.
Henry McKinley Willis fit the bill. Willis owned a general farm on Three Springs Pike in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Flossie signed on as a laborer and remained with the Willis family for 27 years. He was there when Willis’ first wife, Lizzie, died in 1939, and when the father of six quickly remarried, taking on wife Bertie’s two young sons.
Willis’ life was as populated as Flossie’s was barren. The 1940 census shows a teeming household of 13 that included the eight children, a daughter-in-law, a son-in-law, and Flossie. The house likely was a big one, valued at $2500 in 1940 dollars. A decade older than Flossie, Willis left the farming to his hired man for nine months a year to ply his trade as a carpenter. He earned $700 for 36 weeks of work and paid Flossie $400 for 52 weeks of farm labor.
Flossie reportedly stashed his earnings in the attic of the Willis farmhouse, perhaps sensibly putting something by for his old age. What wasn’t so sensible was failing to convert his hoard to silver, to keep it safe from rodents and mold and fire.
On Monday night, March 24, 1947, a boy in the Willis household woke Flossie to alert him that the house was on fire. Flossie responded that he would be downstairs in a minute, that there was something he needed to get. Buffeted by high winds that night, the fire proved fierce: the local newspaper reported that trees 200 feet from the house were badly burned.
When the interior of the farmhouse collapsed, Flossie’s body fell to the ground floor. He was found lying among the charred remains of his paper estate. The Willis family estimated his savings at $1,500 to $3,000, encouraging speculation that the bills were numerous enough to have fueled the flames. Flossie was found with paper ashes clutched tightly in his fists.
On his death certificate, the coroner reported that his body was “burned to a crisp.”
Flossie was 62 years, 11 months and 8 days old. He was buried in the Plano Cemetery, in Bowling Green. Today, the Willis farm, where Flossie died protecting his wages, is a busy commercial district along a multi-lane highway featuring a Waffle House and Holiday Inn Express.
[With thanks to Kathy L. Garrett at Dept. of Library Special Collections, Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green, KY].