George Lewis Favreau (1874-1971) – A Man Almost Forgotten

An old Thanksgiving tradition in my father’s family was to sit around the table and have everyone declare what they are thankful for each year. Some were thankful for a new job, a warm & comfortable home, a fancy car, or any other of a myriad of worldly wonders. I have often felt more thankful for the people in my life than I have about almost anything else (dogs excluded of course). Which brings us to today’s subject – a less than perfect person who almost no one living today will remember. His name was George Lewis Favreau. The man who I credit with sparking my lifetime interest in local history.

I called him “Hi.” He earned that unusual moniker by playing the age-old game of peekaboo with a young toddler and declaring, “Hi” every time he stuck his head around the corner to surprise the little tyke. Like most children learning to speak, I latched onto the repetitive and easy to recall word and began calling old George “Hi” rather than his given name. Since there were two adult men named George living in our multi-generational home in Weston, even the adults soon began referring to the older George as “Hi.”

When I was two, Hi was seventy-six. Hi was a quiet man. He lived in the basement of the twelve hundred and fifty square foot Cape Cod that sat directly across from the dam that held back the waters of the Saugatuck Reservoir along the side of Valley Forge Road. His space consisted of a small corner near the furnace. He slept in a narrow iron bed with steel springs that supported an ancient mattress that was likely filled with straw. There was but a single wooden bureau that held his complete wardrobe – several plaid woolen shirts, some socks, and perhaps three sets of over-all’s that he rotated and wore on a year-round basis. There was a small table that held a single lamp and Hi’s most prized possession, his radio. That was his lone source of entertainment. Next to that table was a wooden rocking chair where the old man would sit and listen to his favorite serials, “The Green Hornet” and “The Shadow.” At seventy-six, all Hi’s worldly possessions took up about ninety square feet of space.

Hi lived in the basement of our house on Valley Forge Road in Weston

I’m not sure how Hi came to live in our basement, but I do know that he was my grandfather’s “hired hand.” His most important job at the Weston house was to cut and split several cords of wood each fall and then pack the basement so full that there was only a small passageway to reach his “room” and the entrance to the root cellar where my grandmother kept the vegetables she canned every year from our garden in the back of the house.

Throughout the winter months, Hi would keep the furnace stoked with the various hardwoods he had cut, split, and neatly stacked in our cellar. We were probably the only house on Valley Forge Road that kept half of the windows open in the middle of the winter because it was so hot inside that even the mice in the attic were sometimes seen panting.

Hi took his meals with the rest of the family on most days, although he would occasionally eat alone in the kitchen on those nights he didn’t feel like “tidying up” enough to fit in with the rest of us. My grandmother did his laundry and kept him fed. He kept the cow milked, the pigs fed, the grass mowed, and the walkways shoveled when it snowed.

Hi’s attire consisted of a plaid shirt, over-all’s held up by suspenders, colorful wool socks, work boots, and a fedora hat that had seen its fair share of wear. He wore wire rimmed glasses that left a noticeable depression on each side of his nose whenever they were removed. His skin was weathered, his gray hair thin and usually in need of a trim, and his beard almost always a few days old. In addition, Hi’s already yellowing teeth bore the stains of his Red Man brand of chewing tobacco.

Hi was a man of few words. He seldom spoke unless spoken to, but even when I was a young child, he always took the time to answer my sometimes-stupid questions in a way that made me feel as comfortable being around him as I felt being with my grandparents.

One day when I was about four years old, I remember being with Hi in the vegetable garden, helping him pick strawberries for the shortcake my grandmother would be making that evening. Hi suddenly grabbed my shoulder and told me to walk up to the workshop at the end of the garden and wait there. I asked him why and he quietly replied, “Because there’s a snake in here, and I want to make sure it’s not a Copperhead.”

“I don’t see any snake,” I replied.

“I can’t see him either. But I smell him. Now go do as I told you.”

The one and only man who ever told me he could smell a snake. But either he could, or it was a great coincidence that there was actually a snake in that strawberry patch. It took Hi about two minutes before he grabbed that snake and threw it over the fence that kept the deer out of my grandmother’s vegetable garden. If I remember nothing else about Hi, it will be that incident.

My grandparents moved to Maine in 1954 and Hi went with them. On the farm, he helped my grandfather milk the cows and do the chores. Using a large scythe, Hi could lay down a field of alfalfa in rows so neat that one would swear it had been done with a machine. He may have been able to drive, but I never once saw the man behind the wheel of the farm truck or one of the tractors. Every tool he used was old-school.

One spring, Hi cleared about three acres of dense brush from one of the overgrown fields all by himself. He was then eighty-two years of age. I remember asking my grandmother if Gramps had asked Hi to clear that land and she replied, “No, Hi was just antsy after a long winter and one morning he grabbed a bow-saw and an axe and walked down to that field and began cutting.”

As I grew older, I asked Hi about many of the older buildings in Easton and Redding. He remembered working on one house that was about a quarter mile from where we were then living. The details of his story were fascinating and as the years wore on and I learned more about that old place, every single thing that Hi had told me proved to be accurate. The man might have been really ancient, but his memory was as sharp as any twenty-year old.

The one thing about the past that Hi never spoke of was his family. For all I knew, the man had always been single. But as I would learn later, that was anything but the case.

By the time I was in my mid-teens, questions I posed to my grandmother about Hi’s long absences from the farm were finally met with a dose of reality and truth. Nana told me that Hi was a binge drinker. He could go for months and remain sober, but when alcohol got the best of him, he would be drunk for weeks at a time, something my grandmother would not tolerate. When he was drunk, he was banished from the house. Where he went was anyone’s guess. Hi never owned an automobile, so wherever he went he either walked, hitch hiked, or took a bus. He would always return, hat in hand, and ask for forgiveness. As far as I knew he was always granted it and would be allowed back into the fold.

Hi finally left Maine and went to live with a niece when he was somewhere just north of ninety years in age. I remember visiting him near the end of his life, and he was still quite active. He had split and stacked about ten cords of wood that sat outside his niece’s house for the upcoming winter. He lived in a one room apartment behind the garage and looked and dressed much like he had almost thirty years earlier when I was a small child.

In late 1971, Hi passed away, and in many ways, so did my memory of him. He had lived almost ninety-seven years.

It was about three years ago when I ran across the photo in this article of Hi. It was taken in 1957 at the family farm in Maine. The memories of that quirky old man rushed right back into my head. I needed to know more about him. I just didn’t know where I would find much, as everyone I knew who knew Hi was long dead and gone as well.

1957. Hi was 83 years old.

Remembering bits and pieces of the limited amount of information my grandmother had revealed about Hi’s past, I started to put the puzzle together and began searching for his family history on Ancestry and Newspapers.com. While there wasn’t a plethora of information, there was enough to piece the story of his life together so that I knew him better when I was done with the research than before I began.

While not everything I found was surprising, it painted a picture of a troubled man, who by the time he aged had mellowed and mended most of his ways. Like so many other ordinary folks who had underachieved for most of their life, the recorded bits and pieces of his existence didn’t paint the complete picture of the man I had known.

George Lewis Favreau was born on November 11, 1874, the third child of Truman and Anna Favreau, farmers in Sherman, Connecticut. George’s formal education ended at the fourth-grade level, meaning he had a basic knowledge of reading, writing, and some mathematics, but not enough to secure employment in anything beyond manual labor, something that would prove true throughout his long life.

The dreaded missing 1890 U.S. Census leaves us without clues as to where the family may have lived during that time span, but by the early 1900’s, George and two of his brothers would begin to appear in newspaper articles that described their movements and towns of residence. The brothers all lived and worked on farms in either Redding or Easton. George appears in the 1910 Census as residing in Easton, married, and the father of three children: a boy, Willis born in 1900, and daughters Ruth, 1903 and Charlotte, 1905. According to newspaper articles of the day, the family was active in the Baptist Church across from Union Cemetery but moved several times within just a few years.

While searching for information about his earlier life, when I began to see Hi’s name in the local papers involving drunk and disorderly conduct and more and more frequent trips to the county lock-up around 1912, and knowing that he had a life-long drinking problem, I was not exactly shocked.

In February of 1913, he became so intoxicated that he began to shoot up the Chestnut Hill Schoolhouse in Long Hill. It took two officers to subdue him, and the reckless incident earned him a four-month stint in the Fairfield County Jail. Fortunately, no one was harmed by his wayward bullets.

February 22, 1913, the Bridgeport Evening Farmer.

By later that year, Hi was spending more time in lockup than he was working. His wife, Jessie May, sued him for failing to support his family and he was given a choice of paying $6 a week or serving six-months in jail that December. Unable to find work, he was jailed for two months before being released on probation in February of 1914 when work became available for him to support his family.

But by November of that year, Hi was living in Easton while his wife and daughters were residing in Bridgeport. He was again in jail for non-support of his estranged family when the Connecticut Humane Society petitioned the court to take custody of the couple’s two young daughters, Ruth and Charlotte. The court ordered the young girls sent to the Home for Neglected and Dependent Children in Norwalk where, unless the court deemed otherwise, they would stay until they reached their 18th birthdays. Jessie and Hi never reunited, and after many hours of searching, I could find no evidence of the girls ever being released to the custody of either of their natural parents. Their whereabouts and what happened in their subsequent years remain a mystery.

Court document from November, 1914, ordering Hi’s daughters be removed to the home for dependent children in Norwalk.

Hi floated around after being released from jail in 1915. He had multiple jobs and lived at multiple addresses over the next decade and a half. He finally landed back in Easton by 1930, working for one of his former employers, Willard Gillette, on Gillette’s farm on North Park Avenue.

By 1941, he was living with my grandparents and working as a hired hand mostly in exchange for a roof over his head and three-square meals a day. He would remain with my grandparents for over twenty-five years. When my grandparents sold their farm, they were in no position to continue to support old Hi and he was taken in by his niece for his remaining years.

As this Thanksgiving approaches, I am thankful that I got to know that old man. Hi had been born before there was an electric light bulb. Before the advent of the telephone. Before man’s voice was recorded on a machine. Long before the first automobile scared the first horse it passed. Before man had experienced the first powered flight. He had lived through no less than five major military conflicts. Seen his first motion picture. Heard his first radio show. Watched his first television broadcast. Seen the first man walk on the moon. Seen 20 presidents of the United States come and go.

Hi had lived a lot of history. Had he not taken the time to impart a lot of what he had seen and experienced to a curious little kid, perhaps I wouldn’t be writing this today. Perhaps my interest in history would be more passive than active. Perhaps what he did for me and with me was something he wished he had been able to do with his own children had his alcoholism not robbed him of those opportunities so long ago. I can only hope that I somehow gave as much to him as he gave to me.

While recorded history shows Hi as an underachieving, rather hopeless soul, I saw a different side to the man. Not everything is always as it first appears to be. Not all recorded history is complete.

So, this Thanksgiving, try to remember someone almost forgotten and be thankful for having known them. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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