Danton Leon Caussin
(This article appeared in the Summer, 2001, issue of Goldenseal Magazine.)
Goldenseal is published by the State of West Virginia Division of Culture and History
John Lilly, Editor
It was July 4, 1895, and the Caussins were enjoying a family outing in their horse and buggy. They had only lived in Pittsburgh for 3 or 4 years since their immigration to America from Aniche, a small town in the north of France. They were on their way to a picnic in celebration of the July 4th holiday.
Julien was driving the buggy while holding his infant daughter, Marie, on his lap. Maria, pregnant with her 4th child, was seated beside her husband and the 2 older children, Julius and Clarice, were seated in the back seat.
Suddenly the back strap of the horse’s harness broke, throwing the full weight of the buggy against the horse’s hind legs. Frightened and hurt, the horse bolted sharply causing the buggy to careen wildly and finally upset.
Young Julius got a cut on his head that required 18 stitches to close. Clarice was thrown from the buggy and landed unharmed in a hay stack. But, the infant, Marie, was crushed to death in her father’s arms. Julien and Maria were essentially unharmed, although both were badly shaken and grief-stricken at the loss of their child.
Birth of Danton
Three days later, on July 7, 1895, Maria gave birth to her 4th child, Danton Leon Caussin. Julien named his infant son Danton, after the famous French general, Georges Danton. General Danton was credited as the chief force in the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the First French Republic (September 21, 1792.) He was known for his daring, strength of character, and his ability to make swift decisions. No doubt Julien was hoping to endow his new son with the same character traits for which General Danton was famous.
This was the story Uncle Danton told me about his parents (my grandparents) whom I never knew since both were deceased before my birth. On July 7, 2000, Uncle Danton celebrated his 105th birthday.
At 105, he was still bringing joy into the lives of others. The ladies who delivered his “meals on wheels” during the week couldn’t wait to get to Danton’s house. He often served them French cookies (galettes) which he had baked himself. His mother, Maria Boulanger Caussin, brought the recipe and her galette iron from France around 1892 when she and her husband came to the United States to work in the flat glass industry.
In 1899, after working for a few years in Pittsburgh at the Pittsburgh Plate and at American Window Glass House in Arnold, Pennsylvania, Danton’s father Julien, along with several other French and Belgian immigrants, decided to build their own cooperative glass plant. Each man put in the same amount of capital and each man had an equal say in the operation.
Move to Clarksburg
And so it was that Danton, at the age of 4, moved to Clarksburg with his family. The immigrants had decided to build their plant in the North View Section of Clarksburg which at that time was called Pine Grove. This site was chosen because natural gas sold for only $.10 per 1,000 cubic feet and a railroad was already established in the area. Hence, there was a cheap source of the natural resource they needed most and a ready-made way to move their product to market.
Just 4 blocks up the street from the factory site, there stood a small frame cottage which housed the office of the Pine Grove Land and Manufacturing Company. The only other house in the area was a two-story frame just 3 blocks from the factory site. It was this house that Julien rented to house his growing family and it was in this house that Danton grew to manhood.
North View, as the area was later named, was primarily undeveloped land except that lots were laid out in 36 blocks and a block and 1/2 square was laid out for a public park. There was a 300 foot water well and wind-mill in the center of the park and it was from this source that Danton and his brother, Julius, helped their father carry water home for the weekly family laundry.
The new glass plant was to be called the Lafayette. As more and more glass workers moved to Clarksburg to work in the glass plant, many houses sprang up in North View. By 1903, the population of the community had tripled. It was at this time that Julien purchased the house he had rented for his family. From then on, Danton had many play-mates and a lovely park in which to play. When Danton’s family moved to Clarksburg, all the maple trees in the park were only saplings; now they are mature trees that have weathered over 100 years of storms, as well as over 100 years of beautiful days of sunshine.
Danton’s father was a strong, frugal, hard-working man who invested his earnings from the glass plant in real estate. By the time he died in 1917, he owned 5 houses, all surrounding the family home at 2200 Hamill Avenue.
For more than 70 years Danton lived in a duplex house on Goff Avenue which his father had built in 1907. Since his house was directly across the street from the park he played in as a boy, he still had the pleasure of looking out his window to watch children at play.
In the center of the park, near the wind-mill there was a grandstand on which the community band and other music groups performed periodically. On Sundays, the park became one large picnic area, with the French, Spanish, and Italian immigrants all gathered within their own little groups consuming their own particular culinary delights, as well as their own particular variety of home-made wine.
While Danton was growing up, North View was either dry and dusty or a sea of mud if it had rained. There were no side-walks so one’s shoes were always either dusty or muddy.
Danton spent a lot of time during his youth taking care of Belgian Hares. The rabbits were excellent fare for the table and Danton enjoyed raising them. As a matter of fact, many of his friends and neighbors knew Danton by his nick-name “Bunny” Caussin. Up until the time of his death, most of his friends over 70 referred to Danton as “Bunny.”
After the plant was well-established, the Frenchmen built a social hall at 2009 Goff Avenue. It was a large two story frame structure that contained a saloon, card room and other meeting rooms on the first floor and a large dance hall on the top floor. They named the structure Lafayette Hall.
It was here that Danton Caussin became a great dancer. He delighted in telling me that the city girls (from the heart of the city of Clarksburg) used to love to come to North View to dance with the French boys. Since young people had no transportation, they had to walk to North View which was a mile or more from the city. Because the area was so muddy, everyone carried their dancing shoes in their hands as they walked to the hall in their boots. Every Saturday night there was an assortment of boots parked on the stoop outside Lafayette Hall, while all the young people danced the evening away within.
As was the custom then, young men were apprenticed to their fathers for 3 years to get the necessary union card to practice their respective trades. Since Danton’s father was a “gathering boy,” Danton worked with him for 3 years to acquire his union card as a glass gatherer.
The Lafayette Glass Factory began as a pot furnace operation, i.e., the glass was heated in clay pots. Sand, potash, limestone, coal dust, and cullet (broken glass) were placed into the pots and heated until molten. This material was then gathered onto steel pipes, which were 3/4″ in circumference and 58″ long, by a “gathering boy.” It required gathering 3 or 4 times to get a sufficiently large lump (20 to 30 pounds.) The gathering boy then took this molten mass to a cast iron block where the “glass-blower” blew a ball to a 42″ circumference. The glass blower’s helper, called a “snapper,” would then carry the ball up to the blow furnace where the ball was heated again and the blower began the process of forming it into a cylinder.
The blower would then swing the cylinder (called a roller) in a shaft in the floor (called a swing hole.) By blowing, turning, swinging, and intermittently reheating the glass, the desired cylinder length of 55″ to 60″ was achieved. The cylinder was then split open on one side and then taken to the “flattener” where it was flattened in the flattening oven. After cooling, it was then ready to be cut to desired window size by the “cutter.” If your home was built at the turn of the century, the glass in your windows was made in this way.
In 1917, when he was 22 years old, Danton was called to serve his country in World War I. Since he could speak French fluently, he assumed he would be sent to France as all the other North View boys had been.
Imagine his distress when he found out he was going to Camp Lee, Virginia, instead, to teach soldiers how to properly use their gas masks. Out of the 13 young men from North View who were called to the service, Danton was the only one not sent to France.
He said that he was somewhat sorry that he didn’t go overseas, but his instructor role had its compensations. From a $21- a – month buck private in April of 1918, he became a $33 – a – month sergeant in August of the same year. Furthermore, he had no guard duty or kitchen chores. He laughingly said, “I was a goldbrick.” On November 11, 1993, when he was 98, U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller presented Danton with a World War I 75th Commemorative Service Medal at Veterans Day ceremonies in Clarksburg.
After the war, Danton briefly practiced his trade as a gathering boy. Danton’s father had died in 1917 and his father’s plant, the Lafayette, had been destroyed by fire in 1919. But the Rolland Glass Company had rebuilt the old Peerless Plant next to the site of the Lafayette and Danton eagerly started work as a gatherer for that company. At that time there were 7 hand glass plants in and around Clarksburg.
In 1920, however, the Pittsburgh Plate and Libby Owens Ford, two plants that made glass by machine, started a price war with each other. This competition literally priced the hand glass plants out of business. It was then that Danton was hired by the Rolland Glass Company to manage its box shop.
As foreman of the box shop, where the wooden boxes were made for packing the glass for shipping, Danton’s day began at 6:00 a.m and ran until 3:00 p.m. 5 days a week. Twenty-two men worked under Danton in that box shop and only 5 survive at this time. Equipment in the box shop included 2 cut off saws, 2 rip saws, and 6 nailing machines. Four men worked on the hand bench where the boxes were nailed by hand. It was Danton’s responsibility to maintain a stock room of assorted empty boxes in sizes from 8″ x 10″ to 40″ x 40″. Other sizes were made to order. Danton regularly maintained a stock of between 30,000 to 35,000 boxes of all sizes.
Each morning Danton inventoried the stock in the stock room and then determined what size and how many boxes needed to be made that day. The factory regularly made enough glass to fill at least one box car on the B&O railroad. When orders were plentiful, they filled as many as 5 box cars a day. When cutters were cutting heavy plate glass (3/16 to 7/32 in thickness) Danton’s crew often made boxes to accommodate 300′ of glass of varying dimensions.
Danton met the love of his life at a dance. Mary Dixon had come to Clarksburg to work for the telephone company in 1919. She was the seventh child born into a farm family in Flat Rocks, Preston County. They were married in October of 1920.
Danton and Mary had 3 children: Eugene Dixon (born November 4, 1923) Danton Leon, Jr. (born October 24, 1927) and Mary Kathryn (born August 17, 1929.) Danton Leon, Jr. was killed in his mother’s arms in an automobile accident when he was only 8 months old. The accident occurred on Danton’s 33rd birthday, July 7, 1928. Eugene, an insurance adjuster, was a talented arranger of music for the big band sound and he produced many arrangements for various dance bands around Clarksburg, including his own. He died of a massive heart attack at the age of 53. Mary Kathryn is a Professor of Dance at West Virginia University and is Coordinator of the Dance Program there.
Among Danton’s avocations, raising roses was one of his favorites. Near the top of his vegetable garden, he had another small plot that was radiant with bloom from his roses throughout the summer. Danton carefully tended his rose garden until his 90th year.
Danton also loved dogs. When he was a young boy, he had a dog named “Five Cents.” When I asked him why he would give a dog such a name, he responded, “Because when I took him home my dad said he wasn’t worth a nickel.” Either my son or I often took our little West Highland Terrier, Cricket, with us when we visited Uncle Danton. He always welcomed her with a verbal greeting and a loving pat on the head when she went to his chair.
Aside from his family, Danton’s greatest love throughout his life was sports, all kinds of sports. He regularly attended West Virginia University football games from 1917 when he was 22, until 1998 when he was 103. In 1917, to go to Morgantown for a game, he would catch any train going north and get off at Westover and walk over to the stadium which was then located on the downtown campus. In more recent years, he went to the games in the comfort of his daughter’s automobile and then traveled in a golf cart to his tier in the stadium.
Danton was an avid bridge player all of his life and credited the game with keeping his mind alert to his advanced age. Since many of his family members also loved the game and many of them lived close by, you could find a bridge game going almost every Sunday afternoon and often on week-day evenings. You could be sure Danton would be playing or kibitzing on the side.
Retirement and Volunteerism
Danton retired from his work as foreman of the box shop at Rolland Glass Company in 1963 after 43 years of steady employment in the same position. Unfortunately, his beloved wife, Mary, died of a massive heart attack the following year, in September, 1964. Danton lived alone as a widower in his own home until he fell and broke a hip on March 14, 2001, and died of pneumonia on April 1, 2001.
After he became a widower, Danton joined the Senior Citizens Center and enjoyed many of its social programs for seniors. He played bridge there every afternoon except Thursday, when he visited patients in the Louis Johnson Veterans Administration Hospital. He was a hospital volunteer for 20 years and logged over 2000 hours in that capacity.
Danton was extremely proud of his French heritage and was quick to tell you the foods he liked because “that’s what French people eat.” The foods he liked, of course, were the ones his mother prepared for him as a growing boy. He always said that what he missed most about his childhood were the wonderful fragrances that came from his mother’s kitchen: the odor of wild game or domestic rabbit simmering in a dry red wine; leeks sautéing in butter for vichyssoise; onions, garlic, thyme, and bay leaf added to turtle soup, pâté, leg of lamb, veal chops, pork loin, and beef stews. With the aid of his friend and domestic helper, Mrs. Becky Betler, he continued to bake galettes, mostly because he loved to smell them baking.
I have been in awe of this wonderful relative of mine for many years and am most impressed with his attitude of gratitude. He always seemed to be content with and grateful for whatever he had and never hesitated to express his thanks for everything.
One of his character traits that I respected most was his equal treatment of and respect for everyone. He always showed the same respect and kindness to the cleaning lady he sat beside on the city bus, as the brilliant medical minds who treated him when he was hospitalized about 10 years ago for a broken hip. To Danton’s mind, no one was of greater importance because of his station in life.
Danton was always very independent. He would never ask anyone to do anything for him that he could do for himself, even when it became difficult for him to do some things because of stiff joints and the natural impairments of old age. When I chided him because I found him waiting for the city bus to go to the hospital to have a cataract removed, he simply replied, “But, honey, the bus stops right across the street.” It took some doing on my part to persuade him to get into my car and be driven to the hospital, even though he was 96 at the time.
Periodically, I interviewed him and tried to get him to share his wisdom and the secret of his health, mental, as well as physical. When I asked him what advice he would give young people, he said immediately, “Be honest”. “If you don’t know something, don’t hesitate to say so.” “Tell it like it is.”
It seems to me that Julien was right to name his 4th child Danton. For he truly was endowed with all the positive character traits of the great General Georges Danton, and then some.
© Olga S. Hardman