Joseph “Joe” Milo Smallbone (1911 - 1985)





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at Oakwood Cemetery,



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Kelly Kautman My father would go over and have Joe work on his radios and Joe always did an excellent job. I remember Joe driving his Model A Ford through town and he would also ride his bicycle with a basket/cart on the back too. Joe was a nice man, but many people thought he was weird because he didn't talk much and he did not bathe-ever! I think he had a phobia of water (and I am not being sarcastic when I make that statement. It was very sad). I was told, but I am not certain if it is true, that the reason Joe didn't bathe was due to his mother getting electrocuted in the bathtub by one of Joe's radios (which was plugged in and had fallen in the bath water while she was bathing). I remember one time in the early 1980's when I went to the old Hamady Brothers Grocery Store on Leroy St, Joe was there with his Model A Ford. He had broken his leg and he used tin cans and wood scraps to splint his leg. I asked him how it was healing. He replied, "it's healing". We walked over to his car and he opened the engine door and when I looked in at the engine, I just about fell over in surprise. He had that old engine running with the help of pencils, tin cans, rags, etc. I couldn't believe he could make it run with those items, but he did. He has been missed by the Wm Kautman family.


Joe Smallbone
Fenton’s most famous eccentric
By Jan Rynearson
[contact link]

Every community or town is blessed with what one might call a “character” or “eccentric.” Fenton’s standout was Joseph “Joe” Milo Smallbone.
A native of the city, he was born on Sept. 26, 1911 and lived in his hometown until he died in 1985 at the age of 74. Even his death was un-usual. He was found behind his home, frozen to death.
His gravestone at Fenton’s Oakwood Cemetery is also out of the ordinary. It is in the shape of a Model A Ford.
Continued from Front Page
Smallbone owned two Model As, which he drove until he no longer could get insurance or parts for them. After that, his transportation was a trusty old bike.
Smallbone was a member of the Fenton High School Class of 1931. Classmates found him to be somewhat odd, but normal and very smart, especially brilliant in math and science. Some refer to him as a genius.
In the ‘30s, Smallbone delivered Fenton Courier newspapers for the publishers, Claude Cohoon and his wife, Lena, who was a classmate of Joe. At the time of his death, she said,“We couldn’t have found a more dependable person.”
He lived with his mother, Nellie, a nurse, until her death in 1947. It was after this that Smallbone developed more eccentric attitudes, such as limited or little bathing. He dressed in black, and his face was soot-streaked from the wood-burning stove he used for heat. He had a distinctive, offensive aroma.
He also lived in an increasingly cluttered home with only a narrow path through it, tinkering with radios and televisions. He was an electronic whiz as far as these sets were concerned.
Smallbone was a ham radio operator, which may have helped him know what was happening all over town, a feat that amazed the locals.
A talk on the phone with Smallbone was a surprise. His voice was cultured and refined, and he was well informed on a vast number of topics. He lived in squalor, with rags as garments, but was not despised or ridiculed by the public.
In 1981, the late Nancy Stockham, purchased soap, towels and new clothes for Smallbone, so he could attend the 50th reunion of his class at the Fenton Community Center. He took a bath, looked presentable, and had a good time.
Even though his appearance was different, children weren’t afraid and didn’t make fun of him. Instead, they considered him a friend. He fixed flat tires on their bikes, gave them boards to use for building forts, and other small gifts.
Townspeople were very protective of Smallbone. They considered him as one of their own, despite his strange habits.
Locals gave him gifts of food, including his favorites, bananas and strawberries.
Smallbone was actually beloved by the community. Kids went to his house with parents when they took radios and TVs and noted a narrow path through the house from one end to the other.
While using an old hand plow, Smallbone cut his leg. He didn’t go to a doctor, but used leg balm from a local druggist and wrapped his leg. Later he placed a layer of tin over his leg to protect it.
At his funeral, Leo Weigant, the late Fenton mayor and historian, said,“In society today, there is no room for eccentrics. The fondness and care that we, as residents, felt for Joe remains a small mystery to all of us. His life was a success. He, more than anyone I know, created a feeling of fulfillment in town. We are richer because of his life.”
Stories about Joe Smallbone, the legend, abound. How about the fact that his ham radio was shut down during World War II, because the strong station was interfering with defense. Then there is the tale about him being called to Flint to repair a TV station. He was their lifesaver, put them back in operation and charged them a mere $50, plus mileage.
Everyone has a story about him, some true, some are rumors, but all make him a legend in his own time.
He loved Fenton and its people — and they loved him for his uniqueness.
Feb 14, 2013 · Reply

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