MEMORIES OF SMETHPORT
BY JOHN W. BAKER Of Skaneateles, NY
(son of John and Betsy Baker)
Letter written to Russell ??? regarding Old Home Week in Smethport, PA.
Date unknown, but probably written in the 1930’s-1940’s.
John Baker lived in Smethport in the 1880’s and early 1890’s.
Old- home Week! Sounding the clarion call for the return of old-timers to the old stamping grounds is good news. It intrigues me. What an opportunity such an event will afford those who long ago drifted away from Smethport to come back for a day or a week to greet old friends, to again trod once familiar grounds, to swap yarns if you please. I hope the efforts of the Legionaires who are sponsoring the movement for an Old-Home Week celebration are successful, and somehow I feel they will be.
Some of the old land-marks so dear to many of us are gone. Likewise are so many of these we knew and loved so well. Indeed the human toll is almost beyond belief. I am reminded of this fact by a recent communication to the Democrat from Rose Knapp. In referring to an old picture of Smethport Hose Company taken some 50 years ago and recording the names of those in the picture, it is revealed that not one of that group is now living. But the memory of those with whom we mingled and those things so intimately associated with the environs, is still fresh and sweet.
Yes, sir, Time does bring about many changes , but the impressions of youth are unchangeable.
So I shall always remember the old town as I knew it some fifty-odd years ago. This of course, was long before Smethport had gone modern.
Then, there were no paved streets; just everyday dirt roads, messy in Spring and Fall and dusty in Summer. Indeed, there was little call for hard roads, for “Doc” Pierce had not yet brought out his
“high wheel”. No electric lights , no telephones. Of course there were no automobiles, airplanes, radios and such contraptions, although even at that time an old fellow up Potato Creek was working on what he termed a
“flying machine”. Every one thought the old fellow ( I forget his name) crazy when he attempted to fly off the roof of his barn in a curious looking thing which he had constructed. The ‘flight’ ended in a crash, of course, but the experience did not quench the fire of his imagination for this dreamer continued to experiment with the principals of flying as long as he lived. I guess after all the old fellow wasn’t nearly as crazy as some of his critics. We got water from springs or wells, for the water works system was not yet under way. We took our weekly baths in the family wash tub or the old swimming hole , depending somewhat on the season.
Sounds rather primitive to you youngsters brought up under modern civilization , doesn’t it? Well, those were primitive days. And yet I am sure there was more life and action in Smethport then than is today with all the frills of modernity . With numerous lumbering jobs going on in the nearby forests and the vast amount of teaming in hauling logs in winter and bark in summer, the two saw mills, the extract works, not forgetting the Douglass grist mill (which in season also was a cider mill and how old Charlie did guard that cider !), there was no unemployment problems then to contend with. No, Sir. The problem was to get men enough for the jobs.
Then came the boon period, starting in 1880 with the building of the Court House, Grand Central, Pickard House, Rockwell house and other buildings , including the Hittridge Opera House , The water system was put through that year, I think, serving portions of Main and Water streets. Later the system was extended to cover the hill streets down to McCoy’s corner, and to “Brooklyn”. The following years the B. B & K narrow gauge railroad was completed and for several years excellent service, passenger and freight, was maintained between Bradford and Smethport with two round trips daily for passenger trains from each end of the line. Running out of Smethport, Frank Richmond was conductor and “Snappy Tyler” was at the throttle of the diminutive locomotive, which was about the size of a 10-ton truck. “Billie” Walsh was the station master, ticket agent and telegraph operator. In his spare moments “Billie” did some hunting and fishing.
Bradford, Duke Center, Rixford, Coleville, were “boom” towns, and each boasted for a brief time, thousands of inhabitants. There was great activity throughout the oil regions of the county and that meant much legal work which brought many people to the County Seat. The Court House ( and I might add , the jail too when Ross Sartwell was sheriff) was a hive of life and activity. On court weeks when civil and criminal cases were on the docket it was frequently necessary to run special trains to accommodate the vast throngs of people who came to Smethport to attend the sessions. Many people came out of sheer curiosity or the joy of listening in on a battle between the legal lights, especially if a murder case was on, which was not infrequently.
In such occasions there were always three outstanding personalities of the bar invariably pitted against each other – Mortimer F. Elliott, the little giant of Wellsboro, gentle and genteel, scholarly, eloquent , on the one side, and Richard, or perhaps best known as “Dick” Cotter of Eldred, none the less picturesque or eloquent, on the other side. But it could not be said that “Dick” was always gentle. Or it might be T. F. or as he was called then ,”Tim” Mullin of Bradford on the other side. What “Tim” lacked in eloquence and gentleness he made up in Irish wit and bully. The repartee between these noted criminal lawyers and their pleadings before a jury, were something that one could never quite forget.
Oh, yes, times have changed. Perhaps that is the reason we like to turn back the pages and revive old memories.
By all means put through the Old Home Week idea. And to make the celebration of even greater interest why not get together a collection of old pictures of persons and things and put them on display for the edification of all the old-timers.
School Days: Wonder what Prof. Farmer would say if he were to come back to earth and walk in the present High School building with the proposed modern improvements and equipment, its spacious auditorium and gymnasium soon to be undertaken? He’d let out an awful ‘woof’, I’ll bet.
Not many of those now living in Smethport will remember the old “Prof” but those who do, no doubt have reason to, for he left his ‘imprint’ in many places. He was a big fellow, powerful, massive, yet he glided about with the silence of a cat. And oh, boy, what a hand . They grew them big in the 80’s, you know.
In those days discipline was looked upon in many cases as of more important to the life of the school than the three R’s. To maintain discipline it was often necessary to resort to so-called brute force. Maybe that was the main reason for the Prof’s coming as principal of the Smethport schools, for it must be admitted that he was a disciplinarian, and how!
You see some of the principals that preceded Professor Farmer had been timid souls, meat for the “bad boys” who came to school not so much to learn as to raise hob with the teachers. Now the boys met a man they could not so easily handle – a man they couldn’t bluff. Things were different . It required only few ‘examples’ to prove the problem. The Prof. Was boss. Some of the ‘scholars’ who did not like the new order of things, left school. Others continued on and accepted the situation without resentment, or at least outward manifestation of resentment. Thus ended the ‘reign of terror’ that had gone on in the schools at intervals for years.
Now, as I look back on those school days I am impressed by the fact that Prof. Farmer was a rare personality, combining all the qualities of sternness, yet he was kind and even gentle, to a marked degree. Like all great and good men he had a hobby. His was the study of Latin . The Latin class always ‘recited’ in the main room and the face of the old Prof. would fairly beam with an expression of supreme joy whenever he was expounding Caesar. And woe to the boy who didn’t behave during this sacred period.
While his mind was ever intent upon the class before him, his eyes had a habit of peeping from behind his Latin book to see what was going on in the room. If he happened to spy a ‘cut-up’ at work, as was sometime the case, the Prof. would silently, but surely find his way to the offender, take him by the nape of the neck, drag him down the aisle and sit him firmly on the front seat. There was no interruption of the class during such a scene. Usually the ‘culprit’ was dismissed with the class, without further humiliation. Sometimes, however, it was to the ‘paddle house’ for him. And then, oh my!
The members of the Latin class that I recall included Rena Richmond, ( the Lady of the Lake) Ella Freman, Ina and Edna Bush, Alma Brennan, Jennie Haskell, Lee Knapp, Henry Brennan, Charley Sterritt, Mert Gallup.
Remember when every body went nerts over jig-saw puzzles, miniature golf, or maybe it was mahjong or cross word puzzles? It was sort of a craze that seized every one with the urge to do the same thing at the same time, a fad,as we say.
Well, fads are nothing new. Every generation has its own experience with this peculiar epidemic of mass psychology which for a time seem to sweep the country and hold the people within its magic spell.
Smethport, like every other town, has had its portion of ‘fads’. It may be news to some of the readers of the Democrat to know that when the roller skating fad struck the country back there in the early 80’s that the good folks of this staid old town got the jitters and virtually lost their heads over this thing which had suddenly come upon the town. Yes sir, roller skating was the thing! That’s why 3 rinks flourished here for a season or two.
One rink built especially for the purpose, was located on or near the corner of Main, Church and Water streets and occupied three-quarters of the block in depth. The floor space was about 100 x 300 feet, probably the biggest and finest floor in the county. The rink was conducted by Frank Brooks.
Another rink was conducted by “Chet” King, who dismantled his billiard room in what was later known later as the Hamlin building to make way for the more popular pastimes, roller skating.
And C. F. Kittridge, not to be outdone in popular fancy, converted the Opera House into a rink. It was here that the older set, the more sedate and cautious ones, took their first lessons and also their first bumps, in the fine art of roller skating. But as it was one of the period of modified hoop skirts and bustles, there were no fatalities. On occasion the faces did get red when there was a ‘spill’ that exposed legs and flounces not so common to the public eye then as now, you see.
Yes, every generation has its fads and its follies. WHAT NEXT?
Transcribed by Ella Mae Holmes Peters and submitted by her daughter, Rebecca Baker Hill July 2002. John was a great uncle to Rebecca, a brother of her grandfather Frank Sherman Baker.
We had this story of Smethport's history given to us by the descendants of John W. Baker. Mom retyped it and I did a little editing. Uncle John recounts the Smethport of the 1880's. He was a newspaper publisher and in various towns and I think, always remembered his youth in Smethport although not many of his family stayed there. My grandfather, Frank Sherman Baker (his brother), did come back to the area and lived in Eldred, Pa., dying there in the 1930's.