Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Edward Smith Made It Big in Little Rhody

After leaving his native Ireland in his teens, Edward Smith spent the rest of his life in Rhode Island, the smallest state in the Union and affectionately called  by inhabitants “Little Rhody.”  Smith would find significant success there both in business and in politics.  In other words,  he made it big in Little Rhody.

Shown here about age 55, Smith was born in May 1842 in County Monaghan, Ireland.  He was the third son of Edward and Mary (Conlin) Smith.  Unlike most Irish immigrants, he came from a relatively wealthy family.  A biographer described his parentage at length:  “His father was a well-to-do farmer and tilled the same soil that his ancestors had cultivated for many generations before him. He was famed for his love of good horses, of which he had many fine specimens, was a man of fine physique, standing nearly 6 feet tall in height, broad shouldered and muscular, and was beloved by those who knew him for his sterling honesty and gentle disposition.”

Edward attended the local Irish schools until he was 15 and then left to work on his father’s farm. Two years of agricultural work and the likely recognition that his older brothers would inherit the land impelled him to seek a different life.   In 1859 at the age of 17 he arrived in Pawtucket,  Rhode Island.  His first few years were spent working in the engraving department of a calico print works in nearby East Greenwich.  He then apprenticed and learned the trade of a currier, someone that tans hides for a living.

By this time Smith had secured sufficient financial security to think about marriage.  In 1863 he wed Ann Helen Fullen of Pawtucket, a woman four years older than he.   They proved to have a stable marriage and sired four children, all boys, Edward S., born 1864; William F., 1866;  John P., 1869, and Joseph H., 1874.

After spending six years in the tanning trade,  Smith had saved sufficient funds to open a  grocery store in partnership with another Irishman named Tierney.  it was located at 68 Water Street in Pawtucket.  Operating as “Tierney & Smith,” the grocery, according a contemporary account, was from the start “the center of a very large and influential trade, both wholesale and retail.”  Its customer base extended throughout Rhode Island and into Massachusetts.


The partnership continued until 1877 when Smith bought out his partner.  He kept the original headquarters and opened a second store in downtown Pawtucket at 13 and 15 Main Street, the avenue shown here. The new outlet operated under the name “Edward Smith, Importer and Wholesale Dealer in Wines and Liquors.”   The Main Street premises were large and allowed Smith to accommodate the storage of a number of foreign and domestic wines, brandy and cognac,  and a wide range of liquors.  He stocked many local and imported beers and was the agent for the Frank Jones Brewing Company of Rhode Island and John R. Alley Ales and Porters. 

Smith’s most important spirits offerings were whiskeys.  According to accounts, he received shipments from both Pennsylvania and Kentucky.  Some he sold under distiller labels.  Other whiskeys he blended in his own facilities and put his label on them.  Smith’s Bourbon Whiskey was merchandised as “bottled expressly for family and medicinal use.”  It was sold in embossed quart glass bottles and flasks, as shown here.  But Smith also fancied putting his whiskey in jugs.  Particularly interesting is one that includes a horseshoe, a symbol of good luck.  It was made by F. T. Wright & Sons pottery of Taunton, Massachusetts.  While other Smith jugs lack illustrations, their simplicity of shape and design also is appealing.

Although a token for 25 cents off the purchase of five bottles is the only Smith giveaway I have found, Smith was gaining recognition as a successful and wealthy businessman.  Over time he was accounted a major stockholder in the Meadville Distilling Co., of Pennsylvania, probably to help insure himself a steady supply of whiskey.  After serving as an agent for the Alley Brewing Company, he also became an owner and director.  Smith worked with the fellow-Irishman John Magullion (see my post of September 2012) to found the American Brewing Company of Boston.


Meanwhile Smith also was pursuing a career in politics. One biographer claimed he had been a politician “from his youth up,”  having an active political career even before leaving Ireland.  From the time he became a citizen, he was an ardent member of the Democratic Party.  When Pawtucket was chartered as a Rhode Island city Smith was the first alderman elected from its Second Ward. He held the office for six consecutive years,1886 to 1892, and was elected president of the aldermanic board in 1890. In that post, according to a biographer, he “served as such with great satisfaction to his colleagues and credit to himself.”  He subsequently was elected alderman for a term in 1894.  Smith also was a delegate to the National Democratic Convention that  in 1884 nominated Grover  Cleveland for President. 


Smith may have ended his political career in 1894 because of tragedies that struck his family.  In December, 1895,  his eldest son, Edward,  died, at the age of 31. The following year his youngest son, Joseph, also succumbed, age 22.  The 1900 census found  Edward and his wife, Anne,  living in Pawtucket with two adult sons,  William, now 33, and John, 31.  Both had been groomed by their father for work in the whiskey business.  John, shown here in 1897, identified himself as a partner in the firm.  He clearly is a young dandy but a contemporary biography validated John’s business status, asserting “by his energy and ability has demonstrated his right to leadership.”

The rest of the story remains untold.  My research has not uncovered the fate of the Edward Smith Company as Prohibition loomed or even where Edward may be buried.  The Smith name is so common as to rule out usual avenues of searching for his descendants. As a final word about this resourceful Irishman, a quote from a Pawtucket biographer seems appropriate:  “Mr. Smith is...well-known to the citizens of this city, and has been the recipient of their confidence and esteem.” 

Note:  In addition to census material, the information for this post comes from two books: “Illustrated History of Pawtucket, Central Falls and Vicinity”  by Henry R. Caulfield, 1897, and “Industries and Wealth of the Principal Points in Rhode Island,”  A. F. Parsons Publishing Co., 1892.








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