Saturday, July 24, 2010

William Smyth: Abolitionist, Education Reformer & Amateur Architect

William Smyth in an undated photo. From the Pejepscot Historical Society, acc# OH 1969.a.

William Smyth seems like one of the busiest people in Brunswick. Smyth had many pet causes which he felt passionately about, and has left a lasting mark on many of Brunswick’s institutions, such as the school system, Bowdoin College and the First Parish Church.

Smyth’s biographers consistently refer to his childhood as a difficult one. He was born on either the 1st or 2nd of February in 1797 (his grave cites the 2nd, but several other sources say it was the 1st), in Pittston, Maine. While he was still young, Smyth’s family moved to Wiscasset, where his father worked as a ship carpenter and Smyth befriended a young Alpheus Spring Packard. To help support his poor family, Smyth joined the army and served in the War of 1812 as a quartermaster-sergeant in a regiment stationed near the mouth of the Kennebec River. By 1815 he had lost both of his parents, and was left to support his brother and sister by teaching at Wiscasset schools and later at Gorham Academy.

Possessing a thirst for knowledge, Smyth entered Bowdoin College as a member of the junior class in 1820. He suffered from poor eyesight, so roommates and friends would read Smyth’s assignments to him each night. Nevertheless, Smyth overcame his relative poverty—he often ate just bread & water to save money—and eye problems to graduate at the head of his class in 1822. After graduation Smyth taught for a few years before returning to his alma mater as Greek tutor. In 1825 he gained an assistant professorship in both mathematics and natural philosophy. He would later become a full professor of both subjects. William Smyth is credited with introducing the blackboard to Bowdoin College, an innovation which caused students who had already taken his algebra course to (voluntarily!) re-enroll and repeat the subject. Smyth married Harriet Porter Coffin in 1827 and lived in the Smyth-Packard House for over 40 years with his lifelong friend, Alpheus S. Packard.

The Smyth-Packard House at 6-8 College Street, William Smyth's home for over 40 years. Smyth also used his home to hide slaves escaping to Canada. From the Pejepscot Historical Society, acc# 1978.10.a.

If he were alive today, William Smyth would certainly be considered an activist. He was a charter member of Brunswick’s Temperance Society, but is perhaps most celebrated for his abolitionist views. He helped found the state’s first antislavery society in 1834, and later served on the Board of Managers for the American Anti-Slavery Society. In March 1838, Smyth served as the first editor of The Advocate of Freedom, an abolitionist newspaper published in Brunswick. That same year he served as a delegate at the meeting of the Maine Anti-Slavery Society in Augusta. One biography states that Smyth “never swerved, -no, not for an hour,- from his allegiance to the cause of human freedom and the rights of man” (Wheeler & Wheeler, 806). Smyth’s home even served as a stop on the Underground Railroad for escaping slaves headed to Canada.

Smyth also has an interesting tie to most famous abolitionist to ever live in Brunswick. Harriet Beecher Stowe, wife of a newly hired Bowdoin professor, arrived in Bath with her children on May 25, 1850. As Stowe reports in this letter to her husband, Prof. William Smyth was supposed to met her in Bath and escort her to her Brunswick lodgings:

“Proff Smith had written that he should be at the landing to wait on me to the cars—It was a drenching running rain & fog when the boat stopped. Proff Smyth was there umbrella in hand waiting in anxious expectation he says—but I also waited on board the boat hoping to hear somebody enquire for me—I waited till all the baggage was taken out & seeing or hearing no one I went on shore & took a hack & was driven up to the [street] cars took my ticket saw my baggage put in & then waited patiently for the cars to go off—Meanwhile Mr. Smith after rambling over the boat in search of me came to the cars in despair to go back to Brunswick…He went into the front car—I & the children into the back & in fifteen minutes we were in Bath—I wondered when I got there that nobody came to the cars to look for me—he got out [in Brunswick] quite disappointed & walked up to Mrs. Upham’s who had her breakfast table all waiting announced the [grim?] fact that I was not coming & then directly on the heels of this while he & Mrs. Upham were wondering over their coffee what could have become of me I came bad & baggage to the door—What way did you come was the astonished cry—From Bath says I quite cool—Impossible says Proff Smyth how could you have got there you were certainly not on the Bath boat—But indeed I was says I--& then such a laugh as Mrs Upham & Mary & Susan railed on the poor Professor—it has been a standing joke ever since—he laughs and shakes his sides talks about it incessantly himself—begs nobody will mention it to him—for it hurts his feelings to have it alluded to—What was the matter yet remains a mystery—I am quite sure that I stood a long time in a very conspicuous situation with my children drawn up before me--& he is sure that he came on board—looked every where & did not see me.” (Harriet Beecher Stowe, quoted in Calhoun, 151-152).

Perhaps in an effort to atone for the misunderstanding, Smyth helped plant a garden and found a cow for Stowe.

Brunswick's first high school, completed in 1851. Note that there are separate entrances for boys (on the right) and girls (on the left). From the Pejepscot Historical Society, acc# OH 2119.c.

Smyth was also a passionate advocate of educational reform. Before Smyth led the charge, Brunswick’s school system was actually three completely separate districts where students of all ages and intellectual abilities learned together. It was Smyth who pushed for the town’s school system to be unified, and called for the graded separation of pupils into a primary, elementary and high school. Involved in the town school committee for 17 years, Smyth also designed the first Brunswick high school, which stood where Hawthorne School, at the corner of Federal & Green Streets, is today. This, along with his tireless efforts on behalf of the town’s schools, earned him the title “Father of the Brunswick High School.”

The First Parish Church, aka "The Church on the Hill", showing the spire which Smyth designed. The spire only lasted from 1845 to 1866, when it was blown off in a windstorm. From the Pejepscot Historical Society, acc# 2008.382.2.b.

Smyth’s role in the building of the first Brunswick high school was his first experience with erecting a major Brunswick edifice. On February 15, 1845, it was Smyth who made the motion to build a new Congregational church. Smyth, “working like a galley slave”, served as the construction manager and kept constant correspondence with the building’s architect Richard Upjohn (Tenney, 1). Upjohn, who also designed New York City’s Trinity Church, never came to see the church while it was being built. After the First Parish Church building was completed, it was Smyth who drew the plans for a spire which was added in 1848.

Bowdoin College's Memorial Hall, circa 1890. The building is now more commonly known as Pickard Theater and is the summer home of the Maine State Music Theater. From the Pejepscot Historical Society, acc# 1978.10.l.

But William Smyth’s was not quite done as a builder & designer. On September 1, 1865, the Brunswick Telegraph reported that Smyth was seeking donations for a new Bowdoin College building, to be dedicated alumni who fought in the Civil War. Over the next 3 years, Smyth managed to raise an impressive $20,000 (about $320,000 today) for the new building, Memorial Hall, while only charging the college $4.17 for his travel expenses. Smyth also had a role in the design in the building—he wanted an architect to design the exterior while he was responsible for the interior. Surviving correspondence suggests that Smyth was a rather difficult person to work with.

William Smyth's monument. The Smyth family plot in Pine Grove Cemetery is located just past the Chamberlain family plot, on the right.

The Memorial Hall project would prove to be Smyth’s last. He spent the morning of the day he died overseeing the laying of the building’s foundation, but suffered an apparent heart attack and died at his home around 2:30 PM on April 4, 1868. His obituary reports that Smyth had repeatedly stated that “he desired no other inscription upon his tombstone than the simple words—‘The friend of the Children’” (Tenney, 1).

Ashby, Thompson Eldridge. A History of the First Parish Church in Brunswick, Maine. Brunswick: J.H. French and Son, 1969.
Calhoun, Charles C. A Small College in Maine: Two Hundred Years of Bowdoin. Brunswick: Bowdoin College, 1993.
Cheetham, Mark. Facts and Legends Concerning the Underground Railroad in Topsham and Brunswick Maine website.
Cleaveland, Nehemiah. History of Bowdoin College, with Biographical Sketches of its Graduates. Boston: James Ripley Osgood & Company, 1882.
General Catalogue of Bowdoin College and the Medical School of Maine, 1794-1912. Brunswick: Bowdoin College, 1912.
Hatch, Louis C. The History of Bowdoin College. Portland, Maine: Loring, Short & Harmon, 1927.
“Memorial Hall”. Brunswick Telegraph. 1 September 1865.
Tenney, A.G. “Prof. William Smyth, D.D.” Brunswick Telegraph. 10 April 1868.
Wheeler, George Augustus & Henry Warren. History of Brunswick, Topsham, and Harpswell, Maine, Including the Ancient Territory Known as Pejepscot. Boston: Alfred Mudge & Son, 1878.

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