Friday, November 8, 2013

Bicycles and bigamy: the colorful life of Hezekiah Smith

New Jersey's 19th century industrial history seems loaded with stories of quirky people who built communities around their factories. Such was the story of Eastampton's Hezekiah Smith.

Part inventor, part manufacturer, Smith came to New Jersey in 1865 from New Hampshire, seeking to start an ideal company town. He found a fertile site at Shreveville, Burlington County, a former cotton spinning and weaving factory town that had gone belly up, its water-powered mills rendered obsolete by the introduction of the steam engine. Seeing a good deal, Smith purchased 45 acres of the property from the Shreve family for $20,000. Within 10 years, he'd incorporated the H.B. Smith Machine Company and created housing and amenities to accommodate 250 people. The new community of Smithville included housing, a school and stores in addition to a foundry and factories to manufacture tools and woodworking machinery. Resident workers could enjoy a number of civic and cultural events and resources around town.

Smith must have been a fair employer and a well-regarded member of the community, albeit a bit unconventional. In 1878 he won a seat in Congress after campaigning on a carriage pulled by a moose.

Wisely seeking to diversify the business, Smith cast about looking for additional industries to tackle. On the advice of Smith Machine board member J.J. White (of cranberry fame), he entered into a licensing agreement with Hammonton native G.W. Pressey, who'd recently patented a revolutionary adaptation to the high-wheel bicycle. It literally turned cycling in the opposite direction, with a ratchet drive that put the larger wheel in the back and delegated the smaller front wheel to steering. The arrangement was said to provide greater stability, a selling point Smith later advertised by paying a demonstrator to ride the bike down the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

Suddenly, cycling was the focus at Smith Machine, where the newly-formed American Star Bicycle Company perfected Pressey's design and modified the factory to make the new product. Smithville became New Jersey's Bicycle Town as orders poured in for the cycles. Meanwhile, employees enjoyed an innovative new way to get to work. Arthur Hotchkiss developed the world's first bicycle railroad between Smithville and Mount Holly, where many Smith workers lived. The 1.8 mile system was essentially a monorail, with the bicycles hanging from a rail suspended about four feet above the ground. Given the lack of paved roads at the time, the system probably gave a much smoother ride than they would have had by traditional means.

Several hundred of the Pressey-inspired bicycles were made before production halted in 1886, but Smith continued to develop new transportation technologies until his death. Besides innovations in standard bicycles, he invented a steam-powered version (motocycle), roller skates and even a helicopter. It's also said that he invented a steam-driven wagon but deemed it too modern for contemporary tastes.

Smith's story, so far, is one of a driven businessman who built a prosperous community and likely helped improve the lives of many. Perhaps the moose and Capitol stunts indicate a bit of showmanship, but not so much as to be quirky, as I described him in the opening words of our story. What, then, could warrant calling him quirky?

Maybe the best way to start is to note the brevity of his Congressional career: just a single two-year term. It seems that as soon as Mr. Smith went to Washington, ghosts of his past came to haunt him, a scandal that would warrant tabloid headlines even today.

Smithville residents knew his wife to be Agnes Gilkerson Smith, the woman who'd moved to New Jersey with him from New England. Some might have even known that Smith had funded Agnes' education at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, but likely very few if any were aware that Smith had also sent her to a finishing school before that, having met her when she worked in a mill in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Agnes was, in fact, Smith's second wife, and he'd never bothered to legally divorce the first one. He'd met Eveline English in Vermont, and it's not clear whether the pair had ever actually married; some accounts say he'd brought up the idea to her parents a few times but never quite got around to arranging a ceremony. When he decided to seek his fortune in New Hampshire, he took Eveline along, and three months later their first child was born. About a year later, Eveline moved back to Vermont, and the couple never lived together again, though they had three more children over the following seven years. In that time, Smith moved to Massachusetts to open a machine shop.

Smith's relationship with the Vermont family eventually deteriorated to the point where it was based mostly on financial dependency; the timing suggests his meeting Agnes played a big role there. When she returned to Lowell from Philadelphia, the pair began living together, much to the disapproval of their neighbors. They were shunned and excluded from social functions, making life in town pretty miserable. The best option, it seemed, was to start a new life elsewhere. Shreveville, in South Jersey, must have looked ideal: it was far enough away that no-one would know Smith's past, and there was sufficient room to build an entire industrial community.

Before leaving for New Jersey, Smith made one last visit to Eveline, this time to demand a divorce. She refused outright. Lacking her permission to take the legal route, he devised his own very creative approach to severing the relationship. If he couldn't get the papers proving they were divorced, he'd expunge all evidence they'd ever been together. He burned every letter she'd ever written him and then went to her sister's house to cut every reference to their marriage and children out of her family's Bible. Whether it was to buy her silence or out of common decency, he signed the family house over to Eveline and opened a bank account for her in her maiden name. Then he was off to New Jersey.

Smith's bigamy might have stayed a secret forever had he not run for national office, but within two weeks of his election, the word was out. Newspapers carried interviews with Eveline and some of their children, and despite the overwhelming evidence, Smith chose to simply deny everything. The hubbub over the discovery eventually dissipated, but his constituents declined to return him to Washington in 1880.

Then again, voters might have been more forgiving than the election results indicate. Some historians have noted that his Democratic party affiliation could have foretold his defeat in a year when the Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives. And three years later, he was elected to a single term in the New Jersey Senate.


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