A Man Of All Times: Memories of Edward Ashley Smith

Donna J. McCalla, President, Hebron Historical Society

“Hebron” can only be defined through the people and events that have shaped our destiny over the last 300 years.

No definition is complete without including Edward Ashley Smith, although where to begin his story is difficult. Smith was a church deacon and community leader, the town’s Tax Collector for nine years, the town’s Tax Assessor for 18 years, a member of the Hebron Board of Education from 1919 until 1941, a State Legislator for two terms, and a man who always put family and God first. He was devoted to the preservation of the Burrows Hill Schoolhouse, the oldest one-room schoolhouse still in existence in Hebron today. Edward was a poet who always kept a small notepad in his farmer’s pocket, ready to capture his thoughts in iambic pentameter even while plowing his fields or milking his cows. In sheer volume, no Hebron poet can match E.A. Smith’s record, and his family still has his original poetry, written on any scrap of paper he could find to capture his thoughts.

A book could easily be written about E. A. Smith’s life. Born in 1887, Edward was the son of Edwin and Ella Smith; his grandmother was Elizabeth Coates, who documented Hebron’s Great Fire of 1882. Edward was always a serious child. In 1900, at age12, Edward began keeping a daily journal of his day’s activities. Each day begins with a description of the weather, something very important to farmers in the 1900’s, and includes the day’s farming activities.

On May 16, 1900, Edward wrote: “The girls went to school. My eyes are bad again. Edna and I went to Turnerville with the butter.” The Turnerville Depot had become a major source of transportation for Hebron farm produce by 1900; Smith’s diary confirms this. However, something had gone wrong with young Edward’s eyes; by 1902, he could no longer attend school because of the eye problem. On October 2 of that year, he wrote his mother, who was visiting relatives in Springfield, Massachusetts: “[Papa and I] just got through milking, and I have got washed and my hair combed. It is about 8:00… When do you think that I can begin studying again? It doesn’t seem to me as if it could very soon.” Fortunately, by 1905 Edward’s eye problem had been resolved, and he was ecstatic to be able to attend the “Select School” at the Hebron Town Hall.

Edward and his younger sister, Florence (who ultimately became a highly recognized educator; the Florence E. Smith School of Science, Math and Technology in West Hartford is named after her) attended Bacon Academy in Colchester. Ed and Florence were lucky; in good weather, they could hitch up the team of horses and drive the family wagon to Colchester because they lived in the south side of Hebron. In bad weather, they, like Annie Hutchinson from the Gilead side of town, would board with a Colchester family. Nothing came before school in the Smith family.

Edward developed a passion for poetry and clocks, and in 1918 married Annie Belle Palmer. Lucius Robinson (Don Robinson’s father) was their best man; sister Florence was Maid of Honor. The Smiths had three children, Bradford, Edwin and Marie. Ultimately, Marie married Albert Barnes Billard, and their son, Roger, went to live with Edward and Annie at the age of 16. Because chores started at 5:00 in the morning, and Roger was helping his grandfather, it was just easier for him to live with his grandparents.

Roger has many fond memories of Edward, including the Sunday morning cow milking. “After that, we would go to church, followed by the Men’s Fellowship Breakfast. Then we’d come home, and milk the cows again. Cows had to be milked twice a day.”

“I remember driving the tractor while Granddad sprayed the apple trees. We picked the apples in the fall and sold apples and cider at the homestead. We also sold the apples wholesale in Willimantic and Manchester. We’d pick up the dropped apples and drive to Enfield to sell them at the cider mill. But Granddad’s real love was his egg business. In the 40’s and 50’s, he’d take the back seat out of his big old Buick and fill it to the brim with eggs. Then he’d drive to Hartford and deliver his eggs to his regular customers, picking up their orders for the following week.” Eventually, the chicken and egg business was not profitable, and Edward decided to sell out. “Nonetheless, Granddad was a ‘people person’ and he didn’t want to let his Hartford customers down, so after he sold the chicken business, he’d drive to the egg auction in Willimantic, near where the Wal-Mart is today, and buy eggs wholesale. Then he’d drive to Hartford and sell these eggs to his customers,” says Roger.

Daughter Marie remembers her dad’s special “clock room,” located in the basement of the stately pillared home on Burrows Hill Road. “Dad blocked off one end of that main basement with apple crates, and then began to build a room. My mother never knew; she thought it was still filled with apples! But Dad was bringing in all kinds of things, a sofa from Hartford, dishes, linens, a table… he wanted a room to call his own, a room for his clocks and a room for his Men’s Fellowship Meetings.”

Longtime Amston resident Charles Wallace came to know Edward through the Congregational Church’s annual auctions. Ed’s theme was, “From my attic to your attic!” One year, Chuck was chairman of the annual auction, and someone donated a water heater. “It took several of us and a pickup truck to go get the water heater. Afterwards, Ed asked us over to his ‘office.’ It was considered an honor to be invited to Ed’s.” Once the men got to the Smith home, they went down to the basement office. Ed told the group, “Can I get you some refreshment? I have soda, I have cider, and I have cider that is a little spoiled, but it still tastes good.” Chuck said, “Spoiled cider has to taste like vinegar!” Someone nudged Chuck and whispered, “You REALLY want to try the spoiled cider…” Chuck remembers today: “That was the closest thing to Apple Jack you could ever drink!” Annie Palmer Smith would never allow alcohol in her home, and it’s not known today if she knew “spoiled cider” was being served in her home!

Son Bradford became the family historian. But it was his son, Edward Bradford Smith, who reproduced all of his grandfather’s poems in 1975, as well as memories of family members after Edward’s death in 1968 at the age of 80.

Edward’s wife, Annie, remembered that on their 50 th wedding anniversary, “We celebrated our Golden Anniversary at the Congregational Church in Hebron. Many friends and relatives gathered and we had a good time. Edward brought the long suit coat which he had been married in fifty years before and had some pictures taken of him in it. He could still fit in his wedding clothes fifty years later. I could not wear my wedding dress, alas!” Annie joined her husband in heaven in 1985.

Literally any longtime Hebron resident who knew Edward today characterizes him as “generous” and “optimistic.” Elaine Wallace remembers him as an “extraordinary man, a patriarch of the community.”

And so he was. Edward Ashley Smith is yet another example of someone who has made Hebron “Hebron.”

The Hebron Historical Society thanks the Smith-Billard family for loaning us Edward Smith’s journals, letters and poetry, which have now been digitally scanned for future generations.