Eric Parkman Smith
35 Academy Lane

Age 90

Interviewed July 2, 1999

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.

Eric Parkman SmithThe Concord Public Library as always been a fascinating and delightful place. I went there a good deal as a small boy and I read a great many books. My grandfather was an original trustee. He was a young man in Concord when the library was founded and he was a friend of Mr. Munroe who made him an original trustee. A good deal of my interest probably came partly from that. I'm the only person now living who went to the celebration for the 50th anniversary of the library in 1923 at which my grandfather spoke. At least I think I'm only the person living. My grandfather's name was Henry Francis Smith. He lived in the house on the corner here which Mr. Munroe sold to him. He always assumed he sold it to him at a bargain rate because he liked him because he was a young man with six children. For many years the house was 61 Main Street, the number has recently been changed and all the old numbers are gone, so it's 169 Main Street now.

For many years during summer vacations when I didn't appear for luncheon the family would know where I was. They would call and ask the person who answered the phone at the library to tell me to come home for lunch. I've always been so interested in the library. When I entered high school in the fall of 1923, I discovered they had a bookcase of books which were reserved for students in the high school. I saw a book with a rather intriguing name called Sailing Alone Around the World, which I had never heard of so I immediately got it out and read it. It was written by a man named Joshua Slocum who actually was the first man ever to sail alone around the world. Part of my inspiration for interest was stimulated when I was going to school and my cousin David, who used to live in the house over here and now lives in Camden, Maine, was assigned the subject of Arctic exploration and to prepare a scrapbook. Well, he admitted to me afterward that his mother prepared most of the scrapbook which she did a terrific job. She put together a scrapbook on Admiral Peary's discovery of the North Pole. Well, I was more interested in it than I think he was. That was why I started reading all the books there were on Arctic exploration in the library in the basement at the rear of the stacks downstairs. Well, I've got a bookcase about the size of that fireplace filled with books that I have acquired over the years which I used to find in second-hand bookstores for $2.00 and $3.00. Now they want $100 a piece or something because the demand has grown and the number of books has diminished.

I remember the librarians. They were jewels + Sally Bartlett (Sarah Ripley Bartlett) who was the third of the librarians. The booklet tells who they are. The first was Miss Ellen Whitney (succeeded by her niece Helen Whitney Kelley). At the celebration of the 50th anniversary in 1923, all three of the ladies who had been librarians from the founding of the library were present. My grandfather was there as I think the only surviving original trustee at that point. He lived beyond his 95th year, and he was approaching 96 when he died.

Academy Lane was named for Thoreau Academy. It has nothing to do with Concord Academy which was not heard of until a good many years later. Academy Lane takes it name from Mr. Henry D. Thoreau's academy which he kept with his brother. When they put in Middle Street, they apparently tore down a part of Thoreau's Academy, and they moved the rest of it up on Middle Street and turned it into a double house, and it's still there. My uncle, Herbie Smith, lived there for many, many years and various other families lived there. There was a Mr. Williams who ran a newsstand at the railroad station, and he had a son named Newman Williams who was one of my contemporaries. This was a pleasant neighborhood. Up on Middle Street there was another fellow named Frank Bickford who we called Big Toe. He was a very pleasant fellow. His family moved in 1919 to Indianapolis and I've lost track of him. This neighborhood is a very convenient neighborhood in that you can walk to everything.

Academy Lane was originally known as Cross Street which is a somewhat more prosaic name. I don't know when it was changed to Academy Lane. I've seen it as Cross Street on some old maps. It was also almost Smithville. My folks who were Concord people and as many young people did, when they were married they lived in Boston or Cambridge, and then when I was born, they came back to Concord. My coming back to Concord I always get a boot out of it because I was about 30 days old. Mother had a relative in Brookline who was well supplied with this world's goods, so my first automobile ride was in her chauffeur-driven Packard twin 6 what brought me out and deposited me in the house over there which has been my home ever since -- 35 Academy Lane. It was 5 Academy Lane until very recently.

An interesting thing about the family is my Grandfather Smith grew up in Gloucester and his wife came from Hingham but somehow they settled in Concord and lived here the rest of their lives. There were six sons. William Lincoln Smith was a professor of engineering at Northeastern and was also the inspector of wires or something like that in Concord for a good many years. The next brother was Henry Francis Smith, Jr. who I called my Uncle Harry. He worked in Boston briefly but then came out to Concord and worked in the Middlesex Institution for Savings for nearly 50 years and for nearly 25 of them he was the treasurer, who in those days was the active head of the bank. The third brother, Benjamin Farnham Smith, was my father who worked for various banks in Boston. The fourth brother was Herbert D. Smith who lived in a double house up on Middle Street. The next brother was Theodore Lincoln Smith who grew up here in Concord and went to MIT and was an officer of the Gillette Company for many years. Before that he worked for the American Locomotive Company in Schenectady, Montreal and Richmond. One of the more amusing tales is that after he was working up here for the locomotive company, one of his Richmond friends came up to see him and they decided to go swimming. So the friend ran toward the water to take a dive into the water, and he took two steps in the water and somehow stopped before he fell down and got out of the water which he thought was going to freeze him to death. The youngest brother was George Hockland Smith who's name somewhat resembled that of a senator. He was known as Hock Smith and he went to the West Coast and married on the West Coast and most of his descendants still live there. The Smith descendants have always maintained a very close relationship. I originally had a total of 17 first cousins, but now I guess there are 5 of us left. I'm the oldest at this point. There was one girl who was older than I but she had her 90th birthday on the west coast and I and others went out there for that and had a very happy visit with her. But then she did not make 91.

A short distance away across town was another family named Blanchard. My grandfather there was Walter S. Blanchard. He came from Cambridge and married a Concord girl who's name was Helen Augusta Wheeler. Through the Wheeler side of the family, the line goes back to the early settlers of the town. George Wheeler came I think in 1637 and was one of the earliest settlers. For example, in West Concord at the Harvey Wheeler School, I was among the people who were invited as Wheeler descendants to make a pledge to help restore it which I did. Harvey Wheeler wasn't quite as closely related to me, but he was to some of the others such as Ruth Wheeler. Ruth's husband Caleb was quite closely related to me. Ruth you know had a mind of her own and there were those who found her would we say just a trifle difficult, but she treated me like a king. She and I always got on very well. She was always so kind to me. She helped me memorize the epitaph for example on John Jacks grave, "God willed us free, Man willed us slave, I will as God wills, God's will be done, Here lies the body of John Jack, a native African who died March 1760, aged about 60 years, though he was born in a land of slavery, he was born free, though he lived in a land of liberty, he lived a slave, killed by his honest though stolen labors, he acquired the source of slavery which gave him his freedom but not long before death, the grand tyrant gave him his final emancipation and placed him on a footing of kings. Though a slave to vice he practiced those virtues without which kings are but slaves." I never forgot it. Various times when I'd be walking around and Ruth was showing people around, she would ask me to recite it. I was always so pleased when she did. Her son, Joe, is a cousin. The Thoreau birthplace was owned by Wheelers before it was owned by Thoreau. Then afterwards Caleb and Ruth bought it back and lived there themselves for some time. Joe is now the head of the organization that is undertaking to restore the home place.

I started to tell you about the Blanchard family. Helen Augusta Wheeler married Walter S. Blanchard and they had four children. There was Herbert W. Blanchard. He was the original of the character of Gus in Louisa May Alcott's book Jack and Jill. Miss Alcott admitted that Gus was my uncle who was more prosperous than the others and kept close contact with his sisters and their children. He was always very nice. Jill, almost with positive identification, is the oldest of the Blanchard girls whose name was Grace Blanchard. Miss Alcott would never confirm that, but it was quite clear to everybody who read the book that Jill was Grace Blanchard. I've repeatedly told people that and I think I felt perfectly comfortable in doing it and that I wasn't lying. The interesting thing is the oldest Smith brother, William Lincoln Smith, who built the house that is diagonally across the street in 1904 married Grace Blanchard. His next youngest brother, Henry Francis Smith, Jr., married the second Blanchard girl whose name was Margaret. Then my father married the third Blanchard girl. So there were three brothers who married three sisters. There weren't any more Blanchard girls for the rest of the brothers to marry so they had to marry somebody else.

But somehow now the family has drifted away and we don't have much of any contact with the Blanchard cousins except the ones that are also Smith cousins. It is too bad and I've tried to keep contact with them but somehow the interests diverted.

The Orchard House was the home of Louisa May Alcott. Mrs. Lothrop Senior who wrote The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew preserved the house and kept it. Then when she got tired she somehow inspired the Concord Women's Club to organize this society and my Aunt Margaret and Uncle Harry got involved. Uncle Harry is one of the most faithful souls you've ever met in all your life. There were a number of tremendous things he did that nobody knew anything about to help people. I guess he kept a good portion of our family from starving to death during the depression because things were rough and Uncle Harry helped everybody.

Mother and her sisters knew Miss Alcott well. Father and mother weren't living in Concord when they formed the society but my Uncle Harry and Aunt Margaret were two of the leading factors in the establishment of the Louisa May Alcott Memorial Association in 1911. Margaret Lothrop had the house next door and ran that as a museum until I think she sold it to the National Park. The Alcotts also lived there for a number of years. Many of the stories in Little Women, which are autobiographical, I think actually occurred at the Wayside which we now think of more as the Hawthorne House rather than the Alcott House. Many of the stories and anecdotes were transferred to the Orchard House where the Alcotts had lived for about 20 years. Miss Alcott was somewhat older than mother and her sisters because she wrote the book in 1868 and my mother was born in 1869, but they were always very fond of Miss Alcott.

I've had a close association with the Orchard House. I was introduced to the Orchard House after father and mother came back. We always went to the Alcott Society meetings which in those days were held inside the Orchard House and you sat on the Alcott's furniture which is now forbidden as a crime against humanity or something. They always had stories about Miss Alcott. Miss Alcott and her family only lived in the Orchard House for about 20 years. Then she bought the house up here where Mrs. Thoreau ran the boarding house on Main Street that they call the Thoreau/Alcott House. Damn it all, you know they kept the upstairs room just the way it was when Thoreau died until very recently. Then one of the people who bought the house decided they better fix it up and make it look nicer so the original furnishings have been replaced, and the somewhat slightly dilapidated room was made into a modern room and they destroyed all the relics of Thoreau. Those of us who knew about it wept but there wasn't anything we could do about it.

I've been on the board of Alcott House for a very long time and I'm about to go off. Now they have a rule that you can only stay on the board for six years. There will be an annual meeting this month and at that point I will be out of the Alcott Society as a board member but still a member of the Society.

I worked in the railroad business in Boston at the old New Haven Railroad. I had a chance to go to Maine to work for another railroad and I took it. I worked 19 years for the old New Haven and I worked 29 years for the Maine Central Railroad in Portland. I was a statistician, then I was director of cross researching statistical analysis and eventually I was made Assistant Treasurer. Then for a year I was on the board of directors. Then the control of the company was purchased.

Eric Parkman SmithThe First Parish Church has been a strong part of my life and my family's. I've known all the people who have been ministers there since 1883, something over 100 years. Ezra Ripley was the minister there from 1778 to 1841, 63 years, which is quite a long time. There were people who knew him as an old man. He lived into this present century. So they could say they knew everybody who had been minister of the church. The first minister I knew was Benjamin Reynolds Bulkeley who became minister in 1883. When the place was founded the minister was John Jones and the teacher was Peter Bulkeley, then after a few years some of the people found it pretty difficult to make a living in Concord, and Jones and some others went down to Fairfield, Connecticut where they hopefully found their fields. I met somebody the other day who said he was married in John Jones's church. After John Jones left, Peter Bulkeley continued on as the minister and he is considered the oldest minister. There are five of his descendants who have been ministers of that church. I started going to The First Parish Church in 1915 and I suspect I've been going there longer than anybody else. I didn't actually get around to joining the church until later. I joined in the 1950s, but I've been going there since 1915.

The church became Unitarian in 1826 and that was when Ezra Ripley was the minister. Before 1826 it was a traditional congregational church but then some local people had some doubts of the validity of the doctrine of the trinity. This is a point of contention to this day, but the orthodox Christian church in the United States does not accept the Unitarians as Christians. We're non-Christians. Actually I suppose the Unitarian belief is probably closer to that to reform Judaism than it is to orthodox Christianity. The Unitarians do not approve at all of the idea of the trinity.

The Unitarian Church was the leading church in Concord because so many citizens of Concord followed Ezra Ripley into the Unitarian Church and that has to some degree carried on. When the Episcopal Church was first proposed here, some of the Unitarians were quoted as making statements the like of which their descendants wished they hadn't. There was one man when approached by an Episcopal minister saying he wanted to make an Episcopal chapel in Concord, the man said, "We left England to get away from you people." Which was true enough but was not exactly tactful. They didn't leave exactly, they were more or less kicked out.

Benjamin Reynolds Bulkeley came in 1883 and was a descendant of Peter Bulkeley whom we consider is the first minister. Privately he felt he never quite measured up to the standards of his distinguished ancestor. He was the first minister to ever leave the church to go somewhere else. Then after he retired in the 1920s, he came back and was appointed minister emeritus here. I remember him very well. After him came Loren B. McDonald who I also remember very well. He had three children, Gordon, Teddy and Edith. Edith was about my age. She went to Radcliffe about the time I went to Harvard. The McDonalds lived on Lowell Road and Mrs. McDonald ran sort of a tea room there. About the time Mr. McDonald died the Trinitarian Church burned. There was some talk of reunion of the two churches. Mr. Cleland was the minister of the Trinitarian Church and he was a nice guy and everybody liked him. My father was very much in favor of having the churches reunite, but it didn't go through. This was the middle 1920s. Then the Trinitarians got Harry B. Little to design that really beautiful church that they have now. Harry Little was a whale of a good architect. There were two houses in the town warrant this year to preserve as historical and the only thing about them was they were designed by Harry Little. Considering he was operating under tight financial constraints he did an extraordinary job of designing the church.

The next minister after Mr. McDonald was a Dutchman named Johannes Abraham Christopho Fagginger Auer. Which is some moniker. He had decided to study the ministry in Holland and he was going to go to Switzerland. Somebody said that he should go to the United States so he studied at the Meadville Theological School which was a Unitarian divinity school. He wrote a column of America as he saw it with the wooden sidewalks and the muddy streets when he was studying at Meadville. I helped him publish it and he gave me a copy of it which I have in my safe deposit box. He came to supply the pulpit temporarily after the Unitarian church became somewhat divided. Do you understand what I mean if I say somebody is a theist? Briefly defined, a theist is a person who believes in a deity who can hear an appeal and change in response to that appeal if he so chooses but would otherwise have been the course of events. The next form of religion came up was deism. Now most of the founding fathers, Washington, Jefferson, so forth, were deist. A deist believes in a deity who ruled the world through the laws of nature which can not be aside and will go on without affect. The Age of Reason was written by Tom Paine who was a deist. Deism was singularly unpopular in its early days, but Tom Paine was a deist and he became very unpopular because of his deism. He was in France trying to help with the French Revolution and he got thrown into the Bastille and was headed for guillotine but fortunately just at the right moment, Thomas Jefferson, who was another deist, was appointed American ambassador to France and got him out of jail. He did not get guillotined but while he expected it, he wrote The Age of Reason in jail and it's been published ever since. My father was a fairly earnest deist and wanted me to read things like Thomas Paine but he gave me Common Sense and other political things. He carefully steered me away from The Age of Reason. Thomas Paine was so unpopular that Theodore Roosevelt had been dead for 100 years described him as that stinking little atheist. Well, that was a dirty trick for Roosevelt to call him that. He was a deist. He was a profoundly religious person in accordance with his own lights.

The next development in general religious thinking came as a result of this man named Baruch Spinoza who was a Hollander and a member of a Hebrew congregation in Holland who was excommunicated because of his religious ideas. His ideas were pantheism, that nature and God are one. Then there were those in the Unitarian denomination who reached the conclusion that they weren't quite sure as to whether the deity did actually exist. Their position was that the only world you know anything about is this one and you might as well make the best of this and not worry about a future world. Well, that became known as the humanist position and there was a document written about 1923 or something like that which is still in print called The Humanist Manifesto, a good portion of which many present day humanists would accept as the basis for their religious thinking. Then there was The Humanist Manifesto II. Some of the people who signed the Humanist Manifesto I survived to sign The Humanist Manifesto II, but most of them had died before The Humanist Manifesto II came out. Well, Dr. Auer is one of the few people who was invited to sign The Humanist Manifesto I. Dr. Auer is the Concord connection. He oddly enough had a great and strong keen interest in Baruch Spinoza and his pantheism, so I sometimes wondered if Dr. Auer was as strong a humanist as he is sometimes given credit as being. He often spoke to me about Mr. Baruch Spinoza.

Mr. Daniels then succeeded Dr. Auer as minister. I got along very well with Mr. Daniels. There were those who did not. He was rather strong in his opinions. He was somewhat more conservative than Dr. Auer. He was here for about 25 years and then he retired. Then Arthur Jellis took over. Arthur Jellis made himself generally persona non He was a humanist and in many ways he was right in some of the things he said about the Vietnamese war but he was way ahead of his time. He opposed it and I guess most people did come to the conclusion that it was a mistake to have gone in there as we did. There was a friend of mine who had problems with Arthur Jellis and he would come to church and stay downstairs until after the sermon was over. Of course, Jellis knew that and I remember he commented that he didn't particularly like the fact that people came to church and waited until he got through preaching before they joined the congregation. He resigned recognizing that he had somehow more or less outlived his strongest welcome.

Then Dana Greeley came in. Dana Greeley was selected because he was such a widely known character that it was felt that he had the prestige to pull the church back together again which was somewhat split.

Everybody liked Dana Greeley. He was quite a guy in many respects. I never could find out whether exactly but I think he was a theist, but he tried to be sympathetic. He had a most extraordinary laugh which he talked about himself. He said, "Once he was in Vietnam and somebody came over to him and said I didn't know you were around and I heard you laugh, then I came over and I discovered you were here." Dana died in 1986, and then we had an interim minister, and now we have Gary Smith who has done an extraordinary and incredible job in building up the church. I remember years ago Mr. McDonald on his 25th anniversary preached a sermon in which he said how it was a great pleasure to be called to the church and how he came to the church and what a strong congregation he had inherited, then he looked and he realized that most of the people were elderly. This was 25 years later and those people have died and what with the coming of the automobile age I've not been able to replace them but I have done my best.

The congregation has changed. They sing traditional music which is primarily Trinitarian music. It's beautiful music but from the point of view of one who is not a Trinitarian you wish the words were different. I may be off base and out of line in that. I'm not entirely happy when they sing orthodox music. Boy, have I taken my hair down with you!

I think politically the congregation was once all Republicans and now they are all Democrats. Having been a Republican and I've become so disgusted with the right wing of the Republican party that I'm pretty near Democrat right now. The congregation is certainly more liberal than it once was. Certainly I have become more liberal. At the same time they have come out with a new hymn book. The hymns have mostly traditional words which I was used to and I like, and yet they have fouled up some of the hymns by putting in newer words. I kind of liked some of the old traditional words.

Text mounted 28 Jan. 2008; revised and images added 15 June 2013.