Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: Like many people, Frederick Smyth was once 'worth nothing'
One of the most admired of Manchester's historical figures is Frederick Smyth (1819-1899) who rose up from humble origins to become one of the city's most prosperous and prominent citizens.
He was three times City Clerk and four times Mayor of Manchester. He served a term in the state Legislature and was elected Governor of New Hampshire twice. He was a leader on various commissions and was influential in several benevolent efforts to improve public welfare. He was a founder of the Manchester City Library and of the Reform School (now the Sununu Youth Services Center). He traveled widely throughout the United States and abroad, always observing with keen interest the culture and commerce of the places he visited.
He was an astute businessman, a published writer and an amateur archeologist.
His spectacular mansion, "The Willows," built on a bluff overlooking Amoskeag Falls, is still remembered by many today, even though it faced destruction in 1969.
Frederick Smyth was born in 1819 in Candia, New Hampshire, which he once described as a "rough, stony place." As a child he worked on his family's hardscrabble farm, and attended local schools only in the winter. When he was 16, he worked in the Middlesex Mills in Lowell, Massachusetts, and later in a hotel in that city. He then taught school in Auburn and Hooksett, New Hampshire before returning to Candia to work in a local store.
While there, he saved enough money to afford one semester at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He enjoyed the experience and decided he would save money to go onto college, so he walked from Auburn to Manchester to look for work. Here he met George Parker, who owned a grocery and dry goods store on the new main street, Elm Street. Smyth agreed to work for one year as a store clerk, for a total of $125 in compensation.
This was 1839. The new commercial center of Manchester had just sprung into existence, and there were only four or five buildings on Elm Street. The first textile mill had just started operating in the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company's new millyard, and a second was under construction. Irish laborers were toiling to finish the two granite-lined canals that would power more mills, and the earliest boarding houses had been built on Stark Street. The availability of ready work in manufacturing, construction and other trades attracted hundreds of newcomers. Parker's store, and a handful of similar establishments, prospered financially and became important centers of social and political activity.
In 1883, Frederick Smyth was interviewed for a study of labor and capital commissioned by the United States Senate. When asked about his early life in Manchester he described, "I used to get up early in the morning and work until 11 o'clock at night, on the average, and sometimes till 12.I had only $4.50 when I came here, and had no relatives nor anybody on earth to help me. I had a certificate from my minister, saying that I was a 'pretty clever boy,' as he put it."
By the end of his one-year contract with Parker, Smyth had saved $120 of his $125 pay. How did he manage? Smyth explained, "Now, how did I get my clothes? I clothed myself. I mended my own stockings; my employer used to give me a pair of socks sometimes. We had no new clothes as boys had nowadays. During the whole year that I was first in this place I never paid a dollar for a carriage, nor did anybody else; spent no money for cigars; no money for rum; we had no amusements, no holidays. I never heard of such thing as a vacation for ten years. That is the way we grew up here - by constant labor, day after day."
Smyth said that most of the people who came to Manchester during this era were as poor and hard working as he was. He explained, "The first year I came here I did not know a single resident of Manchester who was worth $2,000. There might have been one, but I think they were all like me, worth nothing. We came here with only our hands and heads." '
Next week: More about Frederick Smyth's early life in Manchester.
Aurore Eaton is executive director, Manchester Historic Association; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.