Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Frederick Smyth prospers as a wise merchant
During 1839 and into 1840 Frederick Smyth toiled diligently seven days a week at George Porter's store on Elm Street, which sold "general merchandise, groceries, dry goods, hardware, cooking utensils, and all the various knickknacks of a usual country store."
This description is from the book "Sketches of the Life and Public Services of Frederick Smyth," published in 1885. The biographers went on to explain that "The place laid the foundation for an acquaintance with men, the workingmen, the real bone and sinew of the growing place, which our young man was not slow to profit by, and which was of great use to him in after years."
Smyth had planned to attend college at the end of his twelve-month contract, but this was not to be. Porter was pleased with Smyth's work, and saw that he had the potential to become a successful merchant. He persuaded Smyth to stay on for another year, and offered him a substantial raise in pay. Porter pointed out that his store brought him and his family an excellent income, while his brother, a college-educated lawyer who had practiced his profession for several years, had yet to make any money.
Smyth would stay on for three more years as a clerk in the bustling store, learning the business from the ground up. George Porter then sold the store to his brother John Porter and to Smyth, and the firm changed its name to Porter & Smyth. Smyth continued in the business with different partners over the years, under the names Smyth & Childs, and Smyth & Little. According to Smyth's biography, ". Mr. Smyth became widely known in Manchester and its vicinity as thoroughly reliable. Quick in thought and prompt in action, he was always ready to state his lowest price, and to conclude a bargain without any unnecessary loss of time. The most humble mill operative received the same courteous attention, and was offered goods on as favorable rates, as the well-to-do manager of a large corporation."
Smyth had abandoned his ambition to attend college, but he still yearned for an education. During the time he worked for his second employer, John Porter, a small club was founded in town to encourage reading. The group subscribed to several periodicals that featured poetry, fiction, essays and news of the day. These included the North American Review, the Southern Literary Messenger and the Knickerbocker Magazine. The periodicals were kept in John Porter's office over the store. Smyth was very pleased to be appointed librarian, as this gave him the opportunity to expand his intellectual horizon in whatever spare time he could find.
In December 1844, Frederick Smyth married his childhood friend, Emily Lane. Born in 1822, she was the daughter of John Lane, a prominent citizen of Smyth's home town, Candia. John Lane was a justice of the peace, a land a surveyor and a state representative. Emily was a dignified, scholarly and graceful young lady. She was well-educated, and had taught school in Candia, Chester and Manchester. The newly married couple moved into their new house on Central Street, west of Chestnut Street.
All was well with Frederick Smyth until 1847, when a financial panic broke out. The Smyth & Little store was stocked with goods purchased from Boston merchants on credit, and the store's customers could not pay for the items they had already bought. Smyth traveled to Boston to meet with the store's creditors. He laid out the facts to them in a straightforward manner, and made such a good impression that they extended him additional credit and allowed him to buy whatever he needed to continue running the store. Smyth made good on his promises to fully pay the store's debts, eventually paying back every cent, both principal and interest.
Smyth could easily have stayed on as a successful merchant but, according to his biography, ".active political life had charms for him." In 1849 he was chosen as City Clerk of Manchester, which would prove to be the beginning of a brilliant political career. Frederick Smyth sold his share of the store to his partner T. W. Little and never looked back.
Next week: Smyth's mayoral accomplishments.
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org