Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: Frederick Smyth makes great strides as mayor
In an 1883 interview, Smyth described the early downtown as "a perfect sandbank.It was such poor soil that it immediately dried up after a rain. Elm Street was so deep with sand that the girls who worked in the Stark mills, as they crossed Elm Street and got to the store steps, would sit down and take their shoes off and turn the sand out of their shoes." As he related in 1883, once he became mayor he ".thought it a good thing to plant trees, but the majority of the people said that it was a foolish thing.They said it was all nonsense." No one believed that trees could grow in the poor soil. But Smyth had a theory - that the trees would survive because they would be fertilized by the horse manure and other animal droppings that littered the roadways.
In 1852 the city council authorized the planting of trees on Elm Street and on city land, with the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company providing the seedlings. In the next few years trees were planted on the side streets and in the parks. Smyth's theory was proven correct, and the city turned green. He personally supervised the plantings while he was mayor, and continued his interest in Manchester's treescape for the rest of his life.
By the 1840s the dream of a free public library was shared by many. In 1844 a group of prosperous men got together to form the Manchester Atheneum, a private organization with a lending library, reading room and museum. This organization had started as a small literary club operating out of Porter's store on Elm Street, with the young Frederick Smyth as librarian. The Atheneum received donations from the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company and other corporations. Anyone could join for $3 per year, but this was a steep sum to pay for many people.
In his second inaugural address, in 1853, Smyth expressed that perhaps it was time the city consider establishing a free public library. He stated, "The advantages of such an institution will not be denied, nor need they be enumerated."
In his next inaugural address in 1854 he went into more specifics, "I can hardly conceive of a more judicious outlay of money, than that.to expend in sustaining a free public library and reading-room, which shall be open to all, subject to good and wholesome restraints.An institution of this kind, established on a proper basis, would undoubtedly secure liberal donations from public-spirited individuals."
The proprietors of the Manchester Atheneum took the lead in this effort. They turned over their private collection of 3,000 books and other assets to the city, and in turn the city agreed to appropriate $1,000 per year for the purchase of books and periodicals, and to otherwise fund the operations of a public library. This historic agreement was signed on September 6, 1854. As Smyth recollected in 1883, ".one of the proudest things in my life is that I had something to do with (the library's) establishment. It has gone on increasing and developing, and every man, woman, and child in Manchester can go to that library and find a work on almost any subject, and can have the benefit of it for nothing. A young man can come here and work in a factory, and get as good an education as some men that come out of college."
Next week: Frederick Smyth, Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.
Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.