THE IRON GRAVE
Click on Anything in Color to View
Image or Photo
Hezekiah Smith had a varied and successful career prior to his arrival in Shrevesville. He was born the youngest of six children in Bridgeton, Vermont on July 24, 1816. Within a year his father had purchased a sixty-acre farm in nearby Woodstock, and it was there that he grew up. He enjoyed his childhood on the farm; attending school, helping with chores and assisting his father at the tannery he operated to supplement the family income. At the age of 15, Hezekiah was apprenticed to a carpenter in a nearby village where he learned the trade that would lead to so much success in his later life. The years passed quickly and he returned home six years later as a skilled tradesman, quickly prospering by specializing in the production of window sashes, blinds and doors. When Hezekiah was 27 years old he met a young tailoress six years his younger by the name of Eveline English. They began dating, and soon became an "item" in the community, rarely seen apart. Hezekiah even mentioned marriage to her family, but he never seemed quite ready to propose. By 1845, he was bored with his life and became convinced he could improve upon the woodworking machinery he used in his trade. To do so he needed to leave the sleepy village of Woodstock and venture out in the growing industrial culture of New England. In the Spring of the following year, Hezekiah announced his intention to finally leave, and as almost an afterthought, to take Eveline with him with the intention to marry her. In fact, the English family thought this was an excellent idea, as Eveline was six months pregnant at the time.
Hezekiah and Eveline moved to Manchester, New Hampshire, where he took a job as a machinist to help gain the necessary experience to design woodworking machinery. Their first child, Ella, was born in July, but theirs' was not your usual marriage. A year after his arrival, Hezekiah opened his own machine shop, and Eveline moved back home to Vermont. No one is sure of the reason, but their parting was amiable. Although they would never again live together, Hezekiah would often write and visited enough over the next seven years to produce three more children. He also made sure to provide financial support for them.
In 1849, at the age of 32, Hezekiah was granted his first patent for a mortising machine used in the manufacturing of blinds. He soon moved to Boston to market his new invention, which proved enormously popular with the blind industry. His profit potential was limited, however, because he had to subcontract the work out to various foundries and machine shops, so, as he continued to design new machines, he began searching for a suitable location to build them. In 1851, he was granted five new patents and opened his new machine shop in the industrial mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts.
It was during his time in Lowell that a chance meeting would change the direction of Hezekiah Smith's life. Where exactly he first crossed paths with Agnes Gilkerson is unknown, but the sixteen-year-old had left her job in the mills by 1853 to work in his office as a clerk. After working there for a few years, Agnes, financed by Hezekiah, returned to school in Lowell to improve her skills. She graduated in 1858 and applied to attend the Penn Medical University in Philadelphia. She was accepted and Hezekiah accompanied his "cousin" (as he introduced her) to the City of Brotherly Love to arrange her tuition and lodging.
Hezekiah remained in Lowell during these years awaiting the return of Agnes. In 1861 she graduated, and if they had carried on any pretense of hiding their relationship, it was soon abandoned. Agnes moved in with Hezekiah and began to practice medicine in town. Their relationship, of course, was totally unacceptable to Lowell society, and they were forced to keep to themselves, uninvited and unwanted at any social functions. By 1865, Hezekiah's company had outgrown his Lowell workshop, and he had an idea to solve both his production problems as well as the couple's personal problem. Instead of enlarging his shop or renting additional space in Lowell, he decided to move far away from the disapproving people of New England and build an ideal mill community where he and Agnes could start over and be accepted as husband and wife. Of course there was on problem, Hezekiah's legal wife, Eveline.
By this time Hezekiah's relationship with Eveline had deteriorated,
and was primarily a financial one. His letters to her were short and
basically concerned with money, and he had ceased visiting her or the
family in Vermont. Their oldest child was 19, their youngest was 12
and their first-born son, Elton, was already working in Lowell for
his father. In the fall Hezekiah came home for one last visit and
demanded a divorce. Eveline refused, so he decided to seek his own
version of a separation and settlement. He destroyed all his letters
to her that he could find and signed their house over to her in her
maiden name. He then deposited a year's worth of wages in the bank,
also in Eveline's maiden name, and headed for his sister's home where
the family Bible was kept. It was there that Hezekiah performed his
cruelest act towards his family by actually cutting out all entries
pertaining to his marriage and the births of his children. With this
accomplished, he headed back to Lowell and married Agnes in a private
ceremony. With the knowledge that he could be arrested for bigamy
should he ever return, Hezekiah never again stepped foot in Vermont.
Within a few weeks he and Agnes were on their way to New Jersey.
WHAT PROFITS A MAN IF HE SHOULD GAIN THE WHOLE WORLD AND LOSE HIS SOUL
When Hezekiah Smith arrived in Shrevesville, he found a scene of utter desolation. His first order of business was to change the town's name. Never known for his modesty, the name "Smithville" sounded right to Hezekiah. Next, local laborers and workers brought from Lowell readied the mansion for occupancy. It would serve as the dining and living quarters for both the Smiths and the workers until the employee homes could be renovated. With that accomplished, the machine shops and the foundry needed to be totally rebuilt, and the dam and raceways, which provided the power for them, had to be renovated.
One of the first casualties of early Smithville was Hezekiah's son, Elton. Elton had begun working for his father in Lowell at the age of 14, and his relationship with Agnes was naturally strained from the beginning. With Hezekiah and Agnes striving to be recognized as husband and wife in their new home, Elton presented an impediment by his mere presence. Elton refused to not call his father, "father", and that led to difficult questions, especially since Agnes could not possibly be his mother with an age difference of only about ten years between them. Finally, Hezekiah was forced to make a choice, and that choice would prove to be unforgivable; he drove his son from Smithville with just the clothes on his back. For Elton this exile was especially pointed, since by following his father to New Jersey, he had been renounced by his family in Vermont. Now he would need to make his was in the world alone, without family or friends. Elton would never again speak to his father.
By 1869, Smithville had become a major manufacturer of woodworking
machinery. It was now time for Hezekiah and Agnes to turn their
attention to their primary goal, the development of a model
industrial village community. Smithville would stand in sharp
contrast to the dirty and poor industrial cities and towns that
existed in Europe and were forming in America in places like Lowell,
their former home. In Smithville, workers would be paid a decent
wage, and would be provided with all the necessities for the body and
soul. The Smiths built large homes for worker families and provided
healthy food at reasonable prices. They also built a school for the
young children, and arranged to train the older ones so they could
make a decent living. Debate clubs, dances, concerts and games were
arranged, and Hezekiah even started his own military brass band,
hiring a bandmaster to both lead the band and instruct villagers in
the musical arts. Eventually the H.B. Smith Military Band would be
recognized as one of the best in the state, and even performed in
concert halls in Philadelphia.
During the 1870's the H.B. Smith Machine Company and Smithville reached their zenith. Hezekiah became a public phenomenom in South Jersey and was a constant subject of stories and items in the local newspapers. Although he must have known it was in his and Agnes' best interest to keep a low profile, it just was not his nature. Perhaps it was inevitable that his ego combined with his popularity and wealth would lead him into the world or politics. It would be a decision he would live to regret.
In 1876, Hezekiah Smith was nominated by the Democratic Party to run for the United States Congress as a representative of the second district of New Jersey. He lost in a tight race, and immediately made plans to run again in two years. Hezekiah had learned from his mistakes, and in the election of 1878 he was a more polished and prepared candidate. He also learned to never leave Smithville to campaign without his brass band leading the way. If the citizens did not like him or what he had to say, at least they would at least enjoy the music, and Hezekiah was guaranteed a huge crowd whenever he made a speech. This time Hezekiah won by a comfortable margin.
Whatever jubilation Hezekiah and Agnes Smith felt following the election was quickly displaced by sorrow and embarrassment. Two weeks after the votes were counted, every major newspaper was carrying the story of the bigamist congressman from New Jersey, including interviews with Eveline Smith, neighbors from Vermont and Massachusetts, and Smith's children. Despite the overwhelming evidence, Hezekiah's strategy was simple; deny everything. From the iron steps leading to an attachment to the mansion at Smithville, Smith proclaimed his innocence. He released a statement to the newspaper stating:
"I have never married Verona Eveline English, never pretended or gave her any reason to think she was my wife, never lived with her in any such relation and have every reason to believe I am not nor never was a father."
Due to Hezekiah's repeated denials, and Eveline's refusal to prosecute, the story died down in a few months, but the damage was done. Hezekiah's and Agnes' relationship with both each other and the community was forever changed. He would never again regain his unparalleled popularity, and she would never again be completely accepted as his wife.
Hezekiah proved an able if undistinguished congressional representative, but the magic was gone and he was defeated for reelection in 1880. This loss would seem trivial to him in a few months when his beloved Agnes became ill and died on January 26, 1881, at the age of 43. Hezekiah's first reaction to her death was stunned disbelief, followed by severe depression. It had been his plan upon his death for Agnes to start a mechanics' college for young men so they could learn a craft and be trained properly in it. He intended for her to use the profits from the H.B. Smith Machine Company to finance it. This had been a shared dream of the couple, and Hezekiah was determined to see it happen. He changed his will to form a Board of Trustees to build and run his and Agnes' school upon his death.
Another project would come along to help Hezekiah get back to work after Agnes' death, one that was highly unusual for Smithville, bicycles. The Star Bicycle was developed and built in Smithville in 1881, and Hezekiah busied himself with its production and marketing. The Star differed from conventional bicycles by having the larger wheel at the rear, where rider sat, and the smaller wheel up front. This allowed for greater control especially when traveling downhill. To illustrate this, Hezekiah hired a professional rider to successfully ride a Star bicycle down the steps of the United States Capital in front of dozens of photographers and reporters. Hezekiah also arranged for races all over the country that the Star would often win. Both the marketing and the design proved successful, and the Star was another moneymaker for the H.B Smith Machine Company. Years later the bicycle would lead to another fascinating phase of Smithville's history when the first Bicycle Railroad was built connecting Mount Holly and Smithville. Although it opened with great fanfare and success, and a few railroads were sold, it quickly fell into disuse and was closed after a few years. The Star Bicycle and the Bicycle Railroad gave Smithville its nickname for many years, "The Bicycle Town." This helped to distinguish it from the Smithville in Atlantic County (now "Historic Smithville").
In the 1880's, as Hezekiah was approaching 70, his behavior was becoming more eccentric. Although he still oversaw the village and dabbled in politics, he also began to collect wild animals for his private zoo in the mansion's courtyard. He became determined to harness one of his moose and train it to pull his coach, and he finally succeeded much to the terror of his neighbors. More and more he confined himself to the mansion and gardens. In 1885, a full sized statue in the likeness of Agnes arrived from Italy that he had mounted as a shrine to her in one of the gardens. Around this time Hezekiah also invited six young ladies to stay at the mansion, and rumors circulated that they were servants, students or his harem. They would often join him in the garden, along with the violinist he kept on staff, for music and conversation. His health would continue to deteriorate, and on November 3, 1887, the great Hezekiah Bradley Smith died of pneumonia at the age of 71.