Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Smitleys: Giving Back to the Electric City

This blog post was written by library volunteer Diane Leone.

Among notable people of the past who made important contributions to the city of Schenectady are banker Joseph Whitmore Smitley and his wife, Jane Ellis Smitley.  Their generosity of spirit and civic-mindedness made life better for many residents.

Smitley home at 802 Union Street, 1910.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.

 
Born March 4, 1848 in Pittsburgh, Joseph Smitley worked for the Pullman Palace Car Company beginning in 1868, first in Pittsburgh and then in Philadelphia.  He was sent to New York City to help manage the company in 1886, resigning in 1891 to help organize the Union National Bank in Schenectady.  In 1907 he left that institution for the newly established Schenectady Trust Company, for which he eventually became the first vice-president. He lived in a stately home at the corner of Union Street and Nott Terrace at what was then 802 Union Street, which later become the rectory of the Church of St. John the Evangelist.

Mr. Smitley was well-known for his charitable works.  He served on the boards of many organizations, some of which he helped establish.  One of his primary philanthropic beneficiaries was Ellis Hospital.  He wanted to create a monument to his mother, Kiziah Whitmore Smitley.  As president of the Board of Managers at Ellis, he knew that there were no residences for nurses employed at the newly constructed institution. With his own money, he built the Whitmore Home for Nurses, which was furnished at the expense of his brother, John H. Smitley of Pittsburgh, who was also responsible for establishing an endowment to sustain the home. An article in The American Journal of Nursing (1907) paints an attractive picture of the facility:

The floors are all of hard wood beautifully supplied with oriental rugs.  The library and reception rooms are most attractive.  Mr. Smitley has also furnished for the nurses a complete collection of all the standard works as well as a selected reference library. . . The sleeping apartments are models of their kind, with a sufficient number of bath appliances.  We cannot but hope that the nursing work and nurses may find such friends as Mr. Smitley.  A more fitting memorial than “Whitmore House” would be hard to find.


While very altruistic, Mr. Smitley’s wealth allowed him to indulge a personal pastime – driving.  His garage, featured in a 1912 issue of The Horseless Age magazine, was considered “one of the best-equipped private garages for the care and repair of automobiles in the city, and the owner has spared no expense in making his garage most complete and modern in every detail.”
Mr. Smitley's garage courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Photograph Collection and can be seen in The Horseless Age.
Sharing Mr. Smitley’s benevolent  spirit was his second wife. Born in Rotterdam in 1835, Jane Ann Schermerhorn was the widow of John C. Ellis, the president of Schenectady Locomotive Works, who died in 1884.  Four years later, she married J. W. Smitley, whose first wife, Ida, had died in 1886.  The second Mrs. Smitley’s philanthropy took many forms, including improving the lives of the less fortunate.

Elmer Avenue School in December 1973.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library
 Photo Collection.

 
In 1905 she founded the Eastern Avenue School, later named the Elmer Avenue Neighborhood School (now closed) to educate the children of immigrants employed at GE and ALCO.  With funds that she obtained a few years earlier, Mrs. Smitley helped develop the surrounding area.  A former resident of Elmer Avenue who researched the street, expressed admiration for Mrs. Smitley in this Daily Gazette article of June 2016:


"She must have been an amazing woman. . . She had the first eight houses built on Elmer Avenue on spec, and it’s her name that’s on the original deeds. In 1903 that’s as far as the trolley went up, and those were the suburbs of Schenectady. She was from an old Dutch family, one of the first to arrive in Schenectady, and the Dutch really encouraged their women back then to be business women."



Postcard of the Home of the Friendless. Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photo Collection.
Founded in 1868, The Home for the Friendless, which cared for destitute women without relatives or friends to help them, found its new home through the efforts of Mrs. Smitley.  With her generous $25,000 donation, the home was relocated from Green Street in the Stockade to 1519 Union Street, where it opened in 1908 and still stands. Partly as a result of Mrs. Smitley’s urging to upgrade its image, the name of the facility was changed to the Old Ladies’ Home.  Since 1968, it has been known as The Heritage Home for Women.  Mrs. Smitley also provided assistance to organizations such as the Salvation Army, particularly during holidays.

Postcard of the Mohawk Golf Club.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle
Library Photo Collection.
Her husband was involved in much of her charity and civic-minded work.  As one-time president of the Old Ladies’ Home, he was instrumental in facilitating its move to Union Street.  The couple also helped secure a new location for the Mohawk Golf Club, located originally on Rosa Road.  Mr. Smitley’s farm on Troy Road--once the property of his wife’s late husband, John C. Ellis--was sold to the club, which opened at 1849 Union Street in 1903, and has become its permanent location.

Predeceasing her husband by fourteen years, Mrs. Smitley died in 1911.  In her will, she bequeathed a total of $85,000 (worth around $2,258,000 today) to several organizations: $25,000 to the Hospital Association of Schenectady (Ellis Hospital), $20,000 to both the Old Ladies’ Home and the Children’s Home of Schenectady, and $5,000 each to The Schenectady Free Public Library, the YMCA and the YWCA. As one obituary read, “Perhaps but few will ever know the scope of her private generosity, and the words of advice and good counsel and expressions of sympathy and comfort that have gladdened many a heart.” She is buried at Vale Cemetery with her first husband, John Ellis, and their two children, Mary Cochran (nee Ellis) and John Elmer Ellis.

In 1913, Mr. Smitley married Margaret Neal McFarlane.  When he died on November 30, 1925, he had been retired from his business life for fifteen years. The Schenectady Gazette noted his reputation as “Well read, highly cultured, genial and convivial,...greatly respected and beloved as a businessman and friend.” He is buried in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Cemetery, along with his first wife, Ida.  He was survived by his son, Robert.

Mr. and Mrs. Smitley’s imprint on Schenectady will long be felt.

Additional photos of the Smitley's residence can be seen below:











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