Interest in kin gave curator start

Editor’s Note: The following story appeared in the Monday, May 5, 1969 edition of The Evening Sun, profiling longtime Chenango County Historian Mae Smith, who passed away this summer at the age of 87. Her family asked that we share it with current Evening Sun readers in tribute.

By Marge Chase

“I love Chenango County and I would feel the same way about it even if all my ancestors were not so entrenched in its early history. This is where I belong.”

Mrs. Mae Smith, Chenango County Historian and curator of the Chenango County Historical Society’s museum on Rexford Street, emphasized this point as she talked about her interest in history.

She admits she always has been interested in history but became more so when she started looking up her family history. It all came about when she wrote an article for a Syracuse newspaper in 1963 about her father, the late Willard Lewis. Material for the article came from reading his diaries and old letters.

Her ancestors were lumbermen and cut a good share of the virgin timber in the Norwich area. The lumber for the old red mill on Pleasant Street and for the former Chapman and Turner Building downtown was cut by her ancestors.

Mrs. Smith worked in the Chenango and Unadilla Telephone office in the billing department after graduation from high school until after her marriage.

She says she has always enjoyed meeting people and especially enjoys escorting school children through the museum.

In her travels around the county, she has met many interesting people. The late Shirley Risley, a gunsmith who lived near Earlville, has told her many stories about the famous Nine Mile Swamp.

Ben Medbury, an avid hunter, also provided a great deal of local history. She feels there are many historical gems still to be uncovered here.

Her biggest project in the early days of her historical work was on the Civil War Contennial. Her grandfather was in the Civil War but the family never knew where his regiment was stationed or where it was engaged in battle.

In spending over a year in the research, Mrs. Smith finally traced down the activities of her grandfather. It was during this search that she met Mrs. Albert Phillips, and her late husband, both vitally interested in historical work.

It was Mrs. Guy Barr and Mrs. Leonard Braddock of the DAR who asked her to set up an exhibit at the museum during the period that Richard Devine was president of the historical society.

She became curator in 1963. Her duties are to record articles that are brought in and give each a number which is also written in a special book along with a description of the article where it came from and who donated it.

“Once you start studying history and branch out you soon find that you are interesed in other than your own family”, Mrs. Smith said.

People didn’t seem to realize, she said, that the history of Chenango County is just as important and would be just as colorful if the same amount of glamor was injected into it as has been done with the settling of the west.

History is exciting, she said, urging people to keep diaries. Often she said, one line in a diary may be the key which unlocks a whole chain of events later, or it may solve a question that has plagued a searcher for months or years.

“Family history means a great deal,” she said.

“Keep a record of it now, don’t wait until your grandparents and your parents are gone.”

She found in her searching that seven generations of her family ae all buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery.

Mrs. Smith is also an artist and has studied under Frederick Shaw, Robert Ward and Mrs. Audrey Coon. Her paintings chiefly are of buildings, mostly historical sites and pictures of her birthplace, her father’s home and other family homes.

She said she doesn’t have the time to do much with her painting anymore but wants to get back to it some day.

A painting of the courthouse which hangs on her living room wall is beautiful as is the one of her father’s birthplace, on the Springvale road.

She and her husband recently purchased her father’s farm.

The wife of Harold Smith, farm machinery dealer and antique car buff, she also is the mother of a daughter, Sarah, now Mrs. Robert Corey who has recently joined her husband in Frankfort, Germany, and a son, Richard, who is a seventh grader.

She is a member of the Captain John Harris Chapter DAR, the Chenango County Historians Association.

She also is a member of the Woods Corners Home Bureau. She likes to sew and thinks nothing of making drapes for her home. She has even looked up patterns for drapes to coincide with the historical period of the architecture of her home.

Some people are destined to make history, but Mrs. Smith prefers, in her quiet but determined way to record it and save it for posterity. This trait is vital to the needs of a country.

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