My Grandfather, My Hero

Other than my Dad, as I was growing up no one was a bigger hero to me than my maternal grandfather. A man of many skills, he raced bicycles, excelled at semi-pro baseball player, was recognize as a trained sharp shooter, worked wood like the professional that his father, grandfather and great grandfather were, loved playing piano, and earned his living as an engineer and surveyor. But I remember him best as the warm and loving grandfather who made wooden toys for me, took me quahogging and was a great model to emulate. This is what I remember of Elmer R. Smalley

The Smalleys, circa 1924, Pascoag Lake.

I loved that I shared a bit of a physical resemblance with him. It was said that a photo of Elmer as a boy of ten or twelve looked remarkably like me at that age. And I certainly inherited the rather stern look that one can see in numerous photos of him. The lone photo of his Scottish grandfather that I have closely resembles how I looked when I was in my forties and fifties, as it does my son, Dan, today (see, “It’s not all Irish, but it’s pretty close).

Elmer at 10 or 12.

My brother, Tom, took after Elmer in his passions for woodworking, baseball and shooting. For my part, I also pursued a love for sports and have been a lifelong cycling enthusiast, although never a racer. Neither of us got the engineering bug.

Beyond his love of sport, I am sure it was his curiosity of the world and the great affection that he showed me that had the greatest influence on me.

Elmer’s father & grandmother. Rockland Cemetery, Tarrytown, NY.

Elmer was born into a Yankee/Dutch/Scottish/Irish family in Jersey City, New Jersey, on the 16th of December, 1890. He descended from a long line of woodworkers. His father was a carpenter, as was his grandfather. Even his great grandfather made his living in lower Manhattan as a carpenter and turner. I suspect that working with wood was a family trade going back at least into the 18th century.

Family legend, according to his cousin, Arthur Smalley, was that our first Smalley ancestor came to this country in 1793 from England, and that because it was illegal to sail directly to the States, he came by way of Holland. This could easily fit in with the events of the time. England was at war with France. The English political class was threatened by the on-going French Revolution and its emphasis on the Rights of Man. The class that was most threatening to the English government was that to which the wood-working class belonged, the skilled workers and peti-bourgeoisie. The few people who left England at this time mostly came from that class.

Katie Lawson

Elmer’s mother, Katie Lawson, was the daughter of Alexander McDonald Lawson and Maggie Duffy (see the essay, “Seven Weeks Under Sail, A Personal Account”). As Elmer was to me, Alexander was to Elmer, his siblings and his cousins. Alexander was greatly looked up to and was a model for his descendants.

Within a very short period of time, and at the age of 13, both of Elmer’s parents died. The recent death of a great aunt had left Elmer and his brothers with $500 each. Family legend was always that Elmer’s older brother,

Lawson Smalley

Alexander, took the $2000 for himself. At any rate, Elmer soon moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where he lived with Aunt Lizzie. Lizzie was most likely the daughter of Maggie Duffy and adopted daughter of Alexander Lawson.

It was in Providence that Elmer pursued his passions for sports. In a discussion I had with his cousin in the 1970’s, Arthur recalled seeing Elmer as a ball player. He also called Elmer’s love of black shirts and black cigars. One day, while watching Elmer in a bicycle race, Arthur saw Elmer take a fall.

This Toulouse-Lautrec poster from about 1900 captures both the power and the danger of bicycle racing lik

The lamp of his bicycle fell into his spokes as he was racing. Elmer went over the handlebars.

Elmer was a power hitter. From the Providence Journal, August 26, 1912.
Elmer at City Hall 1909.
Elmer as a student at City Hall.

From 1908 to 1910, Elmer was a student in the city surveyor’s office in Providence, becoming a surveyor for the city in 1911. This was a career that he pursued throughout his professional life.

On the job.

Two years a, he married a beautiful Irish-American girl, Marcella Carson. As was common in those years, Marcella had gone to work as a teenager at the Wanskuck Mills, a textile factory.

Marcella early 1920’s.

A son, Elmer R., Jr., was born in 1914. A man as headstrong as his father, Bob, as he was known, went to sea when he reached the age of sixteen. Although Bob was a descendent of Yankees, Dutch, Scots and Irish, under the influence of his great-grandfather, Alexander, he identified himself as being a Scottish-American.

Bob Smalley sailed the world as a merchant marine officer.

Two daughters followed, Muriel, born in 1918 and Dorothy in

Muriel’s oldest child, Mike Lenihan, remembers seeing bowling trophies of Elmer’s, including one for a perfect score of three hundred. Mike also remembers Elmer taking “me to the police shooting range at the site of the old dump to coach me on shooting a rifle. I can even recall him telling to give your eyes a rest by looking at something green like a tree to improve your accuracy. But I didn’t make the connection to Master Gunner in a state military unit.” Growing up, there were sharpshooter medals in our house that Elmer had earned in the years leading up to World War One.

Elmer & Bob 1915.

Elmer did not serve in the first world war, but did continue to work as an engineer and surveyor for the city of Providence.

My earliest memory of Providence is when Elmer took me to Providence

Elmer, Bob & Muriel, early 1920’s.

City Hall and showed me maps of the city on which he had worked. I remember light blue ink on very large sheets of paper, wooden furniture and very large window. And through that window I saw a billboard for Knickerbocker Beer, with the knickerbocker dressed in the image of an early Dutch settler to New Amsterdam, home of the beer. I must have been seven or eight years old. Perhaps it was on that day that I fell in love with Providence.

City Hall in 1906.
The Interior of City Hall. I was (and still am) dazzled by the building.
Tools that Elmer used at City Hall.

Elmer and Marcella started going started going to Buttonwoods Beach in Warwick the 1920’s. Marcella, with her mother and siblings would spend the summer living in at a campground there.

Gramma Carson, Marcella & Teresa. Summer camp at Buttonwoods.

Elmer would arrive on weekends after working the week in Providence. Eventually, they built a cottage close to the beach.  I believe he built the house himself. I was also told that in that house was a beautiful table with decorative wood inserts and that the table was built by Elmer’s father, John Henry. Oh, to have those family heirlooms…,

Kids having fun at Buttonwoods.

Next door to their place was that of my Uncle Pete Osterman and Marcella’s sister, Teresa Carson Osterman. We kids had great times playing there with our Nichols and Lenihan cousins.

My sister, Barbara, remember Elmer as “actually two people in one.  There was the grandfather who would appear in the morning wearing a suit and properly starched shirt (Gram did the starching) and a firm expression of responsibility. Then there was the grandfather who would appear at the end of the day in a tan khaki long sleeve shirt and trousers with a much more relaxed face, which led me to feel he was more approachable at that hour.  Later I would learn it was all about his false teeth; firm jaw when in, soft cuddly face when out!”

Barbara, Mike, baby Ray and Martha, with Elmer and Marcella in Greenville. Elmer built that house, as well. It was used as a weekend house on a lake in Pascoag before moving it to Greenville.

We kids loved going to their house at 10 Belt Street in Warwick. Barbara’s memories include “fried tomatoes for breakfast after church, mystery rides in their large green car, playing Jacks on the front stair with (Elmer), making wooden toys in the basement for you (me) and a huge chalk board attached to the wall across from his work bench for us to draw on.” She also remember his lying in bed holding Tom as an infant (perhaps just before he was admitted to Walholm Lake Hospital) and finally, waving to him high up in his room in the hospital and then he was gone.”

My own memories include those wooden toys he made for me. He had quite a collection of tools, including, I am quite sure, ones that had been his father’s and grandfather’s. Shortly after Elmer’s death, Dad went to the house to retrieve the tools, but someone had been there first and the tools were gone.

One of my best memories of “Barkins,” as Barbara and I called him, was his picking me up after religious school in the summer. He had a beautiful Pontiac from the late 1940’s. The color was green with tan coloring inside. He would play the radio oh so low.  It was such great fun to ride with him in that very large and comfortable car.

But my favorite memory, the one I relate the most often, is of sitting at nighttime on Barkins and Gramma’s “piazza.” It was fashionable in those days to call screened in porches “piazzas.” We would sit there after dinner, as the sun was going down. They would listen to music on their radio (set in a huge wooden cabinet), again at very low volume. I would sit or lay on “Barkins’ lap. I remember the comfort of his big belly. And because I had a propensity to talk (somethings never change), he had a steady supply of carrots to feed me to quiet me down.

I wish there were more stories that I could remember.

Later, when Elmer was dying in isolation at aWalholm Lake Hospital, Mike visited him and saw him through a glass wall. Elmer had tears in his eyes. He was not ready to leave the family, nor was the family ready to lose him.

Yet, he lives on in our memories and in traits of his descendants. That picture of Elmer as a young boy, I saw the same face in my daughter, Margaret, as a young girl.

(Originally published February 22, 2015).

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