A Life: Sidney Smith Was the Unofficial Mayor of Topsham

  • Sidney Smith hauls milk cans from a Topsham-area farm to a creamery in Bradford, Vt. Smith started a trucking company when he was 20 in 1958 and hauled milk for 7 years. He died last month at 78. Courtesy photo Courtesy photograph

  • Sidney Smith sits in his excavator in an undated photograph. Smith was a longtime town official in Topsham, including 36 years as road commissioner, and often used his own construction equipment. He died last month at 78. Courtesy photo

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/8/2016 12:15:08 AM
Modified: 8/8/2016 12:15:08 AM
East Topsham — Sidney Smith might have been the unofficial mayor of Topsham.

Officially, there is no such job, but during his life, Smith held so many positions of consequence in Topsham that there was almost no aspect of town governance he wasn’t familiar with. Road commissioner from 1965 to 2001; selectman from 1974 to 2001; and town service officer from 1991 to 2001.

He was considered so indispensable that once, his wife Mary Smith said, he came back from driving a milk run to learn that — without having volunteered to stand, and in his absence — he’d been elected at Town Meeting to be a lister, a job he held from 1963 to 1966.

Smith, who died at age 78 on July 9 at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center from complications arising from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, was raised with a formidable work ethic that he carried with him throughout his life.

One of eight sons, Smith was born in 1938 to Marjorie and Fred Smith, and grew up on the family farm on Willey Hill Road in East Topsham. He went to a two-room schoolhouse in East Topsham. But when he was 13, he left school.

“The family said, you need to come back and work on the farm,” said Steve Smith, the oldest of Sidney and Mary’s three sons.

Fred Smith was in poor health for much of his life, partially a result of having been exposed to mustard gas when he was a soldier in World War I. So, Sidney, along with his brothers, helped care for the family’s dairy herd and the work horses they used for sugaring.

“He loved work horses, but he was not a cow lover,” said Scott Smith, Sidney and Mary’s second son.

While he did everything he was asked to do on the family farm, he was not in love with farming, his family said. What Smith really loved was driving, and equipment: plows, tractors and trucks. He started his own business, Sidney Smith Trucking, in 1958 and hauled milk for seven years to a creamery in Bradford before shifting into construction work.

He laid foundations for people’s houses and the local church, dug out ponds, septic fields, water lines for wells, built driveways and worked on roads in Topsham and other Upper Valley towns. In a sense, he made Topsham what it is now. And he accomplished all of this while also working as road commissioner for the town.

His sense of civic duty was always strong. “He felt he had to be the one to answer the calls,” said Mary Smith.

“All the complaints came in to him,” said Fred Smith, Sidney and Mary’s youngest son.

Any plans to go on an outing would be postponed if the roads needed clearing for any reason, particularly when it snowed. “We’d be in the back of the truck, shoveling the salt,” said Scott Smith who, with his brothers, worked for their father during storms.

And if a family called on Sidney Smith Construction for a job but didn’t have the financial resources to pay the bill in full, Smith often did the work anyway, in the knowledge that they’d pay him when they could, or that they would barter goods and services with him.

When Sidney and Mary asked for the bill after a meal at a local restaurant, it wasn’t uncommon, said Steve Smith, for the bill to be taken care of by people there whom Sidney had helped at some point during his life.

To serve as both a selectman and road commissioner in a small town requires a thick skin, and Sidney Smith had one, his sons said.

“He let a lot of that roll off his back,” Steve Smith said. “I never heard him grumble. I think he really enjoyed it.”

When Steve Smith turned 18, his father encouraged him, and his younger brothers, to buy a farm, where Steve Smith still lives. “He just wanted to help us get started,” he said.

To help them on their way, Smith bought his sons a registered Guernsey, and later, a few Holsteins. He also helped them build the big barn, and when they needed help, he’d rake hay or help them move equipment.

“He kept as active as he could,” Steve Smith said.

On weekends, after a week spent driving hundreds of miles, especially during winter when he plowed continuously, Smith would take the family out on a busman’s holiday, heading up Topsham’s back roads just to explore, or to see friends and relatives in the area. When his sons were adolescents, they’d pile into his pickup truck and they’d drive around listening to 8-track tapes or country music on the radio, twisting the dial to find Johnny Cash.

“He always wanted to be going somewhere,” Scott Smith said.

Smith liked to drive back to his mother’s home town, Sheffield, in the Northeast Kingdom, to visit. And, Mary Smith said, he preferred driving north, because after the interstates came in, there was less traffic.

Smith was also a collector: of baseball caps by the hundreds, and fishing poles. He collected vehicles: a ‘55 Buick, a ‘55 Chevy, a ‘63 Chevy, a ‘48 Chevy truck.

“He wasn’t really a mechanic, but he liked operating and driving them,” Fred Smith said.

Then there was a town snow plow he bought in the last decade. “He was always impressed when it came through,” Mary Smith said. When the town put the plow up for sale, Smith wanted to buy it. Someone beat him to it but when that person decided to sell, Smith was there again.

“There was something about having a blade in front of him,” Scott Smith said.

Smith didn’t use the plow much, but this spring he and his son Fred got it running again, behind the house where Sidney and Mary had lived since their marriage in 1960. They began renting the house from one of Mary’s uncles, and eventually bought the property.

Smith loved sitting on the house’s porch, which faces the town’s main three-way intersection. From that vantage point he could see the town garage, the brick house where Steve Smith lives, the post office turned bed-and-breakfast. He knew just about everyone in Topsham, and he knew the town’s history by heart, Mary Smith said.

“Talking and Eating,” is how Fred Smith describes his father’s habit of sitting on the porch, watching people go by. People, including the hired hands who worked for him at Sidney Smith Trucking, were often invited up for coffee and doughnuts, and, invariably, to hear one of his stories. And people would drop in to say hello.

Their father had a dry humor, Steve Smith said. Some of the people who knew him called his tales, which were usually about East Topsham, “Sidney-isms.”

“It was the way he told a story and the way he used words to tell a story,” Steve Smith said.

In the last few years, Sidney Smith began to suffer from COPD. Five of his brothers had already died from complications arising from lung disease, just as their father had.

As the COPD worsened, he had to carry with him an oxygen tank, which he hated, Scott Smith said.

“That was hard for him,” Steve Smith said. Always a robust and active man, his father didn’t want to be seen as being dependent on a machine, Smith added.

But the presence of the oxygen tank didn’t stop him driving, Steve Smith said. He just put the oxygen tank next to him on the seat. One of the last drives he made, Scott Smith said, was to Agway to buy seed potatoes for planting.

Despite the COPD, Smith was intent on playing a large role in the lives of his five grandchildren. He picked them up from school or sports activities, went to all of their games and school functions, talked to them on the phone, and was there during the big family gatherings where he told stories. He watched the Red Sox on television with his grandson Renwick.

This spring, when breathing had become very difficult, Smith still insisted on attending a party celebrating the high school graduation of Steve Smith’s daughter Abby.

“That took everything he had,” Fred Smith said. As in the past, Smith’s determination prevailed.

A few years ago, Smith was sitting out on his porch when he noticed three, maybe four, boys walking down the road with one fishing pole between them.

Hailing them, he told them to wait. Going into his barn he came back out after a few minutes with a pole for each of them. These are yours to keep, he told them.

In return, they brought him brook trout, gutted and cleaned, which he fried up in a pan for dinner. And they continued to bring him trout each spring and summer, right up until Smith went into the hospital this summer.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.
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