Aaron Smith, in His Own Words
A biographical sketch like this could not be better introduced than by paying brief but no less sincere tribute to the best mother any man ever had. If I have accomplished anything worthwhile, it is due primarily to her inspiration and the self dependence, self confidence and determination she implanted in my soul even from infancy.
As I look back through the years in the light of human knowledge and experience her wisdom in encouraging and training me seems no less than divinely inspired. For how else could one entirely without education and reared in the country with contact only with people who earned their living by manual labor, how else but by divine inspiration could she vision a self-supported and independent life of one deprived of hands and arms?
My mother, Martha Elizabeth Smith, was the daughter of a pioneer Methodist local preacher, Joseph Phillips and his wife. She was born on a farm in southern Arkansas and came to girlhood when this country was torn asunder by civil war, which deprived her of school advantages. Father was older but had only a few months in country school, but he, too, shared mother’s inspiration and vision of seeing his handicapped son earning his own way. He followed that vision by making every sacrifice and putting forth every effort possible to give me the best education within his reach, considering the demands on him for the support of eight other children.
My next great inspiration was when as a 16-year-old school boy I met a girl whose life brought an enduring light into my life by becoming my wife in later years. She was Carrie Sweet, daughter of Rev. and Mrs. E.M. Sweet, teacher and Methodist preacher. Coming from a circle in society in which the power of mind over physical handicaps was fully recognized, she helped me to see clearly what Mother had only seen in her dreams. Later, through our married life her supreme faith in my ability to do anything I undertook, her unselfish love and devotion, her loyalty and her sacrifices have made it possible for me to make whatever I have made of life.
I was born in Miller County, Arkansas, near the little village of Bright Star, about six or eight miles from the Texas line. The date, July 23, 1868. Besides his farm my father operated a little shop in which he made and repaired plows, wagons, some household furniture and even made coffins for the burial of the neighborhood dead. One of my early recollections is hearing him called out of bed early in the morning to make a coffin for a neighbor who had just died. Another recollection is of my mother sitting at an old fashioned hand loom weaving the cloth from which she was to make our clothes. Father had built the loom by hand in his shop.
Mother always sang at her work. One of my earliest and sweetest memories was of her singing an old song now long forgotten, “There’ll Be No Sorrow There.” Sweet now because I realize the many sorrows through which she was then passing and I have the profound belief that the song long since came true.
The first song I ever heard away from home was “The Beautiful River,” or “Shall We Gather at the River.” It was an old fashioned singing at a little country school house built of logs, about three miles from home. The benches were made of split pine logs, the flat side hewn with what was called a broadaxe. Holes were bored in the round side and long pegs driven in them for legs. The floor was made of hewn logs and called “puncheons.”
When I was about seven years old my father sold his farm and started out to give me what “schooling” he could. By this time he and mother were discussing my future and it was easy enough to understand that if there was to be any future, it would have to come through training of the head since there were no hands to train. Their first move was to Bright Star, a village three miles from my birthplace, where there was a school about four months of the year. There Father set up a shop and remained two years.
Then he moved to Queen City in Cass County, Texas, where the school was better. But he did not do so well with his shop. More and more factory made farm implements were being bought, having only repair work to be done in the shop and it became more difficult to support the family from that source. Besides, the family kept right on increasing. (By this time there were six of us.) So he moved to the country again; this time to Jones Chapel, a country church and school ten mils west of Queen City in Cass County.
The school there was not so good and the term shorter, but with the exception of a few months in Atlanta, Texas, where I boarded with relatives this finished my education.
It was at school at Jones Chapel that at 16 years of age I met the little red headed girl who became my second inspiration and who eleven years later became my devoted companion and efficient helper. From the time I was twelve I had been giving serious consideration to a life of self-support, encouraged by mother and father, whose ideas of how it might be done were limited but whose faith in God’s power to do all things was unlimited. And whose vision, that mind and matter rules the world, had been greatly enlarged.
The Study of Law
By the time I was 16 we had decided on law as my profession and I began to look around for books. O’Neal and Sons, at Linden and the Bakers in Atlanta generously tendered their libraries which were none too large and I began on my three volumes of Blackstone’s Commentaries with all the enthusiasm of a modern youth reading his first story of romance. Along with the law I studied at home English literature, logic, psychology, but never cared as much for history as I should. This reading was done while continuing my attendance at the country school which lasted only three to four months of the year.
At twenty I had read the law course through and was well on the way through a second reading when we moved to Mt. Pleasant. There I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to continue my reading in the law office of S.P. Pounders, one of the leading lawyers of East Texas, and also had access to the library of Judge W.P. McLean who had served as congressman and then district judge and was later appointed as one of the first members of the Texas Railroad Commission by Governor James Stephen Hogg.
At the April term 1889 of the district court, at the age of twenty, I was licensed as an attorney at law. John L. Sheppard, father of the late U.S. Senator Morris Sheppard was the presiding judge at that time, but he was exchanging benches with Judge Felix J. McCord of Tyler under whose direction the examination was conducted. Thus I became a full fledged “limb of the law” and entitled to wear the long Prince Albert coat which professional men wore in those days.
Too soon, like many other young “legal lights,” I acquired political ambitions, and the next year I ran for county attorney against a man who was serving his first term and came out second in a race of three candidates. The next election, 1894, found me a candidate in the democratic primary for county judge against the then incumbent and I had better luck winning the nomination by a substantial majority. But I did not fare so well in the general election. The old Populist party was then at its zenith. It seemed from the speeches of the later “Cyclone” Davis, known in those days as “Methodist Jeems” that everybody wanted a change in politics, and that year four Democratic nominees in that county went down, I among them.
Journalism and Politics
In the meantime, with the financial assistance of a friend I had purchased the Titus County Times, only newspaper in that county, and I was making it hot for the Populists. Doubtless this had something to do with my defeat, for I had many personal friends in that party.
The two outstanding reasons which took me into the newspaper field were, first, that I found it very inconvenient to appear in court because I had to call on someone to handle the books and papers to be used; and second, I had always wanted to be a writer. I had an idea, too, that I might carry on in both, since neither was a very big job in that county. At least that was what I thought before I got into the newspaper. Then I found that to carry out my idea of making a county paper more than merely a local gossip sheet required much time and a great deal of reading and thought.
Under my management the Mt. Pleasant Times-Review (I had changed the name) aligned itself with the Bryan element in the Democratic party nationally and the Hogg forces in Texas. It also espoused the principle of local option and later prohibition of the sale of intoxicating beverages.
Up to 1894 party nominations for all district and state offices had been made by district and state conventions. Even nominations for county offices had only recently given way to county primary elections. Many political evils had grown up under this boss-ruled convention system of electing officers. The climax of dissatisfaction with the system came in my district in 1894 when after two sessions lasting over several days each the congressional convention of the old Fourth Congressional district nominated Congressman Dave Culberson to succeed himself another term after he had announced his retirement from office and politics. The three candidates displaced were John L. Sheppard, Pittsburg; John W. Cranford, Sulphur Spring; and Jake Hodges, Paris. All were popular but neither could muster a two-thirds majority necessary to a nomination.
During the convention the evils of the convention system became so pronounced that a protest went up all over the district which became so strong that it almost defeated Col. Culberson whose opponent was Cyclone Davis, a Populist. It did defeat part of the Democratic party ticket in Titus County, including myself. You see, I was editor of the county Democratic paper and consistently supported the ticket including Col. Culberson.
Even before the general election of 1894 the Times-Review began a campaign for a district primary. It proved acceptable to the other county papers of the district and before the 1896 campaign started the congressional committee of that district decreed that nominations thereafter should be made by a primary election to be held throughout the district on the same day. That year John L. Sheppard was nominated.
From that beginning popular demand for nominations for congress spread. The county papers first took up the demand, then some state papers, and finally all were to be nominated by primaries. Then followed the state law on the subject, which still stands. There is no doubt that the Populist party, with its avowed opposition to “ring” or “boss” rule through conventions (although it made its own nominations by the convention method) had much to do with arousing sentiment among the rank and file of the Democrats in favor of making party nominations by direct vote.
The happiest day of my life came November 24, 1895, when my boyhood sweetheart, Carrie Sweet, became my wife. Our wedding took place at the Methodist parsonage, the home of her father and mother, Rev. and Mrs. E.M. Sweet, at Bertram, Texas. Rev. C.W. Daniel performed the ceremony. It was a very modest wedding, with only members of her family and my brother, Jesse, and a few of her friends present. We went to Mt. Pleasant, where for the next two or three weeks we receive congratulations from many friends and from a number of weekly Texas newspapers.
From the bright sunshine of the mountain top to the deep shadows of grief was mine to suffer within one month of our wedding, two days before Christmas. It was the loss of my mother after a very brief illness. Almost before we realized she was sick she slipped away, leaving the world in utter darkness to us. It had been my dream that some day I might be permitted to provide for her some of the comforts she had sacrificed to prepare me for life. Instead of realizing this dream she was not even spared long enough for me to prove to her that taking a wife would not in the least lessen my devotion and obligation to her.
With September 11, 1896, came our first great joy, the birth of Carrie Beth our only child. On our 25th anniversary she was married to Oscar J. Branch. With their only son, James Oscar, they live near us as this is written [in Fort Worth] with Oscar operating the printing plant in which our and his publications were printed.
A Move to N. Central Texas
In the summer of 1899 I sold the Times-Review to Geo. M. “Dan” Roberts and September purchased the Democrat, weekly newspaper, at Weatherford, which I owned and published until early in 1908. Weatherford then had three other weekly papers.
One of my first moves was to take the Democrat out of the class of local gossip sheets and try to make it a factor in political, educational, business and social activities. At that time Weatherford had three colleges -- Weatherford College, Methodist; Texas Female Seminary, Presbyterian; and St. Ignatius Academy, Catholic – and a public school system ranking among the best, as also the Parker County public schools. The Democrat was represented at all school meetings and gave its full support to all movement for the advancement of education. Incidentally, it was one of the first newspapers in Texas to advocate consolidation of county schools and employment of buses to transport pupils to them.
Politically the Democrat was always democratic, and yet outspoken where we thought principles were at stake. For instance when Senator Joseph W. Bailey, at that time the idol of Texas, became involved in the interests of the Standard Oil Company the Democrat was one of the first newspapers to demand an investigation and, after the investigation by the legislature, to ask for his impeachment.
The Democrat published the first authentic history of Parker County in 1906.
A local option election to ban the sale of intoxicating liquors was called in Parker County. The Democrat promptly enlisted for local option, while the other three Weatherford papers remained neutral. Local option won by 17 votes. Another election was held a year later and the drys won by several hundred votes. Again after another year an election was held and this time the dry majority increased.
In 1902 Col. S.W.T. Lanham, a citizen of Weatherford, was elected governor of Texas, and again in 1904, and the Democrat gladly supported him. He was succeeded by Governor Tom Campbell of Palestine, who was supported by the Democrat and who carried Parker County, much to the surprise of local politicians who expected the county to go for Hon. C.K. Bell, a former citizen and attorney general of Texas. It may be said here that the democrats of Texas had by this time adopted the primary election system for nominating state officers and in this reform the Democrat also participated.
Farming, fruit growing and cattle raising were the chief industries of Parker County and the Democrat was kept in close touch and cooperation with them. As the Farmer’s Educational and Co-Operators Union, usually referred to as the Farmers Union, came into existence the Democrat gave the organization its active support. I was elected county secretary of the Union and served until I left Weatherford. During these years a Farmers Union warehouse for cotton was built, of which Mr. Scott was president and I was secretary. It was because of my work for the farmers that Peter Radford, a Parker County farmer, then a member of the state executive committee of the Farmers Union, had his committee and officers to request me to buy their state and national paper, then published at Dallas, and move it to Fort Worth.
At their request Marvin Sweet and I bought the National Cooperator and Farm Journal, with a circulation of about 32,000 and moved it to Fort Worth where we published it one year and then sold it. During that, 1908, Governor Tom Campbell came out for re-election and was opposed by Williams, a blacksmith of Cumby who was sponsored by the big corporations, and we obtained permission of the Farmers Union to depart from its established policy of keeping out of politics and support Campbell who had shown himself the friend of the farmer. The special interests made an adroit fight, employing the slogan of “few laws and better laws” and a real “laboring man.” Campbell won, but would, perhaps, have been defeated if he had not received most of the farmer vote.
We sold our interest in the Democrat (Victor E. Martin and Arthur Martin having previously bought an interest) and moved to Fort Worth April 16, 1908, to assume publication of the National Co-Operator and Farm Journal in partnership with Marvin Sweet, wife’s brother. That year, as it had been the few previous years, the chief problem or issue before the farmers was the distribution and marketing of farm products. Financing of nonperishable products so that the farmers might be relieved of dumping a year’s supply on the market as soon as gathered appeared to us to be at least a partial solution and we advocated it through the Co-Operator as we had through the Democrat and for which warehouses were to be used for storage. The Farmers Union executive committee and secretary were in harmony with this view which sought government support in financing, but the president of the Union wanted to finance cotton through a private commission firm in Galveston. Rather than endorse such a plan which seemed to us to benefit only the commission firm and perhaps the Union’s president, we sold the paper and retired from its management. Incidentally it may be remembered that the Government has been for some time working along the plan we advocated.
After selling the Co-Operator in 1909 Marvin and I dissolved partnership and I devoted all my time to Transmitter, a telephone journal, and job printing. In 1913 I was joined by my brother Jesse, but this partnership was dissolved a year later, he taking the Transmitter and I the printing business, which I continued until 1919. It was about the turn of the century many forward-looking capitalists and industrialists in the North and Middle West envisioned a demand for local telephone service which the Bell system had not been supplying except to cities. Factories for building telephone switchboards, telephones and equipment sprang up and investors began to build local telephone exchanges in the smaller cities and towns. The movement spread rapidly to the South and by 1905 Texas and surrounding states had many independent exchanges. Then the owners wanted long distance connections, but had to build their own lines to get them. Then about a dozen leaders in the industry in Texas met at Dallas to organize what became the Texas Independent Telephone Association. I had conceived the idea of a telephone trade journal for the Southwest and met with them. They promptly and enthusiastically endorsed the idea and with the birth of the Texas Assocation this trade journal was born and christened The Transmitter. The Transmitter paid its own way from the start and developed into national recognition. In 1908 it was moved to Fort Worth where I published it until 1914 when I sold it to brother Jesse. Later it was merged into Telephone Engineer in Chicago.
In 1920 Southern Florist and Nurseryman was re-established by L.J. Tackett and incorporated, and I purchased a block of stock and became advertising manager. The next October I bought all of Mr. Tackett’s stock and assumed management of the publication which I have retained to this date (1946). Southern Florist is incorporated for $20,000, has about 50 stockholders and has paid dividends since 1920 except for three or four years of the depression years of the 1930s.
Soon after 1920 I established a printing plant with my son-in-law, O.J. Branch, and brother-in-law, Frank McLaughlin. Later Frank withdrew from the firm. Now we have a well equipped plant for our three publications, which include Dry Cleaning & Laundry Progress and Automatic World, two other publications we had purchased, besides Southern Florist, housed in our own building.
In 1945 we sold Dry Cleaning & Laundry Progress and about the same time I purchased Southern Display News, a journal devoted to store and window display. It was a going publication from the start, but I soon transferred it to my sister, Lois, who is making a success of it, much to my joy.
Rejoicings and Regrets
Since 1914 Carrie and I have lived in our own home at 1515 Fairmount Avenue – some of the time with members of my family and with members of hers. She is known as “Muddie” and “Mimo” and “Sister,” while I answer to “Mic.”
Life for us has not been a continuous bed of roses, and yet far more roses than thorns. As we sit in the shade of the evening of life and review the parade of work and play, sacrifice and gain, sorrow and joy, we agree that the lights have far outnumbered the shadows, the pleasures have exceeded the sorrows, and that God has been overwhelmingly good to us even to sparing us to celebrate our Golden Wedding Anniversary, which occurred in November 1945, which more than 150 friends attended while many others sent telegrams, letters and presents.
My only regret of an entire lifetime is that as I look back over the years, one by one, I see so little of lasting worth in what I have accomplished. I can condone my omissions by remembering that as we found different problems and responsibilities we did what we thought was best at the time.