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The Smith Blog

SMITH HISTORY BLOG: William Smith: The Man Behind the Mystery

By Gretty Hollister

William Smith is a name that you can’t walk around Geneva without hearing. 20-something women wearing forest green downtown, looking at the baroque façade of the opera house, or walking up the hill on St. Clair Street—he’s everywhere. But few could tell you a whole lot about him, besides that he opened a women’s college.

William Smith was an Englishman by birth, born in Canterbury, County Kent, in 1818. The eldest of three brothers, Smith’s father died when he was fairly young, and he dropped out of school in order to help take care of the family. His younger brothers ventured to America first, and then returned for William and their mother. They settled in Geneva in the mid-1840s, and the brothers were able to open their own nursery business by the 1850s.

Smith became a prominent member of the community, as a benefactor and businessman. He served on boards for numerous business and in 1894, through a subscription campaign, donations from other prominent businessmen in the community, and the $12,000 he himself put up, William Smith purchased the property to build Smith’s Opera House, the cultural centerpiece of the community.

In his leisure, William Smith was fascinated by science. He even gave the money to create the observatory on Castle Street in 1882, whose discoveries helped put Geneva on the map. However, he was not only fascinated by astronomy. After the death of his mother, his roommate and caregiver of 54 years, Smith turned his religious affiliations towards Spiritualism. Spiritualism, the way he practiced it, still allowed him to believe in God, while also questioning the mysteries of the Universe. He was so fascinated by Spiritualism and the communication with the Universe that he supposedly actually considered endowing a college specifically devoted to this purpose. Thankfully for the community, the college he ended up endowing was to serve a different purpose: the education and development of women.

Though he never married (some saying he was devoted to a deceased childhood sweetheart (Comstock 4)), due to the influence of his mother and the other women with whom he associated, Smith idealized women. In her biography of the man, Anna Comstock writes, “[H]e believed women should have every opportunity for the development of their minds, bodies, and souls” (4). Thus, William Smith College was born. A few trials along the way prevented the college from opening in 1904 as Smith had originally hoped. But, the doors opened and the 22-woman first year class entered the college in 1908, with a curriculum focused on psychology, biology, and domestic skills, which Smith considered most important. He was 90 years old. In October 1910, he laid the cornerstone on the Elizabeth Smith Miller House on William Smith’s campus.

William Smith passed away peacefully the night of February 6, 1912, at 93 years old, just a few months shy of the first William Smith commencement.
So, go take a stroll around Geneva and see what other William Smith legacies you can discover.

“Home Matters.” Geneva advertiser, 12 Sep. 1882, p. 3.
“Home Matters.” Geneva advertiser-gazette, 27 Oct. 1910, p. 3.
“William Smith Obituary.” Geneva advertiser-gazette, 7 Feb.1912, p. 3.
Comstock, Anna. William Smith. n.d.