Smitty’s Tavern: A life-giving organ of Voorheesville’s collective self sold

Poets and friends gathered at Smitty's Tavern. The buzz of the place was a beautiful piece of music.

For Anthony Cronin

Though I’ve never seen it written in a history book, May 27, 2017 is a day that lives in infamy.

A flotilla of ships was not bombed in a faraway port or the tops of towers cut with the wings of enemy planes. It was the day that Smith’s Tavern in Voorheesville, New York closed its doors forever. A pall came over the town.

Hospitality had been the signature dish served in that building for 117 consecutive years in the form of food, drink, and a place to stay upstairs — sometimes the owner lived there.

During that time, the property changed hands five times. The Smith in Smith’s Tavern came when the Frank Smith family took over the business in 1945. There was a Frank Sr. and a Frank Jr., the son still held in honor today.

When Smitty’s — that’s what the place came to be called — finally shut its doors, I thought it was part of the jinx.

That is, Nick Oliver — who raised the building in 1900 as the West End Hotel — saw his 15-year old daughter die within a year.

And shortly after Ernie Albright bought the place, his baby girl, Coretta May, died. A 1915 edition of The Enterprise said she was “aged 2 years 9 months, 8 days.” And that her “funeral was held Wednesday morning from the West End Hotel, where her parents reside.”

Albright felt the jinx — he changed the name to the Brook View Hotel.

The editor of the paper who reported on the child’s death felt compelled to offer the community a maxim of consolation: “There is no flock however watched and tended, but one dead lamb is there; There is no fireside, howe’er defended, but hath its vacant chair.”

Some of Smitty’s patrons I met over the years would fully understand the meaning of that because they themselves were outside time, like characters in a storybook. I see their faces clear as day as I write this.

The tavern was situated on State Highway 85A diagonally across from the village elementary school and a few hundred feet from the Vly, a beautiful creek that winds through Albany County.

But go there today and all you’ll see is a frame looking like a soufflé ready to fall or a Halloween pumpkin slumped in winter snow.

For 50 years, when Friday night rolled around, friends, neighbors, and especially people with kids, headed to Smitty’s for a night out.

Sometimes there’d be a wait but nobody cared, it was a time to say hello to a neighbor at the bar or a family seated at a table waiting for dinner. The buzz of the place was a beautiful piece of music.

And, while it can be said there was no such thing as a stranger at Smitty’s, at times one of the regulars got out of hand and had to be talked to. I never saw a fight at the place nor even heard a voice raised in anger — though at times the owners did call for public assistance.

During the tenure of the last owners — business partners Jon and John — the place sported a poets’ corner, which the regulars at the bar knew well. Nailed to the wall by the heated soup tureen was a street sign with block letters that read POETS’ CORNER. It’s in the village archives now.

There are two other great institutions that have a poets’ corner: the famed Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York; and Westminster Abbey in London (where Mr. Chaucer resides).

Nearly always, as you came through the front door at Smitty’s, you’d catch a fluffle of poets in the corner, reciting Keats or debating Miss Emilie’s pedigree. Above the street sign was a plastic holder with copies of the poem of the Poet of the Month. Inquisitive regulars always availed themselves.

Jim Reed — who stood at the end of the bar that curved into the kitchen, a short one in front of him always — read the poems with childish delight. One day he got into a terrible fix over the word “rill.”

And when National Poetry Month rolled around in April, some of the poets put on a confab called the Smith’s Tavern Poet Laureate Contest.

The prizes were underwritten by the owners: $100 for Laureate; $75 for second place; $50 for third. Poets came from Massachusetts and as far west as Utica.

On contest day, you could hear the genial buzz as the poets and their fans packed into the dining room shoulder to shoulder: The owners were reimbursed after the first hour as pizza, whiskey, beer, and esoteric stout filled the tables nonstop.

And while the poets read their work amid the deepest silence, the waitresses served drink and food in the tightest of spaces with ne’ery the clink of a plate. At Smitty’s, the waitresses were impresarios; most were older women with day jobs who came at first to make an extra buck or two but soon became part of Smitty’s family.

Some were there for 30 years. I won’t name any here but their sweet womanly kindness I still feel today — better than anything on TV’s “Cheers.”

From time to time one of the waitresses, while waiting for her orders to come, penned a line or two on the back of a placemat and brought it to the poets for their review: brass duende, but always the best of fun.

And with respect to the pizza itself: Each year, when the region’s “best of” notices came out, Smitty’s was right near the top. In a 1989 interview, Frank said he’d just finished baking his millionth pie — but that quality was always the measure.

At the beginning of the week, he’d head to the butcher to buy the best prime beef for his burgers, served beside the incredible German potato salad of his German-born wife Gert, a force in her own right. They used to refer to themselves as equals.

And some nights after the kitchen closed, Frank would make the rounds and hand out little gifts: one time a frisbee with Smith’s Tavern printed on the side; another time a key ring with nail file and pen blade enclosed — Smith’s Tavern engraved on the side. I always marveled at the quality of his offerings.

And just as sandwiches at the Carnegie Deli in New York had names, so did Smitty’s pizzas. A person might walk in one day and say: I’ll have the “John Gray.”

But all that’s gone now and Voorheesville is worse for the wear: a life-giving organ of its collective self sold.

In 1916, Mr. L. J. Hanifan, the State Supervisor of Rural Schools in Charleston in West Virginia, wrote about the disappearance of communal treasures that might be as small as a quilting group — never mind the community bee that brought the stones for Nick Oliver’s foundation in 1900.

In “The Rural Community Center” Hanifan wrote, “When the people of a given community have become acquainted with one another and have formed a habit of coming together upon occasions for entertainment, social intercourse and personal enjoyment, that is, when sufficient social capital has been accumulated, then by skilful leadership this social capital may easily be directed towards the general improvement of the community well-being.”

“Social capital” is not money or real estate but the communal joy people experience living with others in mutual aid and fun and bonding in accord.

Some days I wonder if there’s others who feel the loss as I do. When the place was sold, angry critics said the owners had no right to sell a public trust.

Frank Cramer, who bought the place from Ernie Albright in 1937 and called it the Cramer House, was part of the jinx: He died upstairs, never thinking a place like Smitty’s would suffer a fate like his own.