On the momentous occasion when Florida issued its first drivers’ licenses in 1940, Ruth Smith made history.
County Judge O. L. Dayton Jr., pulled a desk into the hallway at the Dade City courthouse and plopped the 17-year-old into a chair in front of a manual typewriter.
“People lined up and stood as I typed up the first driver’s license in Pasco County,” said Ruth Smith Adams, now age 93. “I even typed up my mother and father’s (licenses). That’s probably before most of you were born. Here, I’m back this time, and it’s amazing.”
Adams was addressing the Pasco County Commission, which was bestowing a resolution it passed honoring her and her 91-year-old brother, Bill Smith, for their work in preserving the heritage of Wesley Chapel and Pasco County.
They accepted the resolution on June 7 in what is now the Dade City Historic Courthouse.
The siblings are descendants of one of Pasco’s pioneering families dating back to 1867 when their great-grandfather, William R. Smith, settled in Wesley Chapel after the Civil War. In 1883, the elder Smith became owner of 160 acres of open land under the Homestead Act of 1862. He married Annie E. Sims and had six children, including Daniel Smith, the grandfather of Adams and Bill Smith.
Wesley Chapel remained part of Hernando County until 1887, when maps were redrawn to create Pasco.
Local historian Madonna Jervis Wise recorded the memories and recollections of Adams and Smith during hours of interviews for her book, “Images of America: Wesley Chapel.”
The pair also provided Wise with documents including homesteading deeds and photographs. And, they assisted her in drawing a map of area settlements in the 1900s.
“This is quite an honor,” Smith told commissioners.
He recounted the day in 1941 that he walked out of a Zephyrhills’ movie house after seeing a John Wayne western.
“I started walking and someone came running down the street, yelling that (Japan) had bombed Pearl Harbor,” said Smith, who was 16 at the time.
He joined the U.S. Army when he was 19 and was shipped to the Philippines. He was there when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on two Japanese cities.
“I saw Nagasaki when it was still smoking,” said Smith, during a telephone interview.
Back home he worked for a while on the family ranch, later joining a seaman’s union and working on cargo ships for a couple of years. He also worked as a coalman for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad before again returning to help with the family’s cattle and citrus farming endeavors.
His father, Luther Smith, was the son of Daniel Smith and Elizabeth Geiger Smith, who was born near Zephyrhills. To honor Daniel and Elizabeth’s marriage, friends and family held a barn raising to build their home in 1894.
Luther Smith helped bring electricity to Wesley Chapel in the 1940s when he served on the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative. The cooperative then was part of the Rural Electric Administration, a federal agency created in 1935.
Luther Smith’s home was located off Smith Road in Wesley Chapel.
In 1979 the family donated the pioneer, cracker-style home of Luther Daniel Smith to Cracker Country, a living museum located at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Hillsborough County.
When the house was moved there initially, members of the Smith family participated in special pioneer days and shared memories of life in Wesley Chapel and Pasco. Later, fair officials recruited volunteers to take over those duties.
According to the resolution, Smith and Adams remember a heritage of “open range, general stores over time, the Fifth Sunday Sings (Singing Convention) which so defined Wesley Chapel culture, the weekly rodeo, and the economic mainstays of timbering, turpentine, and ranching, as well as family farming, charcoal making, moonshining and hunting.”
Wesley Chapel was also known for The Singing Convention, which was held any month there was a fifth Sunday, Wise said. Families gathered, spread picnic lunches outdoors on orange crates, and enjoyed songs and music, Bill Smith said.
The siblings also recalled traveling to Zephyrhills every Saturday for grocery shopping. Their mother carried homegrown vegetables and eggs to trade for supplies.
“They wanted to tell a positive story, and I think there is something to be said for that,” said Wise. “They really are preservers of history.”
Published July 13, 2016