After 91-year-old Bill Smith was laid to rest on Aug. 11 amid the emotionally riveting melody of bagpipes from quaint Smith Cemetery, a group of Smith’s fans gathered at Lake Jovita to swap stories and remember the rugged Wesley Chapel pioneer.
Dr. Christopher Darby Immer, the pioneer’s son, was among those paying homage to Bill’s memory.
“He was our own Indiana Jones!” said Immer, recalling his initial encounter with the legendary Bill Smith.
“Do you remember the Indiana Jones character that was created by Harrison Ford in “Raiders of the Lost Ark?” Immer asked.
“Well, I was 10 years old and star-struck by Indiana Jones. Around about that same time, I encountered Bill Smith.
“Modest and unassuming in demeanor, he shared a few quips on Wesley Chapel…ranching, open range and the like.
“Understanding a thing or two about the attention span of a 10-year-old, Bill pulled out his authentic Florida Cracker Whip and — reminiscent of Harrison Ford — Bill wielded his braided rawhide with painstaking precision.
“Just four effortless thrusts and he peeled each of the four letters from the label of the aluminum Coke™ can in sequence,” Immer said.
Timing was important to Bill Smith — along with honor, friendship, legacy and savoring life’s gusto.
Unpretentious and keenly aware, Bill was much more than merely his folksy humble Florida-boy persona.
He traveled the world with his beloved Lillian.
He had a map that chronicled their extensive travels and his hunting expeditions throughout the world—every continent.
He was well-read and, on things he deemed important, held strong opinions.
It was only after one got to know him well, that Bill would humbly reveal glimpses into a life well-lived.
For instance, his division was first to enter bomb-ravished Nagasaki, at the beginning of allied occupation of Japan at the conclusion of World War II.
And, during a 1963 work project on the Wesley Chapel overpass at the construction of Interstate 75, Bill remembered the fellow who waved him down off his tractor to tell him the sad news: “Our President was assassinated!”
Bill’s wife Lillian found a 2004 handwritten memoir, drafted in Bill’s classic self-effacing fashion.
In part, it reads: “I was born William Rollie Smith on November 15, 1925, to Luther Daniel Smith and Louneta (Stanley) Smith in a two-story home about 200 yards from where I reside on Smith Road. A Fourth Generation Floridian, many would see my years as simple … it was a day-to day survival. I could not grow up fast enough to leave the farm during the Great Depression years.
“My sister, Ruth and I had a hard life but a good life, and we were always close. Everyone should have a sister like mine. We completed the eighth grade at a two-room schoolhouse with no electricity (electricity came in 1947), near the 1878 Double Branch Baptist Church, which was the center of the community, before subsequently graduating from Pasco High.
“My grandfather was Daniel Henry Smith, a man I dearly loved who told stories of the past. He died in 1955—a great loss. He and dad had cattle and hogs…running in the woods…from San Antonio to the present day site of the University of South Florida. This was the time of Open Range. You fenced the animals out of your yard or farm. Cities were fenced in!”
A descendant of homesteaders, William Riley Smith and Anne E. Sims Smith, Bill was eager to share that the Homestead Act of 1862, provided a 160-acre piece of land for a person who had resided on the land for five years and improved it.
Smith’s family was recognized at the September 1987 centennial ceremony, which commemorated the formation of Pasco County (including Precinct 4, Wesley Chapel). Fittingly, the homesteaded land now belongs to the Pasco County School Board.
Preserving history was an important mission for Bill.
In recent years, he lamented that his cohorts were decreasing.
His boyhood friend and close neighbor, Frederick (Dick) Tucker, passed away in 2012.
More recently, Wesley Chapel lost other keepers of the frontier history.
Michael Boyette, who spearheaded the placing of the Wesley Chapel historical marker, died on June 30, 2017. Bill’s own sister, Ruth Smith Adams, passed away on May 24, 2017.
The Smith cracker home is on display at ‘Cracker Country’ at the State Fairgrounds as a hands-on living legacy of frontier Florida. (Neighbors of Daniel H. and Elizabeth Geiger Smith built the cracker home in barn-raising fashion as a wedding present in 1894.)
The house was donated in 1979, as a tribute.
The fairgrounds exhibit reflects life on the Florida frontier, which included farming, ranching, charcoal producing, gator hunting, turpentine stills and moonshining.
Frontier independence permeated Wesley Chapel pioneer settlers who possessed a character of hard work and strength. Eking out an existence was a challenge, and Wesley Chapel was known for its gator hunting and moonshining.
Bill donated his moonshine still to the Florida Pioneer Museum in Dade City.
Wesley Chapel, as well as Bill’s many friends and family, will mourn the loss of his wisdom and insight.
One such lifelong friend and a member of Bill’s weekly fishing group is local sports hero Keathel Chauncey, who offered this reflection: “From the times that I spent with Bill, I realized that he was a straight shooter (literally and figuratively).
“Taught from early in his life what life is about, Bill experienced families that respected each other, worshipped together, and helped anyone in need. When you asked him a question or advice about anything, his answers came from his heart and his upbringing. ‘Find a quiet place, think of the teachings of the Bible, and you will find your own right answer, you don’t need me.’
“Bill Smith taught me self-respect, self-reliance, honor, patience,” Chauncey said.
By Madonna Jervis Wise
Madonna Wise, who lives in Zephyrhills, has written three local history books and is actively involved in preserving local history.
Published September 27, 2017