The Story of Eleanor Houston and Lawrence M.C. Smith
Collectors, Conservationists, Environmentalists, Farmers, Philanthropists, Preservationists
Lawrence M.C. ‘Sam” Smith (1902-1975) was born in Philadelphia to an old Philadelphia and Delaware County family, educated at the Haverford School, the University of Pennsylvania, and Oxford. By profession a lawyer, he became many other things as well-conservationist, collector, farmer, to name but a few-and yet he preferred to think of himself as a “generalist.” He practiced law in Philadelphia for five years before moving, with his new bride of 1933, to Washington, D.C.
His bride was the former Eleanor Houston (1910-1987), also from an old Philadelphia family with Pennsylvania roots going back to the days of William Penn. She was the daughter of Samuel Frederic Houston, developer of the delightful Chestnut Hill area of the city and granddaughter of Pennsylvania Railroad executive Henry Howard Houston. Mrs. Smith strongly and generously supported many national conservation organizations and was particularly concerned about the preservation of beach, forest, fields, and farms. Her conservation interests were further guided when she read Malabar Farm by Louis Bromfield, in which Bromfield described his experiments in organic agriculture. Mrs. Smith was a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania, served two terms on the Historical Commission of Pennsylvania, was a longtime member of the Board of Governors of the Nature Conservancy, and in 1987 she received the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters from the Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science. From the day they were married until Sam Smith’s death in 1975 they worked as a team in all things-with foresight, fervor, and joy.
In Washington, as part of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration, L.M.C. Smith served, successfully, for more than a dozen years as general coordinator of the legal division of the National Recovery Administration, as associate counsel for investigation and study of investment trusts at the Securities and Exchange Commission, and, during World War II, as chief of the special war policies unit of the Department of Justice, chief of the economic mission to French West Africa, and head of the United States Purchasing Mission in Switzerland. For his wartime services, he became a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur of France and was awarded Brazil’s Order of the Southern Cross.
After the war, the Smiths returned to Philadelphia, whence he became active in UNESCO, of which he was national vice-chairman for ten years preceding his death. In Philadelphia he served as chairman of the Board of Trade and Conventions for nearly a decade and for his work there was honored with the Order of the British Empire. He was also the founder of the local chapter of Americans for Democratic Action, the Human Relations Commission, and the Housing Association. At the same time, Sam and Eleanor Smith together founded Philadelphia’s first classical music station, WFLN-FM, and created the Schuykill Valley Nature Center.
“At some point you have to decide how to use your money to benefit society. We didn’t have too much trouble deciding how to employ it in Maine….
The land spoke to us and told us what do. All we could say was ‘yes, sir!’ ”
~Lawrence M.C. Smith
In 1946 they purchased the nucleus of what was to become a saltwater organic beef farm on Wolfe’s Neck, Freeport, Maine. There, with Casco Bay sparkling on one side and the Harraseeket River ebbing and flowing on the other, the Smiths and their six children summered.
It was against this background, with a succession of worthy projects yet to come, that the Smiths became infatuated with ancient maps, globes, and atlases. Concentrating on maps depicting the northeast coast of America, Mrs. Smith choose the University of Southern Maine as the collection’s guardian, now known as the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education.
During this period, and for nearly another ten years of joint collecting, they together nurtured their organically raised Angus beef herd at Wolfe’s Neck Farm, experimented with alternative agricultural methods, and fought successfully in court for Maine property owners to have the right to prevent Central Maine Power from spraying their land with chemical defoliants.
They gave portions of their farm to the state for public use as Wolfe Neck Woods State Park, a parcel of nearby land for Maine Audubon Society’s Mast Landing Sanctuary, the early nineteenth-century Pettengill house and farm to Freeport Historical Society, and the historic Percy & Small Shipyard in Bath, Maine, to Maine Maritime Museum. They also enabled the preservation of the ecologically important Popham Beach as a state park. Together they founded the Landguard Trust, purchasing Stone Island, Machiasport, Maine, and later transferring ownership to the Nature Conservancy.
In the eleven years remaining following her husband’s death, Eleanor Houston Smith pursued the course they had set for themselves years before. She donated the bulk of her Wolfe’s Neck Farm to the American Farmland Trust, to be administered by the University of Southern Maine, and gave her summer home to the same institution for a conference center. The Wolfe’s Neck Farm is now owned and managed by the Wolfe’s Neck Farm Foundation. She bequeathed to Freeport Historical Society the ca. 1830 Harrington House, which houses their collections and research library.
The Smiths’ preference for anonymity led to their never having been given proper credit for their leadership in Maine’s land use policies or for their foresight in purchasing significant properties for preservation, in perpetuity, for all citizens.
“We’ve dropped a pebble, now we have to see where the ripples go.”
~Eleanor Houston Smith
This information was excerpted from the following sources:
Austin, Phyllis. Maine Times, August 22, 1975.
Clark Jeff. Maine Times, June 22, 1984, “The Wolfe’s Neck Gift, A model for alternative agriculture joins with
an urban university.”
Mooney, James E. American Antiquarian Society. Obituary for Lawrence Meredith Clemson Smith, 1975.
Portland Press Herald. Obituary for Eleanor Houston Smith, early environmentalist and philanthropist, 1987.
Smith, Philip Chadwick Foster. “Introduction,” Maps, Globes, Atlases and Geographies Through the Year 1800, The Eleanor Houston and Lawrence M.C. Smith Cartographic Collection at the Smith Cartographic Center, University of Southern Maine.
Portland, Maine: University of Southern Maine. c1988.