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Legends in History: Lydia Martin Smith

Lydia Martin Smith (Provided photo — Paul Smith’s College Collection)

(This year’s Winter Carnival theme “Myths and Legends” brings to mind many legendary men and women in local history, from wilderness guides to sports legends to heroes in healthcare. Historic Saranac Lake is providing a series of articles celebrating some of the mythical and marvelous figures from Saranac Lake’s past.)

It has often been said that behind every great man is a great woman. About 12 miles northwest of Saranac Lake, there once lived a great man. His name was Apollos “Paul” Smith. Beside him — let’s choose that phrase rather than behind him — was a great woman, and her name was Lydia Martin Smith.

The place where Paul and Lydia once lived is called Paul Smiths today — a small hamlet, in the town of Brighton, that is named for the hotel that they ran together. Paul Smith’s Hotel was founded in 1859 and was one of the greatest Adirondack resorts of its time. Though the hamlet and the college that are located there are technically named only for Paul, Lydia was by all accounts a force in her own right — an indispensable business partner, devoted spouse and mother, and quintessential hostess who played an immense role in making Paul Smith, his hotel and many real estate holdings the resounding successes they once were.

According to Paul Smith’s obituary in the New York Times (1912), the hotelier was once asked, “To what do you owe your long life and the measure of success which has come to you? Is it the fact that you have been much out of doors, to abstinence, moderate living, or what?” Without missing a beat, Smith replied, “To my wife.”

Lydia Martin was born in AuSable Forks on Aug. 29, 1843, one of 11 children born to Sarah and Hugh Martin. Paul Smith met Lydia at a dance in Loon Lake. At the time, Paul was already the successful owner of his family’s Loon Lake hotel Hunter’s Home. Lydia lived nearby at the Franklin Falls House, which was managed by her family, and she decided to attend the dance with some friends. Lydia was an excellent dancer and was particularly skilled at a special dance that was unfamiliar in the area called “the waltz.” Paul immediately took notice of the attractive young lady, quickly learned some steps and claimed Lydia as his partner in dance after dance across the evening. A love affair that would last for 40 years had begun.

After a romantic courtship during which they were constant companions, Paul and Lydia married on May 5, 1859, at the Franklin Falls House. They immediately moved to Lower St. Regis Lake. There, Paul had recently built a new hotel. Within 10 days of the newlyweds’ arrival, guests began to arrive. Lydia went right to work. It turned out that she was well prepared to assist her husband in making his new hotel a great success.

Lydia was an excellent cook and housekeeper, and she had a keen sense of how to make every guest feel welcome and well cared for. Perhaps even more importantly, Lydia was an excellent business woman. She used her education and sharp mind to keep the hotel’s accounts, and was well regarded for her ability to create ironclad contracts to protect her husband’s business ventures. Lydia’s attention to the business side of things allowed Paul to focus on what he did best — handling building projects and hosting the guests who appreciated his fine sense of humor, engaging storytelling, and hunting and fishing skills. Together, Paul and Lydia helped their wilderness hostelry grow from a 17-room structure to a world-famous 300-room complex that included a mill, a railroad station, women’s lodging, a “casino” that included a boathouse, dining room, a bar and more.

While Lydia was managing operations at Paul Smith’s, she and Paul also started a family. Over 10 years, they had three sons, Henry, Phelps and Paul Jr. She was a devoted mother who did everything she could to support her sons’ education, personal relationships and careers. She looked after the well-being of the Paul Smith employees and their families as well as those in need in the local community. She was the object of sincere admiration and respect from her staff, local Adirondack guides, and neighbors. Lydia was a also generous benefactor toward the development of local churches, including the First Methodist Episcopal Church of Brighton.

The death of her eldest son Henry from pneumonia in 1891 was a blow from which Lydia Smith would never recover. Shortly after Henry’s death, Lydia passed away that year as well. Her obituary in the Franklin Gazette in November 1891 read, “She was ever her husband’s best counselor in his growing business in the Adirondacks and numbered among her friends are the thousands who each year visit the great hotel over which she presided.” Indeed, Lydia Martin Smith was a beautiful and brilliant lady who truly fits the 2020 Winter Carnival theme, a legend of her time whose impact on our community deserves to be remembered today.

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