George Willard Smith 12/25/1860
Adele Green Smith 1881-1965
Abbey resident George Willard Smith was known as the “King of the Outdoor Amusements” in the early days of the 20th century. He certainly didn’t start out that way. He was born on Christmas day, in 1860, in Syracuse, New York. His parents, John and Fannie Smith, were hard working blue collar kind of people. The family would make their way to Columbus in 1872 and John would find a job as a salesman (the directories of the time list him as a “peddler”). A few years later around 1875, George would join in with his father to help with rent and bills and they both would be carriage trimmers by the late 1870’s. Carriage trimmers were responsible for upholstering the seats, floors and roofs of buggies, and the Columbus Buggy Company was a large manufacturer in the city, employing well over 1,000 people by 1880. Work was so efficient, that they finished a buggy every 8 minutes on average. John would pass away in early 1882 at the age of 50, and which must’ve struck a chord in 22 year old George, with him not wanting to die young laboring away like his father did. It’s clear that George had another plan in mind. In those days it was very common to learn dance instruction by reading a book, as private lessons were expensive. Society minded people were getting waltz lessons and trying to be more genteel. George never spoke of any dance schools he attended, so the likely explanation as to how he learned and then taught dancing lessons was he got one of these books as well (“The Universal Dancing Master “ , written by Lucien Carpenter, was popular book published in the same year of John Smith’s death). Although he was listed as still being a carriage trimmer til 1893, George started a “Home Academy of Dance” in 1894, giving himself the title of professor and calling himself a dancing master.
It’s not known how long Smith was courting Adele Green, daughter of William J. Green, a local Columbus physician. It’s possible that Adele, born in Knox county in 1880, was a student of George’s and he took a shine to her. George was 40 in 1900, Adele was 20, and they both shared an interest in dancing. It could also be that her father was a member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks, just like George was, and they were introduced to each other through that. Smith wasn’t an old man by any means, and even though it may look a little odd today, marrying a man many years older than her was a normal thing for a woman to do then. The age difference didn’t seem to matter to them much and they were married in 1902. Smith actually had an article in the Columbus Dispatch claiming that he taught 26,000 people how to dance, and that he was going to officially retire from teaching his home dancing classes. He would still own them for several years, but would employ instructors. His big break was that he was able to lease some land from the Neil family in the area of Iuka Ravine where Northwood and 4th is today for a dance pavilion. A few years later, in 1905, there would also be a roller skating rink on the same property, which George named “Smith’s Iuka Park Gardens.” Roller skating competitions would be held in the rink, where the best skaters in the state would compete to see who could skate the fastest laps.1909 was the biggest year for such a competition.
George had enough money by this time to own and operate the B. F. Keith Theater on Gay Street, a vaudeville theater. His in laws lived in an apartment on the floors above the theater itself, and that’s also where Smith had his office.
In 1910, under the auspices of the Columbus chapter of the B.P.O.E. (Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks) he along with Frederic Nedermeyer, a very well-known conductor in Columbus at the time, produced a very lavish 2 act operetta they called “Aurora”, to help raise money for charitable causes that the Elks lodge was championing. The 1912 season would see Smith partnering with the organization known as the “Knights of Pythias”, in order to raise money to build the Pythian “Castle” ( later to be known as the Pythian Theater when it was finally built 13 years later ,and is now known as the King Arts Complex). The stipulation that any of the organizations that asked for Smith’s help, was always that he used local talent in his productions. Shortly before the start of a few nights’ performances, the soloist and lead actress playing Aurora in 1911 eloped and left town. George was able to find a replacement, but would actually take insurance out on his performers marrying and leaving town before the season! Adele was trying to make a name for herself as a dancer now, and would be cast in Aurora in small vignette roles such as the “genie dance” or toe dancing ,which was another way of saying she danced ballet. As the years went on, Aurora itself would be rewritten and Adele would get even more prominent in Aurora, but never be cast as Aurora, goddess of the morning. They would also refer to her by her stage name: Adele Bantini. A story was also made up that she went to New York to study ballet under, as the article puts it, “French Masters.” Which, in all likelihood could have been true. George would often go to New York for fabrics and costuming, as well as special electrical effects for the show. Aurora was a very nature oriented kind of production, with maypoles, maypole dancing, the “May Queen” and it would’ve been as if an Alphonse Mucha painting sprang to life with all of its art nouveau glory. Aurora would tour the Vaudeville theater circuit in Columbus and surrounding cities every summer between 1911- 1914, and George even employed more than 250 Columbus residents as extras, although he would belly ache about having to teach amateurs.
As the teens waned and the 20’s came roaring, George and Adele would do less with the theater work and spend more time on their more profitable dance hall and skating rink ventures. Iuka Park Gardens became an institution for the community, even employing boys as young as 12 years old to help lace up the skate to the shoes of the patrons. Several people would meet their sweethearts for the first time at the rink, get their first kisses, and engagements there over the years. The Smith’s employees loved them and some would stay employed by them for decades. George’s brother in law Ivan would help run the business in 1938, and George would pass away in 1948. Adele would continue Iuka Park Gardens until her death in 1965, and it would remain open until Ivan had to close the business in 1971. The land was sold, the dance hall and rinks bulldozed, and the Iuka Park Commons apartments are there to this day. The Smiths had no children.