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The Old Philosopher

Submitted by Jari Lynn Oncken - March 26, 2008

" Babe Smith in the 1930's
Many Minonk citizens have made an impact on the everyday life of the people in our town. One such person is the Old Philosopher, Harry Dale "Babe" Smith.

He was one of Minonk's most colorful citizens and was well known and liked in the town and the surrounding area.

Babe was born in Minonk on July 24,1897. He lived in the same house on 515 East Eighth Street for his entire life. Babe was a bachelor by choice, but never wanted for "lady friends".

His education was limited due to the fact that he and his teachers could never quite agree on what should or should not be taught.

The first of Babe's many jobs began in 1912 with the N L Davison Pop factory on the alley behind the 500 block of Chestnut Street. He worked there until 1918 when he lost the sight in his right eye after a bottle exploded.

In 1912, he learned to drive a car and was a chauffeur for families who had cars, but were unable to drive. He also drove a cab for the Jack Green Taxicab Company in Minonk in 1916.

His other occupations included selling products door-to-door, demonstrating player pianos at the county fair, selling tickets for airplane rides and a forty-year career as an electrician.

Babe was a member of the Chamber of Commerce, a 50-year member of the Minonk Masonic Lodge and a 57-year member of the Minonk Fire Department.

He served as fire chief for several terms. Babe helped the department raise money to buy the first motorized fire truck, an American La France, and much of the fire equipment.

"Here comes Babe for more money," was a quip made by many in Minonk when he came to collect. He was a promoter of street signs and house numbering so that the mail delivery program could be started in 1948. He also worked toward the installation of mercury vapor lights for the business district.

Well known for his musical talents, Babe played the harmonic, concertina, accordion, musical saw and guitar. He also created a few musical instruments including a unique, one-string violin made from a cigar box and a long piece of board.

At one time, Babe was a member of a musical group that played for a radio station broadcasting from the Kaskaskia Hotel in LaSalle. He also made appearances with his homemade music on WGN-TV in Chicago. Chicago Tribune columnist, Thomas Morrow wrote about Smith in "The Senator Says" column.

For a number of years, Babe played in the "Little German Band" which he organized in the early '50s.

Many people knew and enjoyed Babe through his weekly column, "The Old Philosopher", in the Minonk News-Dispatch. His columns contained thoughts for the week, riddles, jokes, Minonk history and a lot of interesting information.

His first column, published September 7, 1967, included a poem he wrote, "Ode to a School Bus." "Days are shorter, nights are cool, We've stowed away the plastic pool, beach umbrella, picnic gear, and swim suits for another year. Vacations over, I should care, the kids are back in teacher's hair."

Usually, Babe's column would be on page three and would include a riddle such as, "If twelve boys sat down to eat one apple pie, what time was it?" The reader would turn to page six to find the answer which was, "a quarter to three."

One column included an entertaining article titled, "The Good Old Days", where Babe reminisced about a trip to the Chicage Ford Factory with Irwin "Red" Rogers, a friend and former Minonk man.

The story told of 15 Minonk men, including Babe and Red, who traveled to Chicago to pick up 15 new Ford cars for Goodwin Brothers auto dealership. The other 13 men included Coon De Fries, Spider Meils, Storkey Eilts, Chelcie Worsburger, Harry Morgan, Happy De Fries, Mush De Fries, Ben Hamey,Johnny
Zika, Jr., Slim Mammen, Buzz Mc Keon, Bill Brand and Bert Goodwin.

Only eight of the men had ever driven a car, and yet, they were going to drive in Chicago traffic.

They went to Streator on the 10 p.m. stock train. After arriving at 11 p.m., they caught a few hours sleep at a hotel before boarding the 5 a.m. train for Chicago.

Upon arrival in Chicago, the men ate breakfast and toured the city before going to the Ford factory where they found the cars were not even assembled.

When they finally got the cars at 5 p.m., the paint was still wet.

During the day, the weather had gotten colder. Not being dressed for it, they nearly froze. In those days, there were no heaters in cars, but a heater would not have helped. These cars were open touring cars with the tops down. It was night by the time they pulled out. No one thought about getting kerosene for the taillights until the police stopped them, made them buy a gallon and fill each lamp.

As they proceeded, several motors stalled causing cars to smash into each

In those days, cars were started with a hand crank. It was no easy task because the new motors were stiff and most of the men did not know how to crank a car.

Traffic, mostly horse drawn delivery wagons, was tied up for blocks.

Several policemen stood on their running boards and showed them which streets to take out of town. The men arrived in Naperville at midnight.

It took seven hours to make a 30-mile trip.

The temperature was freezing by then, so they had to drain the water out of the cars and park them on thestreet before finding a meal and sleeping rooms.

They refilled the cars and set out for home the following morning with a new rule..

When anyone was going to slow down or stop, they should hold their arm out
to warn the driver behind. When that happened, they would look back to see if the driver behind was getting the signal and often ended up running into the rear of the car in front of them.

The motorized caravan left Chicago Friday night at 5 p.m.and finally arrived in Minonk on Saturday at 6 p.m. with 11 of the 15 cars damaged in some way.

And Babe recorded it all.

He wrote for the Minonk News-Dispatch for a little over five years. His last column was published on April 19, 1973, two days before his death

The editor of the paper wrote, "he was a promoter, a tinkerer and a philosopher. He was a talented, gregarious man whose riches were counted in friends, wisdom and humble accomplishments. Many whose lives he made richer by his presence will sorely miss Babe."

Every person has a story to tell. Each story adds to the whole and helps sustain the life of a town. Are you telling your story?