OPINION| Tom Dillard: Smart family makes mark on automobile history

In last week's column I addressed the advent of the automobile in Arkansas. This week we turn our attention to the Smart family of Pine Bluff -- which can only be described as the first family of Arkansas automobile dealers.

The first auto dealers were brothers William C. and James P. Faucette, who were the leading political powers in Argenta. Faucette Bros. began selling steam-powered autos -- called locomobiles -- in 1902, but that dealership did not last long. Felix Gillespie Smart, the son of pioneering Pine Bluff settler Felix Grundy Smart, established the F.G. Smart Motor Co. on West Barraque Street in Pine Bluff in 1906.

For generations the Smart family gave the name Felix to their sons, which causes considerable confusion for historians. To clarify which Felix is under discussion, I will include their middle names.

The growing Smart family migrated to the Pine Bluff area in the 1830s while Arkansas was still a territory and Felix Grundy was a child. He attended local "subscription schools," since Arkansas would not have a public school system for another 40 years.

Felix Grundy is described by contemporaries as a "self-made man," which means his family was of modest means. He undertook numerous business pursuits, and is best remembered as a founder of the first bank in Pine Bluff in 1876. Later named Merchants and Planters Bank, it prospered until 1930, when it failed during the Great Depression. The bank building survives and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Felix Grundy died in December 1884 at his magnificent home in Pine Bluff, purchased during the Civil War for $12,000 in Confederate currency.

Felix Gillespie Smart, the son of Felix Grundy and Liza Hudson Smart, was born in 1876. Like his father, Felix Gillespie was a hard-working man in a hard-working and prosperous community. He was full of life and always open to new undertakings.

When the bicycle craze struck Arkansas and the nation in the 1880s and 1890s, Felix Gillespie was a leading cyclist and promoter of the new vehicle. He was president of the Pine City Cycling Club, and organized and participated in bike races. He won a two-mile competition in the autumn of 1894 despite having been "knocked senseless" in an earlier race the same day.

Additionally, Smart was a fan of motorized boats, in 1901 being one of three Pine Bluff residents who owned "swift little river launches."

Felix Gillespie began his business career early, purchasing the refreshments concession at Sulphur Springs, a popular weekend resort near Pine Bluff, when he was 18 years of age. Within two more years he was the owner of a thriving grocery store, soon adding a wholesale component. He dove into real estate with a partner, and built a large roller-skating rink. In 1905 Felix he purchased the People's Furniture Co., and the following year he established Smart Motor Co.

Felix Gillespie was even more enthusiastic for automobiles than he had been for bicycles. On numerous occasions he organized automobile outings. In 1905, for example, he was among a "jolly crowd of automobilists" who drove from Pine Bluff to Little Rock and back home in one day. Driving anywhere in Arkansas in 1905 was an adventure, given there were no service stations and the roadways were little more than dusty trails. Newspapers covered these excursions avidly.

Smart Motor Co. was positioned to take advantage of the rapidly expanding automobile market. In 1912 the company acquired the Ford franchise for Pine Bluff, an important development since Henry Ford was in the process of transforming his company into a powerhouse which would make auto ownership feasible for the masses.

Felix Gillespie Smart died in 1915 at the age of 39. His son, 17-year-old Felix Gerrett Smart, left high school to carry on the family businesses. The auto company did quite well during the economically robust 1920s, selling 700 new and used autos in 1922 alone. They built new and larger facilities on West Second Avenue, which included an elevator for moving vehicles from upstairs storage to the expansive ground-floor showrooms.

By 1923, the company had a tractor sales department. In 1933, Smart gave up the Ford franchise and became a Chevrolet dealer, a relationship which continues to this day.

Like his father, Felix Gerrett had multiple interests. He was especially active in civil aeronautics in Pine Bluff, where he led the movement to establish a city airport. During World War II, he served as a colonel in the Army Air Corps, while his brother-in-law S. Ray West Sr. ran the corporation. For years after the war he was an officer in the Air Force Reserve. He lost a son during the war, Felix Jr., killed while serving in the U.S. Navy.

Felix Gerrett was an active promoter of Pine Bluff, being a president of the Chamber of Commerce and the Pine Bluff Rotary Club. He played a major role in establishing an Army Air Corps flying school at Grider Field in Pine Bluff during World War II.

Like so many other Smart men, Felix Gerrett died early, on Dec. 17, 1957. His son, Richard L. "Bubba" Smart, then assumed management of the company. A variety of family members have kept the Smart dealerships going through the ensuing years.

Today the company has its headquarters and three dealerships in White Hall, not far north of Pine Bluff, as well as a Ford dealership in Malvern and a Chrysler Dodge Jeep dealership and used car operation in Pine Bluff.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

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