“I consider S. Morgan Smith the pre-eminent industrialist in the history of York County. Five companies today can trace their roots to Smith, yet no one has ever written a biography about him. Why don’t you think about writing one?”
Jim McClure, editor of the York Daily Record, presented this challenge to Terry Downs and Steve Nicholas, while visiting First Moravian Church in York, Pa., in 2012. McClure had come to lecture about the Moravians and the Revolutionary War, as part of First Moravian’s 260th anniversary celebration.
Downs, a draftsman specializing in historic renovation, and Nicholas, a retired Moravian pastor, were serving as co-chairmen of the anniversary committee. They were chatting with McClure, when the conversation turned to the Rev. Stephen Morgan Smith, First Moravian’s pastor during the Civil War.
The Rev. Smith is a fascinating character, and his life raises a number of questions begging for answers. How did a Southern boy end up as a chaplain in the Union Army? How did a student attending Moravian Theological Seminary get a call to First Moravian Church in York, when the church’s previous pastor had left when elected president of the Northern Province of the Moravian Church? What happened to Smith that he needed to leave the ministry in 1871? How did an ex-preacher, at one time so poor that he could not afford a decent roof over his head, begin a company which became the largest manufacturer of hydroelectric turbines in the world and end up as a wealthy man?
Writing a biography
Over the next year, Downs and Nicholas talked about what they would need to write a biography of Smith. While Downs had portrayed Rev. Smith, with whiskers and frock coat, in a first person monologue during worship at First Moravian, they wondered if there were sufficient resources to fill out a portrait of Smith.
Downs contacted Rev. Smith’s great granddaughter and was invited to examine her boxes of family papers from Smith. The Southern Province Archives in Winston-Salem, N.C. seemed a likely place to find records from the congregation in North Carolina where he worshiped. They expected to find additional records from the York and Dover, Ohio, Moravian congregations that Smith served, in the collections of the Northern Province Archives in Bethlehem, Pa.
In 2013, Downs and Nicholas attended a York County Heritage Trust lecture by a retired engineer from York International (now Johnson Controls), explaining how Smith helped to found that company in 1874 and served as its first president. The Librarian at the York County Heritage Trust shared information that the Trust archives had boxes of material about Smith and the company he founded in 1890.
A fascinating character
Smith was born in Davie County, North Carolina, in 1839. As a young man he gave his life to Christ during a revival meeting at Macedonia Moravian Church and joined that congregation. With encouragement from his pastor, he went to Moravian Theological Seminary in 1859 to train for the ministry. In 1861, just as the Civil War started, he became the pastor at York, staying five years and marrying the organist, Emma Fahs.
In 1866, he and Emma left York to serve the Moravian Church in Canal Dover, Ohio. Smith had demonstrated mechanical ability while growing up, and during his pastorate in Dover, patented a mechanical washing machine, invented to help his wife do the laundry for their six children.
In 1871, a serious throat illness caused him to stop preaching, and he and his family returned to York, where he made a living selling his washing machines. A few years later, Smith and five partners formed the York Manufacturing Company, for the purpose of making washing machines and water turbine wheels. While Smith left the company after six years, York Corporation later became the largest manufacturer of commercial air conditioning in the world.
He experimented further with water turbines, and received several patents for improving them, eventually forming the S. Morgan Smith Company. In the 1890s, the company combined their turbines with electric generators, and the hydroelectric industry was born. Turbines from Smith’s company generate power at the Gran Coulee Dam, Bonneville Flats, Safe Harbor Dam and in more than a dozen foreign countries.
Profits from the company-owned business made his heirs wealthy, but also provided the resources for numerous works of philanthropy. In 1930, his sons C. Elmer Smith and Stephen Fahs Smith donated money to construct a new sanctuary for Macedonia Moravian Church. Both sons served as Trustees for Moravian College and Theological Seminary and grandsons, Beauchamp and Burwell, served in the same capacity. Beauchamp gave the money to build Jo Smith dormitory on the campus of Moravian College. In 1959, the Smith family sold the company to Allis Chalmers, and today it continues to manufacture turbines in York as Voith Hydro.
S. Morgan Smith never lost his love for his Savior and His Church, remaining an active member of First Moravian until he died in 1903. Bishop Edward Rondthaler, his seminary roommate, led his funeral at First Moravian. At each communion service, Smith donned his surplice and assisted his pastor. He served as a church trustee, and for thirty years, the superintendent of the Sunday School. He was recognized as a community leader, serving as president of the York County Sunday School Association, president of the SPCA, and a member of the school board for the city of York. Writing about his death, the York Dispatch said, “In his demeanor he was a man of warm disposition, kind nature and charitable in every sense.”
Downs and Nicholas estimate that it will take about two years of research, writing and editing, before their biography of Smith, tentatively titled, “Re-inventing the wheel; from minister to manufacturer. The S. Morgan Smith story,” will be ready for publishing. They are excited to bring to members of the Moravian Church, the community of York and the wider world, this story of a life well lived.
The Rev. Steve Nicholas, D.Min., was ordained in 1967 and retired from pastoral ministry in 2007.
From the April 2014 Moravian Magazine