Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Winter Wonderland Is In My Home Town

From the age of 3 until I married and moved away at 24, I lived in the small North-east PA town of Honesdale about 30 minutes from Scranton. One of my favorite stories of the town is the one about Dick Smith, the man who wrote the lyrics to one of my favorite songs: Winter Wonderland. His inspiration for the song came from seeing snow covered Central Park; his house having it in perfect view.
I came across this wonderful article written about him that was published in the town's news paper The Wayne Independent in 2007. It tells the story better then I could so I am sharing it here with you. I have taken creative liberties and added a few additional photo that did not originally accompany the article. Enjoy!

Thanks To Him, The World Knows Honesdale As A Winter Wonderland

By Peter Becker
Wayne Independent
Fri Dec 21, 2007

Parson Brown would be a fine name for your next snowman, especially if you have any connection with Honesdale or Wayne County, Pa.

Keeping the legend alive, here goes our annual tribute to Dick Smith and his song, “Winter Wonderland,” the holiday song Wayne County can claim as its very own.
It was here in Honesdale, Pa. that Dick Smith was born, September 29, 1901 on Court Street. When just a toddler, four years after, he and his family moved over to 922 Church Street, which remained in the family for the next 85 years.

This highly talented lyricist, whose expectations were as bright as the glistening snowflakes he penned in his trademark song, lived only a brief life of 34 years. His inspiration was firmly rooted in the place of his nativity. His younger sister Marjorie W. Smith was the last surviving member of the family, who died in 1997. She kept the Smith homestead until the early 90’s, and always admired the beautiful Central Park right across the street. Marjorie always said her brother was inspired by the winter scenes in the park, when he wrote “Winter Wonderland.”

Lived across from the Park

Indeed, growing up across from Honesdale’s main park provided any boy or girl with a lovely “front yard.” In those days building snowmen were much more common, as well making snow forts and having snowball fights. There was no Christmas Star on the cliff in Dick Smith’s time, but what was Christmas like in his boyhood days?

A look at editions of The Wayne Independent around a hundred years ago gives some idea. Honesdale was prospering with merchants and mills, somehow surviving without any mall. An editorial was found, however, lamenting that some local citizens would board the Erie train in Honesdale and go to New York City to shop for Christmas, rather than cater to any of the fine stores lining our bustling Main Street.

Honesdale was a full member of the new day of the 20th Century. When Dick Smith was born, streets were still a few years from being paved with brick, but cars were starting to appear. A 1906 issue reported that automobile drivers were a menace to horses and farmers’ wives coming to town. One-horse open sleighs were not yet nostalgic images for calendars or Christmas cards, but were still a way people got about especially in the countryside in those winter days when snow measurements were legendary as compared to today.

Electric lights and phones had recently become a reality.

In addition to the snowy park, in those days children enjoyed ice skating on “Park Lake,” a wide, dammed section of the Lackawaxen River along 12th Street. Dick’s sister Marjorie told the writer she loved to skate there. People would go about singing carols, Christmas trees were lit with candles, and St. Nick was as expected by children of Dick’s day probably as much as today (although Rudolph had not yet joined the herd).

Marjorie once recalled to the writer about the great trees that once lined Church Street on both sides, giving shade to the streets that also became quite muddy, she added. Those same arching tree limbs would have been quite a sight laden with freshly fallen snow, outside Dick Smith’s bedroom window.

The Smiths went to Grace Episcopal Church, a half block down the street. His father was John H. Smith, who was partner with a local cut glass manufacturing plant, and served on the Episcopal Church Vestry. Dick’s mother was Eliza Bruning Smith. He had a brother “Change” (Warren), and two sisters, Marjorie and Marion. One can easily imagine Eliza wrapping up her little ones in scarfs, mittens and coats, and heading down to church on Christmas Eve where luminary would be set out to greet the worshippers. We’d like to say his minister was “Parson Brown” but actually in his boyhood his minister was the Rev. A. L. Whittaker.

Sadly, Dick was only about age 7 or 8 when his father died. In the house sat an upright piano where we are sure young Dick Smith found fascination with the music and likely started making up his own little songs. A few years ago, the writer was able to interview a couple of Dick’s classmates- who have since passed away. Margaret (Kreitner) Morrison, who was a long time school nurse, said Dick showed a gift for piano from his school days.

Honesdale High School was only a block up Church Street, between the Presbyterian and Methodist churches. Like every other boy in town, Dick could walk to school, to church, or wherever else boys would go. Some would scale Irving Cliff- carvings and dates of a hundred years back attest to that. Some would play in the old canal or the left over coal piles behind Main Street (surely to be scolded once their mother saw them). They did have their own buggy, and a horse named Prince. Marjorie said she tried to learn to drive and took a Model T Ford once around the block- and that was enough. She never would drive again.

Another likely source of musical inspiration was the Lyric Theater, which opened on Main Street (where Turkey Hill Market is today), in 1905.

“Dick was witty and clever at making verses,” said Mrs. Morrison in 1994. “He had a keen sense of humor- a nice, fine fellow.” She counted him as a friend, adding, “Dick was very popular, very outgoing and sunny. Everyone wanted to be a friend of his.”
Surely these characteristics would serve him well as he embarked in the fast paced, competitive career of entertainment.

Mrs. Morrison was secretary of the high school class, and recruited Dick Smith to write poems for each of his fellow graduating seniors for Class Night.

Grace Bentley, a sister of Mrs. Morrison, recalled that Dick Smith won a lot of contests, including slogan writing for radio commercials and art contests. Dick graduated from Honesdale High School in 1920, with 28 other students.

He went on to Penn State College, where he conducted his own orchestra, graduating in 1925. He later managed the Fox Palace Northeast in Waterbury, Connecticut, the Rivoli Theatre in New York City, and the Trivoli Theater in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
He didn’t only write songs about snow.

Dick wrote 10 songs that were published in the early 1930's. They were:

• “The Breeze That’s Bringing My Honey Back to Me” (July 1934) written by Tony Sacco, Smith and La Lewis
• “Winter Wonderland,” written in 1934 by Smith with music by Felix Barnard
• “I Thrill When They Mention Your Name,” written by Tony Sacco, Smith and Peter Tinturen
• “I’m Keeping Those Keepsakes You Gave Me,” written by Smith with music by Smith with music by Fred Ahlert
• “The Bluebirds are Singing a Blue Song”
• “Tumbleweed”
• “When a Gypsy Makes His Violin Cry,” written by George and Bert Clarke, and Smith
• “Early to Bed- Bein’ Good While You’re Gone,” written by George and Bert Clarke, and Smith
• “It Looks Like an Early Fall,” written by Smith, with music by J. Fred Coots
• “Campus Moon,” written by Smith and Tony Sacco, with music by J. Fred Coots.
This list was supplied to the writer several years ago by Marjorie Smith, who was so proud of her brother and kept a copy of “Winter Wonderland” sheet music on top her piano.

Smith’s success seemed to be making the Big Time, but was cut short at the prime of life after contracting tuberculosis (TB). Mrs. Morrison recalled the TB started in his knee and took sick in 1931, shortly after marrying the former Jean Connor of Scranton. They never had children.

Smith spent a lengthy time at West Mountain Sanitarium, Scranton, where he remained undaunted in his writing, including radio slogans. These included contests for Maybelline Eye Shadow, Old Gold Cigarettes and as recalled by Mrs. Bentley, Armour Ham.

Mrs. Bentley said she took Marjorie many times to se Dick while he was at the Sanitarium. It was here that Dick Smith penned his most well known work, the words of “Winter Wonderland.”

The song was an immediate hit, being featured in its first year as the opening song at the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall. It was used by Guy Lombardo with the Royal Canadians in the Ziegfields Follies.

His illness claimed his life on September 28, 1935, a day before he would turn 34. That year he had also signed a contract to write Hollywood musicals, but died one month before he was to move to California.

“Campus Moon” was published after Smith’s death.

“Winter Wonderland made it to the top in 1943 when it was acquired by a new firm, Bregman, Vocco & Conn.

Mrs. Bentley stated that Smith and his wife continued to receive about &7,000 a year in royalties on “Winter Wonderland.” His widow lived in Clarks Summit, and died around 1990.

The song’s title has been borrowed countless times by marketers and advertisers. The song itself, especially the first stanza, is forever a part of the holiday parade, heard the world over.

Me in Central Park, Honesdale PA Circa 1978


  1. Hey, I live not too far from Honesdale! Small world. Great post- love the pics!

  2. My Mom grew up in Union Dale, which is not far away! I still have relatives in the area. I love reading history like this! Thanks for the post!

  3. I have only been to Pennsylvania twice, and both times were to big cities and in the summer. I have been told how lovely it is in the winter, now I see :)

    Winter Wonderland is also one of my favourite Christmas songs. It's lovely to read such a story, and to know where the inspiration comes from. Those pictures are beautiful.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Thanks for your comments ladies!
    I have been living in the south for the past 12 years so needless to say I long for a good old fashioned snow like this!

  5. I grew up partially in Wayne County, moved to California and will now be moving back very soon. I can't wait and this post made me even more eager. Thank you for sharing something so special about our little corner of the world.