April 25, 2019

Jerry Smith: A Man in His Time

Originally published in the Richmond Hill Liberal (April 2019)
by Mary-Jane Celsie

A look back at Richmond Hill’s internationally renowned watch and clock maker by Mary-Jane Celsie

The cover to a book published about Jerry Smith in 1998 that was co-written by Mary Jane Celsie and Jerry Smith's daughter Audrey Smith. - Courtesy of RHHS

The cover to a book published about Jerry Smith in 1998 that was co-written by Mary Jane Celsie and Jerry Smith’s daughter Audrey Smith. – Courtesy of RHHS

When Jerry Smith, Richmond Hill’s internationally renowned watch and clock maker, died in January of 1953, the Liberal paid tribute in these words:

“In the passing of Jerry Smith, the Village of Richmond Hill lost a distinguished citizen. In him were combined rich qualities of heart, and mind, and soul which made him unique and outstanding. More than 50 years in business in Richmond Hill he was a landmark of this village, and his integrity and workmanship brought honour and credit not only on himself and family but to the whole community.”

Jerry Smith was born at Edgeley, now part of the city of Vaughan; his great-grandfather had made the trek from Somerset County to York County in a Conestoga wagon in around 1799. Perhaps prophetically, a prized possession that made the trek with them was a large grandfather clock that remains a family heirloom to this day.

The young Jerry Smith was not interested in watchmaking as a boy. He wanted to be a telegraph operator, and even built a working telegraph key from household objects like an old lever watch plate and a door lock bolt at age 11. He worked with the Grand Trunk Railway for eight years. However, at age 24, he enrolled in the Canadian Horological Institute on King Street in Toronto — the foremost school for watchmakers in Canada — and graduated with a Diploma Grade A 1, one of only three students in Canada to achieve this level.

Jerry Smith's shop and home in the building that remains in situ beside the Yonge Street entrance driveway to the McConaghy Centre now. It has had many changes made over the years. - Courtesy of RHHS

Jerry Smith’s shop and home in the building that remains in situ beside the Yonge Street entrance driveway to the McConaghy Centre now. It has had many changes made over the years. – Courtesy of RHHS

Jerry Smith set up shop in Richmond Hill in 1899, first in the Lorne Block on Yonge Street and shortly after that in the yellow frame house that still stands on Yonge St., directly south of McConaghy Centre. In 1900, he married Effie Hollingshead. The couple had 11 children: nine girls and two boys. He was a warm and involved father — his youngest daughter, Audrey Smith Koenig, recalled that he himself cut the girls’ hair, even singeing the ends with his butane lamp to prevent splitting.

Known for his precision — as well as his innovations in creating timepieces — Jerry Smith’s expertise was sought after by clients as far away as Quebec, British Columbia, England and even India. At the time of his death, he was recognized the world over for his skill and craftsmanship. It’s perhaps fitting that his last words were, “What time is it?”

— Mary-Jane Celsie is a member of the Richmond Hill Historical Society and the director of content with the Richmond Hill Central Library.