|History of smith's|
Walk into Smith's on Remsen Street" Cohoes, and instantly your
thoughts flash back through the years to the Prohibition era. It is
a time capsule that has remained unchanged since the mid-1930s.
Smith's was built in 1873, one year before the Cohoes Music Hall. It housed a silent movie theater for a period of time. It was converted to a pool hall and finally into a tavern near the turn of the century.
In 1937, the restaurant was made famous when it was purchased by Michael T. Smith. "Big Mike," as he was affectionately called, became one of the greatest legendary figures of the 1900s and a person known across the nation for his participation in the National Democratic Sessions. A most notable Cohoes Democratic Leader, he rose from the office of Albany County Supervisor in the 1890s to become one the State's most colorful political leaders. He gained his political power despite the fact that he could not read or write. Whenever he was asked to read or sign something, he would make the excuse that he had forgotten his glasses and could not see.
"Big Mike" ran a pretty tight political ship in Cohoes during the '20s and '30s. Smith was about 6'4" and easily weighed 300+ pounds. He cut such an impressive figure that he got coast-to-coast radio coverage when he walked into the Democratic National Convention in 1936. He walked into the convention in a white suit and white Stetson hat, smoking a fat cigar. He made his entry with such flair that it was described over a coast-to-coast radio network.
He commissioned a custom-made vehicle to be proudly dubbed his "Land Yacht," and had a Cohoesier drive him and his entourage to the Philadelphia Convention. He parked it in front of convention headquarters with a recording of "Happy Days Are Here Again," blaring from the land yacht.
His land yacht was equipped with a dining room, refreshment bar, observation platform, and roof garden, and it often attracted more attention than many other convention events.
In 1932, he campaigned for Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Cohoes bandwagon blared its support of the New York Governor at the Chicago National Convention. A warm friendship between the two grew and flourished even after Roosevelt left Albany to guide the nation. At one time when the Presidential train was passing through Cohoes, President Roosevelt ordered the train to stop just so he could shake hands with his old friend, "Big Mike."
Mike was known throughout as a very kind and generous man. In the early 1900s, he owned a "Beer House" on the corner of Vliet and Garner Streets and provided meals for the old and the poor. After years of service, the "Beer House" - burned down and was never reopened. Smith also operated a tavern for many years on Willow Street in Cohoes.
Affectionately known as "a poor man's club" it was located in the heart of the Harmony Mills historic district and was the beginning of his 90 building holdings in the area.
Later he owned Smith's Restaurant, which was considered one of the best eating-places in Albany County. There were times when the former Mayor of New York, Mayor Wagner, dined there. Because of the bitter battle between Smith and Governor Dewey, he was never able to obtain a liquor license. Therefore, after several attempts, he decided to operate without one anyway. No one dared to challenge him.
Although Smith's Restaurant was considered the unofficial Democratic headquarters in Cohoes, it is claimed that most of the decisions were made in the "big house," Smith's home on Hamilton Street. It was an architectural monstrosity. If Smith wanted something in the house that didn't fit, he’d just add a room. It is said that Smith's wife paid about $100,000 to the Burden Estate in Troy to buy items, some of which were believed to have come from the Vanderbilt’s. One of the items was an oriental rug, and when it was discovered that there was no place to put it (in the Smith home), Mike just built a room around it.
The bar at Smith's was bought from the original Tammany Hall in New York City by the O'Connor family. They ran a speakeasy in Albany on Beaver Street, and later a bar and restaurant on State Street. Smith's bar is nearly 50 feet long, and is made of priceless African mahogany.
Contrasting the informal atmosphere of those years with the need for the tight security of today, Governor Alfred E. Smith, brown derby and all, used to come to Albany by train, walk from the station to O'Connor's bar for a drink or two, and then walk on to the Governor's mansion with no fuss about his security.
It was Mike Smith's desire to do everything big that prompted him to go after that bar for his restaurant in Cohoes. At the time, it was reputed to be the longest bar north of New York City. The bar is still the focus of attention at Smith's today.
Two five-foot tall Japanese palace urns, somewhat reminiscent of a trip through an Egyptian Tomb, grace the back-bar. Supposedly, they are over 150 years old and are believed to have come from the Burden Estate in Troy. In the front is a smaller vase that was owned by John L. Sullivan. Just why the pugilist would have wanted such a thing is a mystery, as are the circumstances by which Mike Smith acquired title to it.
The dining room at Smith's was added in the late 1930s with its huge stone fireplace laid piece by piece by an Italian stonemason from Cohoes. The original fireplace was started on the left wall as one enters the dining room. When it was half built, "Big Mike" decided he didn't want it there, had it taken apart and relocated to its present site. When it was half completed, "Big Mike" felt it was too small and ordered it be rebuilt to the present size.
The floor is one of the few remaining examples of individually inlaid tile. The second dining room was added in 1949. Smith's of Cohoes received the 1978 Beautification Award for Outstanding and Significant Achievement from the Troy Greater Chamber of Commerce for enhancing and beautifying its structure. Much of its original beauty remains, and to the "regulars" and those who are lovers of political history of this area, "Big Mike's" presence is still felt. Volumes of books could be written with the stories that have been shared over the bar and back room of Smith's of Cohoes. Most of them are true, and a few are fiction.
At the age of 90, Michael T. Smith died in his sleep on December 31, 1949. On the day of his funeral, schoolchildren were given the day off, although most of them didn't know why. Few of them had ever seen or heard of "Big Mike" Smith. They were only told Mike Smith had died. He will always be remembered.
The legend of Mike Smith will carry on, and so too will the pride of his historical restaurant now owned and managed by the Antonucci Family.
When you visit Smith's Restaurant, you will receive their warm, personal attention. The chefs always provide the finest in gourmet dining. Let Smith's Restaurant be your host for your next party, special occasion or the next time you're looking for an intimate dining experience in a rich historical atmosphere.
Dining Room Hours:
JULY & AUGUST