Kate Cressman Smith may be a footnote today in our local history, but she was Perkasie’s most-famous person for a generation. Smith was as a source of community inspiration as she battled an incredibly painful disease for 23 years.
On February 24, 1938, the Perkasie Central News announced that Mrs. Smith had passed away a few months short of her 51st birthday at the family’s modest home at 519 Vine Street. “Death, shortly after 9 o’clock on Tuesday evening, claimed Kate Smith, Perkasie’s most widely known resident,” the newspaper said. That wasn’t a boastful claim. Katie Smith kept a list of people who visited her after she was confined to her sickbed in 1918. Her last visitor, Mrs. O.B. Sellers, was visitor 49,364 in her bedside guest book.
Smith’s death certificate showed she had suffered from chronic rheumatism and osteoarthritis. The illness had baffled doctors who had first diagnosed Smith in 1915 at the age of 28. At the time, Kate Smith was a cigar maker, like many women in Perkasie.
Her husband, Edward L. Smith, had also been a cigar maker as he pursued his dream to design buildings. According to Perkasie’s 50th Anniversary book in 1929, Smith grew up as an orphan in Philadelphia and then apprenticed at an architectural firm there. He moved to Perkasie in 1896 to live with his uncle and worked in the cigar factories until he could start his own business. Census records show Smith worked as a cigar maker and an architect at the same time until at least 1920.
Edward L. Smith and Katie Cressman were married on December 22, 1904, in Sellersville. Katie was just 17 years old and needed her father’s consent. Both were listed as cigar makers on the marriage license. By that time, Smith already worked on Trinity Lutheran Church in Perkasie, where he was a member. In 1914 and 1915, Smith set up shop on Fourth Street, as a full-time architect, and he also worked with Jerome Landes, an architect from Souderton.
In November 1914, Katie Smith was admitted to a local hospital with tonsillitis and returned with a diagnosis of muscular rheumatism. Over the next five years, Katie Smith lost all movement in her body below her neck. In that same period, Edward L. Smith worked at two jobs, and he designed one of his biggest projects in Perkasie, the Beidler Clothing Factory.
By October 1919, Edward L. Smith had advertised for a full-time caretaker for his wife at their twin home on Vine Street. A year earlier, various social and religious groups started visiting Katie Smith in her bedroom. For her birthday in 1918, she received 135 cards and different donations. At that point, she also started the guest book at the house.
Katie Smith received more and more visitors in the 1920s, and also started a business selling greeting cards for a brief period. In March 1924, the Central News said Smith had received an Atwater-Kent radio as a gift from Perkasie’s citizens. “Today practically every joint and muscle in her body is rigid except those of the neck and head,” the newspaper said. But Smith also had retained “the faculties of her mind to a great degree,” was extremely well-read and highly skilled at conversation. Smith also dictated a poem to the citizens of Perkasie as a gift of thanks.
On that day, Katie Smith had heard her first church sermon in 10 years on the Atwater-Kent radio. But over the next 14 years, Smith’s courage would become the frequent topic of sermons regionally. As noted in her guest book, more than 900 pastors had visited Smith during her 19-year period in bed on Vine Street. She also was the subject of a special radio show.
Edward L. Smith, meanwhile, actively designed single and twin homes, and also numerous bungalows in Perkasie. In 1931, Smith designed the annex for the Royal Pants factory also in South Perkasie. (Today, that is the middle building to the left of the Free Will brewery.)
Katie Smith’s visitors were regularly featured in the Central News until 1935. The groups included church congregations, social groups, and a banjo and mandolin orchestra from Lansdale. After her death in 1938, the newspaper said Smith was critical of people who too freely expressed sympathy for her condition. People from all 48 states and eight countries had visited her on Vine Street. The newspaper also said the Perkasie Chamber of Commerce had bought the Smith’s house in 1919 when they faced eviction and Perkasie’s citizens paid the mortgage, while the Chamber paid the interest, for the past 19 years. More than 700 people attended her memorial service at Trinity Lutheran.
Right after Katie’s death, Edward L. Smith sold the contents of the house, not including the Atwater-Kent radio, and moved into Perkasie’s Union Hotel. He lived there and conducted his architectural business for another 15 years. The last building Smith designed was a renovation of the Menlo Park casino in the 1950s. Edward L. Smith died in July 1963 at the age of 85. His obituary noted that Smith had moved to Perkasie at the age of 15 after leaving his orphanage in Philadelphia.
There were few couples, if any, who made such an important contribution to our community during that era. Katie Smith’s obit in 1938 summed about how Perkasie felt about the Smiths:
“In every respect Mr. and Mrs. Smith were just like the average couple in Perkasie, plain industrious folks whose greatest desire was an opportunity to work and earn a livelihood, maintain a home where friendliness and the art of being good neighbors would be a dominating influence. In this they succeeded, but not in the manner as originally planned.”