From the 1890s to the early 1950s, D. Vincent Smith was a familiar sight throughout Northcentral Pennsylvania with his box camera and heavy-duty bicycle, wearing his knickers, sneakers and scoop cap. He left behind a priceless photographic heritage.
Smith was born July 24, 1875, in the Nippenose Valley, the son of James W. and Mathilda Homan Smith. He likely learned photography from his father, James, who began taking photographs in Nippenose Valley shortly after the Civil War. Many of the early Smith photos were made by his father, James. He specialized in rural scenes and portrait work among rural residents.
He photographed hundreds of sites and buildings that no longer exist. Those photographs leave an irreplaceable window to the area’s past. Smith never owned a car. For more than 62 years, he pedaled more than 150,000 miles, taking more than 33,000 photographs.
One summer he used a horse and buggy but returned to his bicycle because he could “never make good time” with the buggy. One unverified story said Smith was diagnosed with a bad heart and he was advised by a doctor to find an occupation in which he could get “a lot of fresh air and exercise.”
Arguably, more than any other man, he probably knew better the physical changes in Lycoming County throughout his life. It was said you could name a corner and he could tell you what previously occupied the site. It was likely he could reach back into his rich collection of photographic plates and negatives and summon forth an image of that former site.
His images showed variety from business activities such as the building of the Lycoming County Airport or logging and ice cutting on the Susquehanna, to those of festive occasions such as floats and parades. One of those shows a float pulled by a Hurr’s Dairy wagon. Another image shows the opening at the Capitol Theatre, with the bill featuring the Al Jolson film, “The Singing Fool.”
A resident of South Williamsport for more than 60 years, he kept many of his photographic plates and negatives in the basement of his home. He died July 20, 1955, just four days short of his 80th birthday.
The Williamsport “Sun” remembered Smith in an editorial on July 21, 1955, writing: “The death of D. Vincent Smith, the photographer on a bicycle, brings to a close one of the most interesting careers in Lycoming County. Sticking to a bicycle after faster means of transportation became available was not a fad for Mr. Smith. He didn’t do it to attract attention, instead he considered it a healthy way to exercise and an ideal way to stay close to his job.
“A man who loves scenery doesn’t want to travel through life too fast. It requires a leisurely pace to catch all the changing hues of a sunrise or sunset. And Mr. Smith tried not to miss anything of beauty. “He took thousands of pictures, most of them faces, but hundreds were of scenes long since disappeared. It is hoped that the local history he so faithfully recorded in the last 60 years will be preserved in a collection that will preserve Smith’s legacy.”
Smith’s storehouse of photos is preserved at the Lycoming County Historical Museum.
By Lou Hunsinger Jr., Williamsport Sun-Gazette