The Life and Times of Robert Smith

By Bobby McElwee, Cave Spring, Georgia

Researched by Edna Stephens, Lawrenceville, Georgia

Placed in the public domain by permission of Edna Stephens.

--- In this lengthy and well-researched account, Mr. McElwee and Mrs. Stephens tell about the history of Bluffton and also present their case that two of their notorious ancestors, Will Smith and his son Bob Smith have been unjustly demonized. Mrs. Stephens is the granddaughter of Bob Smith. -Travis Hardin

It is impossible to properly judge someone without all of the facts. This writing on Bob Smith was prepared from copies of court records, public records, official documents, newspaper articles and stories passed down by family members. Perhaps reality will then show the man as he truly was. The reader will form his or her own opinion about the life and times of Bob Smith. Bob Smith grew up under circumstances that were bound to have had adverse influence upon him. Perhaps the best way to attempt to understand him is to investigate some of these conditions.


Bluffton in southern Cherokee County, Alabama was a boomtown during Bob's early youth. A thriving city of approximately 8,000 residents, it was looked upon as the Pittsburgh of the South. The Bluffton Land, Ore and Furnace Company had purchased about 1,500 acres and had great plans for Bluffton's future. This company's Capital Stock was valued at $1,000,000.00 in 1890.

Bluffton officials planned for a future population of near 50,000 by the beginning of the twentieth century. The town had the first electrical generating plant in Cherokee County, a water works system, newspaper, hotel, churches, school and a Post Office by 1890.

Many businesses were established in Bluffton. Signal Land & Improvement Company built houses, sold and mortgaged real estate and were involved with many construction projects in the area. Bluffton Carwheel Company manufactured numerous articles large and small that were made from iron. The American Arms Company manufactured rifles, furniture, wagons, bicycles and many other products. Its main building was 220 feet long andsaid to be well lighted. The Sash, Door and Blind Company as well as several other factories were also at Bluffton.

Four iron furnaces were operating in the area by 1890. They were located at Rock Run, Tecumseh, Stonewall and Etna. These companies built houses for their employees and formed baseball teams for their enjoyment. The Bluffton Land, Ore and Furnace Company constructed one of the finest hotels in Alabama and approximately 200 houses in 1890. The Signal Hotel, a three-story building, hosted many dignitaries, among them Rudyard Kipling, the English author. The Signal Hotel was the first structure in Cherokee County with electric lighting.


The East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad serviced the area. This railroad was on the main trunk line from New York to New Orleans and all points east and west could be traveled from Bluffton Station. The depot was located near the Signal Hotel.

A college, The University of The South was planned and Bluffton officials donated $500,00.00 to get it underway. The Methodist Episcopal Church was to have it built at a cost of between $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. The architectural plans were compared to Westminister Abbey. A groundbreaking ceremony took place April 24, 1890 with many dignitaries from all over the country in attendance.

The following was extracted from the Bluffton Mascot newspaper and printed in the Coosa River New, June 5, 1891: "The shape of Cherokee is not unlike a finger, a finger of destiny seeming to beckon people to come hither; observe our resources and advantages, partake of our clear healthy spring water, admire our glorious scenery, bask in our delightful climate, gaze with awe and admiration upon our solid mountains of iron ore, admire the splendid farms and fields of cotton and then say if the county of Cherokee is not one of richness and promise. The finger of destiny says to all come hither and see for yourselves."

Bluffton was the site of at least two churches. The Methodist Episcopal Church, which no longer exists, and Salem Baptist Church which is still active today. It was founded in the 1850's. The original wooden structure was replaced in 1947 with a masonry one and in 1955 additional rooms were added. Its latest remodeling occurred in 1974 when restrooms were added. Salem Baptist Church has supported missions and other good causes throughout its existence.

In the 1890's, Bluffton seemed well on its way to becoming one of the
most important cities of north Alabama when misfortune struck. The ore fields did not meet expectations, the ore was of a poorer grade than that found near Birmingham and there was less of it. The foundries shut down, the college was not built, jobs became scarce and people followed the jobs. Without a sufficient number of customers businesses began to fail. The dreams faded and so did the towns of Bluffton, Tecumseh and Etna.


The following paragraph was written by Edna Smith Stephens, a family member who has spent years searching for the true story of Will Smith. Information within these writings comes from documentation gathered by Edna Smith Stephens and her sister Shirley Smith Dowdy.

"Many stories have been written about Will Smith. These stories have
been highly exaggerated, according to family member who personally knew him. He was a businessman and generous to people in lack of the basic necessities. When a family was in need he would provide food as well as money. He was called upon to mediate disputes between his neighbors. According to many he had a striking appearance, he was a tall, handsome man with black hair and blue eyes. He bothered no one, however when confronted with a fight he never backed down. The newspaper articles about Will must be taken with a grain of salt and not necessarily believed."

Will Smith gained the name Belltree by hanging a bell attached to a rope from the limb of a large oak tree. The sale of whiskey was illegal in Alabama and this protected the identity of the seller. The buyer would place his container and money at the base of the oak tree, ring the bell and leave the vicinity. When he heard the bell ring he would return finding his whiskey and the correct change in its place. The word got around, and since it was on his land, Will was given the nickname of Belltree Smith. This became so well known the method was immortalized in the song "White Lighting." The whisky sold at the Bell Tree was not white lighting. It was bonded liquor shipped from the Northeastern United States where whiskey was legal. Several individuals who lived during this period told their children this and they passed it on to present day family members. Frances Smith Tanner (Will's sister) ran the blind Tiger at the Bell Tree as a means of support. [A blind tiger was a method of selling liquor without ever see the one you purchased it from. Then no one could every testify about it. This method was devised by my great grandfather Belltree Smith. It became known all over. Even the New York World newspaper had an article about it. - Edna Stephens]

Articles have been written stating a customer was killed if he dallied at the Bell Tree and did not follow the rules. There are also articles stating that Belltree held card games at the Bell Tree killing anyone who won his money. These statements are utter nonsense. Common sense tells you that if these statements were true no one would have gone there to gamble, thus no customers, no sales and no money.

There is much evidence pointing to Will Smith as a womanizer. He had two women at his home other than his wife and several women lived in cabins throughout his property. It has been said that one of the women living in his house was a servant and that the other nursed the sick. However this does not explain children born to them at the time.

Will had many friends and acquaintances in Rome, Georgia. Among them were Dr. Robert Battey, Dr. William Harbin, Dr. Robert Harbin and the Berry family. The doctors were said to have spent many days hunting with Will on his land.

A number of articles have been written stating that Will had killed a number of men. The number varies according to which article you read. The only killing of which documentation has been found is that of Joseph Hackney for which he was tried and acquitted. However, this writer remembers, as a youth, listening to elderly family members talk about two men Will supposedly killed. The story goes as follows: An elderly black couple lived on Bell Tree's land. One day two drunken hunters came to their home. The men ordered the woman to cook them something to eat. She told them, all right, but that her husband would have to go outside and get wood for the stove. They told the man to go and he did. The intruders sat down at the table and began drinking more whisky. The woman began to prepare the food. After a while, when the husband did not return, one of the men said, "He's gone for Belltree!." They jumped up and went out onto the porch. At that time the husband and Bell Tree were approaching the house. One of the drunken men raised his shotgun and fired. Bell Tree drew his pistol and shot the man between the eyes. The other raised his gun to shoot, but was killed before he could pull the trigger. This story may or may not be true. I am sure of one thing, if it is true; it has probably been embellished from what actually occurred. True or not, it makes a good story doesn't it? It is far more believable than other poorly researched stories written about Will Smith.

William Anderson Smith was without formal education and yet he ventured into several businesses, some generally reserved for the educated. His charcoal pits furnished area foundries with charcoal. At one time he was the owner of a store near the Signal Hotel. He raised and sold oxen, goats, cattle and pigs. He had sharecroppers who worked his farmland raising cotton and other crops. He made loans to people. In fact, one could have called him a one-man unsanctioned loan company. He imported tax paid whiskey for the Bell Tree. His ventures supported many families who were employed by him.

Will Smith recognized the handicap a lack of education had placed on him and made sure that his children went to school. He insured that they were properly clothed and that their other needs were met. Edna Smith Stephens has stated that one thing in particular stands out throughout her research. She said that there wasn't any doubt, in her mind, that Will Smith loved his family above everything else. In court documents his neighbors talked about how proud he was of them and how he wanted them to be educated so their life would be better than his. He talked about them having meals together and what a lucky man he was to have children that loved and respected him and that his children always stood behind him no matter what happened."

A man such as described in the previous paragraphs is bound to create enemies and Will Smith had more than his share. Despite being a man of means he was never written about in newspapers of his day except in a degrading manner. Even his death has been reported in so many distorted ways it is hard to decipher the truth from the fiction. The one that appears most often and is told by family members is as follows: On the 16th of August, 1908, during an all-day singing and dinner at Borden Springs, Alabama, an encounter between Will Smith and two Chandler brothers ended with Will Smith being shot in the head. One of the Chandler brothers hit Will Smith from behind with a rock and while he was disorientated Will Chandler shot him in the head.

Will Chandler was tried for the murder of Will Smith. The jury found him guilty, but he never served even a day of his sentence. Governor B. B. Comer immediately gave him a full pardon. Although, William A. Smith was well off financially and respected among the general populace he was not accepted by many in Alabama, who called him a desperado. It is obvious that many were glad he was dead.

The following was extracted from the Cleburne News printed the 26th of September 1908: "Will Chandler was placed on trial here last Wednesday evening for the killing of Will Smith, the famous Bell Tree desperado, which occurred several days ago at Borden Springs. The trial closed Friday afternoon. The evidence in the case showed that Chandler acted as would any other man under similar circumstances, but according to the law he was guilty of either murder in the second degree or manslaughter, and the jury was so charged by Judge Pelham. The jury, after having been out only a few moments, brought in a verdict of manslaughter, and placed his sentence at one year in the penitentiary. Within thirty minutes after the jury rendered its verdict, all the jurors, solicitor and judge had signed a petition asking the governor to grant him a pardon, and had it not been for technicalities in the law, all would have favored giving him freedom."

Does this not smell of a pre-arranged setup between the Jury, Judge, Solicitors and others? Justice was truly blind in this case. As bizarre and I hope unusual as this action was it did not match what happened next.

William A. Smith's mother and others filed a lawsuit against Alice Smith claiming she was not Will's wife and should not inherit his estate. William Siglin, Justice of The Peace, was assigned as executor of Will's estate. He listed the following as the estate and reported it to the Probate Judge, The Honorable Jos. L. Savage as such: 3 horses, 5 mule, 4 milk cows each with calf, 10 yolk of oxen, 1 yoke of yearlings, 140 goats, 8 hogs, 1 buggy, 2 coal wagons, 1 lot of farming tools, 1,060 acres of land more or less, 175 acres of which half owner. The 160-acre homestead including the house in which Will's family was living was exempt from the state tally.

Besides the assets listed, William Sigler also collected debts due Will Smith, sold some of Will's possessions at auction and deposited the cash left by Will in The First National Bank of Rome, Georgia.

It has been said that Will had bank accounts in other counties not found by the state administrator. (True or false?) No one alive today would know.

Minnie Smith Brown was later appointed guardianship over all minor children. She was responsible for the control of their funds until they could be awarded non-age status, which proclaimed them as responsible adults. She saw to it that each of her siblings received their complete inheritance and kept nothing extra for herself. Minnie as her father had understood the importance of an education and did everything humanly possible to see that her minor siblings continued in school.

The family members who went to court against Alice Smith never proved their case. The ones who testified that Alice and Will were never married all stood to gain if they were included in a court judgement. Legal papers presented at the trials were signed by Will and Alice as husband and wife. Public officials who testified stated that they knew Will and Alice as husband and wife. The case was dragged through the court system all the way to the Supreme Court of Alabama. Some family members today still remember the bitterness this dispute inflicted upon the family.


All the previous events were bound to have influenced the manner of man Robert (Bob) Smith was. The many ups and downs, the lack of respect for his family, his own Grandmother and other family members going to court against his mother and the general attitude of people he was surrounded by no doubt helped determine his character.

Robert (Bob) Smith was born in Bluffton, Cherokee County, Alabama, May 20, 1890 during the height of Bluffton's boom, and he grew up to witness its demise. He was the oldest son of William and Alice Smith and the second among ten siblings.

Bob's father William Anderson Smith is still a man of mystery today. Accounts of him range from a kind and loving man to tales of the bizarre. It is well documented that under normal circumstances he was a thoughtful and giving man. He was a landowner, a successful farmer and businessman who became a legend due to his mannerisms. His property was his domain and he protected it zealously.

Bob was just shy of his eighteen birthday when his father was murdered. He was said to have his father's concern for those in need and continued to address the needs of his workers. He tried to continue his fathers businesses, but apparently fell short of possessing his father's overall talents. He leased oxen to a coal mining company in Tennessee, farmed and raised livestock. Bonded whiskey was no longer available so he and his brothers began to make and sell moonshine whiskey. They also began to mine the iron ore on their property.

Bob got into trouble with the law early in his life. He was indicted for the murder of Jesse Himison in January of 1910. He was found guilty of manslaughter in the first degree, and sentenced to five years in the Alabama State Penitentiary. The judge declared, ""The defendant is of the white race, male sex, age 19 years, that he is a farmer by occupation, his health is good, that he can read and write, was born and reared in Cherokee County, Alabama and was never before convicted of a crime."" The judge suspended the sentence pending an appeal due to questions of law arising during the trial and set bail at $3,000. Bob turned down the offer to appeal and was sent to prison. He was paroled after serving three years.

Robert (Bob) Smith married Marilda Belle Ferguson in Cherokee County, the 28th of July 1914 and they moved into one of his father's houses. They were blessed with five children, George, Lizzie, Viola, Frances and William. Lizzie died at the age of fourteen and is buried at Jackson Chapel Methodist Church Cemetery in Polk County, Georgia.

On the 1st of February 1915, Bob was charged and pleaded guilty to selling liquor. He was fined fifty dollars and sentenced to six months hard labor for the county. The hard labor was suspended until the next term of court. He never served the hard labor.

Bob was charged with several offences in the following years. The 4th day of August 1915 the court ordered that Case 2070--Indictment for Assault with Intent to Murder; Case 2100--Carrying a Concealed Weapon; Case 2635--Indictment for Selling Liquor and Case 2636--Indictment for Selling Liquor be discharged from prosecution.

The last crime Robert Smith was charged with led to many years of hardship and anguish for his wife and children. It led to them losing their home and livelihood. Leaving his wife Marilda Belle with children and no means to support them.

On the 25 of July 1917, Bob Smith, Charley Smith, Bose Hudgins and James Fortenberry were charged with the murder of Joe Moore. Bob was found guilty of the crime with the jury recommending him to mercy. He was sentenced to life imprisonment but moved for a new trial. The crime must have taken place in Georgia, as it was tried in Cedartown. While in the Polk County jail, awaiting a decision for a new trial, Bob was passed a pistol and used it to escape. His wife, Belle, later admitted to family members that she had given him the weapon. She said, "I hid it in a coffee pot." The escape did Bob only harm as he was soon captured and his appeal for a new trial was denied.

Had Bob received a new trial, his chances for acquittals were good as no real evidence was ever presented to prove him guilty. The trial verdict was arrived at primarily from hearsay evidence. No one testified as to having seen the crime occur. The only physical evidence was an ax found at Bob's house, which had blood on it. Bob's son George told the sheriff that he found it down at the spring. His defense lawyers could have argued that the axe didn't belong to Bob or that the blood was that of a chicken slaughtered for food. The prosecuting attorneys speculated that it was human blood, however they were never able to prove it.

Bob was sent to prison in Bartow County in 1918 where he was assigned as a barber to his fellow inmates. About 1925, Bob sent word to his wife to sell everything she could and raise as much money as possible. The story is told that the warden was paid off and one day Bob just walked out of the prison. He was not reported missing for several days. It would have been easy for the law to have found him had they searched. After Bob's escape he visited with his family for approximately a week before leaving. The last time Bob's wife saw him he was in a buggy driven by a man named Dan Hopkins. Dan was to drive Bob to Esom Hill to catch the train. Bob told his wife, "I am going to Esom Hill and I am taking a train to Texas to start a new life. I will send for you later." Bob's wife, Belle later said, ""I gave him a wad of money big enough to choke a horse and he left with Dan Hopkins."

Other than rumor, this was the last ever heard of Robert (Bob) Smith. His wife lived to the age of ninety-six and she never gave up hope that one day he would come for her. She is buried at Jackson Chapel Methodist Cemetery in Polk County, Ga. near her daughters Lizzie and Viola.


Further notes by Edna Stephens

Will Smith made a fortune with his charcoal pits during the boom of the late 1800's. He built a large Victorian home as a wedding present for his daughter Minnie who married Charles Jason Brown. Around 1910 Minnie sold her house to a Mr. Davis who had it moved to Rock Run.

MATERIALS USED TO WRITE THIS ARTICLE ARE AVAILABLE TO ALL WHO WISH TO RESEARCH IT. --Edna Stephens, 901 Orchard Mill Lane, Lawrenceville, Ga.30043. wend [at]

A version of this article appeared in the Rome (Georgia) News-Tribune on Sunday, March 26, 2000.

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