If you want to know Milford history, follow the Smiths.
Brothers Dan and DeForest Smith still own a tract of land deeded to a family ancestor at 171 Broad St. in 1639, the year Milford was founded. By 1886, the city had a population, according to the eldest brother Winthrop, of roughly 2,500. That year, George J. Smith, described by his grandson Winthrop as “one of the best businessman in the area,” founded businesses whose products ranged from plumbing supplies to cement.
Three of those businesses remain in family hands today.
Two of the businesses — insurance and realty — occupy the premises of 247 No. Broad St., while the third, officially the , occupies an Italianate structure at 135 Broad St. on the Milford Green. Winthrop heads the funeral home, while DeForest, also known as “Frosty,” serves as head of .
A third brother, Danforth, formerly held the reins of the , although his daughter Deirdre Smith-Dey, now serves as president of the agency. A second member of her generation, Marjorie, who is one of DeForest’s children and served with the family real estate business in Milford for 10 years, works on the company’s projects from her home in North Carolina.
DeForest said he and his brothers acquired the businesses, which are today incorporated separately, “by default.” He said his father had three sons, and three businesses remained in the family.
“We were all getting out of the service at about the same time,” said DeForest who, like many members of the family, graduated from Yale University. “We all had different job offers from different places." He mentioned Proctor & Gamble as one corporate giant that tried to lure him to its offices.
“I just loved Milford. I loved my family. I thought it would be a lot a more fun working with my brothers from a small town than [working from] New York.”
Said DeForest: “It’s the right place for me.” He added that he has never regretted his decision to remain in the city.
DeForest’s office features artifacts such as the maps that his grandfather collected when he traveled widely in the 1930’s and 1940’s. His grandfather also had a large collection of arrowheads, DeForest said. He remarked that his grandfather enjoyed a great deal of travel in addition to a great deal of work.
An intriguing dose of history is also on view a short distance away in the funeral home that, in the Smith family, is brother Winthrop’s domain.
That white Italianate structure was once owned by Simon Lake, the Milford resident who invented the modern submarine. When a number of his enterprises failed with the onslaught of the Great Depression, Lake chose to pay his investors back, and, in the process, the bank seized his home. In the mid-1930’s, the Smith family bought the property.
There, a clock built by Frederick the Great, King of Prussia, and once owned by Lake, takes pride of place on the third floor. If it is convenient, Winthrop said, the family is happy to show visitors to Milford the clock and also the other pieces of period furniture that enhance the house.
Winthrop acknowledged that, with so many Smiths in Milford businesses over such a span of time, confusion has dwarfed some of the family’s clients. He noted that at one time the phone calls for the Smith’s businesses went through a George J. Smith & Son office at the corner of Depot and North Broad Streets.
He said clients would call and ask for Mr. Smith. Yet, at that point, there were five Mr. Smiths. These included Winthrop, his two brothers, his father and an uncle named Alvin.
And that number just includes the Smiths then within the three family businesses that now date back 126 years. Of Winthrop’s own children by his first marriage, two have offices in Milford, he said. Son Winthrop, who also lives in Milford, is a lawyer, and a second son Tad works as a stockbroker.
DeForest concedes that the Smiths come from “a pretty good gene pool.” In 1989, he edited and produced the book Only in Milford to celebrate the city’s 350th anniversary. Anyone who wishes to see more of Milford will enjoy the illustrated history that the photographs in the book present.