Saying ‘thanks'

Smith Bros, founder plays hostess even at final hour

of The Journal staff

Port Washington — Evelyn, thanks for the memories.

With those words, family and friends raised their glasses and toasted Evelyn C. Smith, founder of Smith Bros. Fish Shanty Restaurant here.

Smith, 92, died Friday at St. Mary's Hospital — Ozaukee soon after suffering a stroke. She had been a resident of the Lasata nursing home in Cedarburg.

The toast came at a dinner at the Smith Bros, restaurant after the funeral services Sunday for Smith. And the 100 or so persons who attended were her guests.

"She left a note that the minister found." said one relative. "It said something like, 'When I die, the party's on me. After the services, just tell 'em the meal's on Evelyn'."

At the Sunday gathering, those who knew Evelyn Smith served up a smorgasboard of adjectives to describe her.

Taken in alphabetical order, the accolades included: Aggressive, a sharp businesswoman, caring, creative, feisty, hard-working, inventive, kind-hearted, opinionated, outgoing and self-determined.

She was also "a little tight with her money." No, better make that "frugal."

She was born Evelyn Columbia Smith, the middle name inspired by the Columbia Exposition in Chicago in 1893 — the year she was born. Years later, when she wanted to become a nurse, it seemed only appropriate to attend Columbia Hospital's "School of Nursing.

Throughout her life, whatever she did, she was soon involved in organizing food services — first as a nursing student, then as the first nurse to work for Northwestern Malleable Iron Co. in Milwaukee, making her possibly the first industrial nurse in the city. Later, while serving with the American Red Cross in a hospital in France during World War I, she was placed in charge of the food service operation.

In 1924, a flood in Port Washington washed the family packing plant and fishery into Lake Michigan. That same year, Smith began her restaurant business in a small but creative way.

As she later wrote, some visitors to the city had asked for fried fish.

"I suggested that I make fish sandwiches," she wrote in 1959. "Whoever heard of a fish sandwich?” was their tart reply.

"I secured hearth-baked rolls from a local bakery and, adding some tartar sauce, which I whipped up hurriedly, produced a delicious fish sandwich — Smith Bros, style. This was the stroke of fate that catapulted myself and my family into the restaurant business," Smith wrote.

According to Smith family lore, it was also the first time fish sandwiches were commercially marketed anywhere.

Today, the Smith family business, founded in 1848, includes not only the widely-known Port Washington restaurant and a California restaurant, but also retail and wholesale operations and the Harborside Motor Inn in Port.

Stories about Evelyn Smith were as plentiful Sunday as the flowers at her funeral.

From Port Washington Police Chief Edward Rudolph: "She heard a burglar break a window [at her home eight or ten years ago], scared him into the garage and locked him in. There she was, standing with a broom in case he came out. She was a feisty woman."

From Rariny Hoehn, a friend and former employee, whose job it was to clean the big copper vats — with a steel brush — once the fish eggs for caviar had been cooked.

"I was using a cloth instead and one day she came through. She said, 'That isn't good enough.' I really learned to scrub out that darn kettle that day."

From Alan Smith, her nephew, now manager of the Smith Bros, restaurant in Los Angeles, Calif.: "Evelyn found the liver from the burbot or lawyer fish was very rich in oil like castor oil. She used to sell [the oil] in this blue bottle — Smith Bros. Burbot Liver Oil.

"One time for a Milwaukee Journal feature story, I had to be the guinea pig. She was feeding me this burbot oil and I was supposed to like it."

From Betty Last, a restaurant employee for 26 years: "I was a cashier when I started and then I asked to be a waitress. In those days you had to ask Evelyn. She said, 'Well, Betty, I don't think" you'd be a good waitress.' "I was dumbfounded. I'll never forget when I asked her why she said, 'Well, you swivel your hips when you walk.' I got to be a waitress, but you can bet every time ' she was in I watched how I walked."

Those at Sunday's gathering said they would miss her but they would not mourn her in the usual sense.

"It's jovial here today — that's what it is," said Lincoln Smith, one of her nephews and the president of the family business. "It's rare when a funeral gathering can be fun.

"She lived a full life," he said. "She was creative, inventive. She accomplished everything a woman could in those days and more. She lived so long and her end came quickly, and without pain. So there really isn't any reason for tears."