Tom Smith, man about town

Michael Raffety

March 18, 2010

Tom Smith is a common name, but a couple of uncommon people carry that name. The first Tom Smith that comes to mind is retired Judge Tom Smith. He started out as one of the youngest judges in the state, having won election to the Georgetown Justice Court. Then the state made all justice court judges municipal judges and later made them all superior court judges.

Judges are elected positions, thank goodness, with the voters for the most part exercising good judgment on judges.

Another Tom Smith, who I have never known, was picked up on a DUI in the 1990s and may even have been on an ankle bracelet. Unfortunately those brushes with the law were erroneously attributed to Judge Tom Smith by a whisper campaign. It was a source of constant consternation for him.

Another Tom Smith is the man who owns quite a bit of property on Main Street and Placerville Drive as well as a number of rentals.

Smith, now 92, brought in a fascinating photo to me a couple of weeks ago. It is the first refueling at the Placerville Airport in 1929. The photo appears on page 6. Also appearing on page 6 is a photo I took of Tom in 1991 with a 4×5 camera.

Tom has some photography background himself, having done that for the Air Force. He began his business career in Placerville operating a grocery store where Round Table Pizza is now. Downtown had more grocery stores in the past. My wife, who grew up here, still refers to Town Hall as the Purity Market. Between being the Purity Market and becoming the Town Hall it was the County Free Library, mainly created and staffed and filled by one of our longtime columnists, Bob Ramsey. Bob wrote a hunting and fishing column and plugged for controlling the deer population by allowing hunters to shoot does. Old columnists sometimes just fade away. After writing his column for 40 years, Bob Ramsey was one who just faded away. The reports I got were that he was in a care home. He died Aug. 1, 1995, and the Moutnain Democrat ran an obituary on him the next week.

The first person I met when I came to town was Tom Smith, the landlord. I had been hired by the Mountain Democrat and was walking around town to reconnoiter the place when I came upon Tom cleaning out a small house on Reservoir Street, an alley behind Main Street. I asked him if the place was for rent and he said it was. Since my last employer took off to Hawaii and left me a pencil scribbled note that he wasn’t going to pay me for my last week, I was short on rent cash. That employer later wound up paying for most of a new Toyota Tercel I bought.

Anyway I told Tom I wouldn’t have the rent money until I got my first check from the Mountain Democrat. He took me for my word and rented the upstairs apartment on faith. Tom is an old-fashioned handshake kind of guy.

The apartment didn’t have a refrigerator, so I would go to Lucky’s on Broadway and buy a block of ice to put in my cooler. Then I would buy my meat, milk and other fresh goods at the P&M Market. That market was in the Herrick Building that is being torn down along with the Hangman’s Tree Bar. Two men operated the P&M, one of them being Gene Baraque, who had a fabulous collection of historical Placerville postcards.

The rent was $125 a month. When the Democrat later hired the assistant editor from the last paper I worked at I then had a roommate to share the rent.

Later I moved to an upstairs apartment Tom had above what was then the Ostrich House restaurant, but is now a hamburger restaurant. I got the news editor John Branch to help me carry a used refrigerator up the stairs. He had to. He and I were the only ones with degrees in Greek and Latin. So I didn’t have to use my cooler. This apartment came with a swamp cooler, so summer was a lot more tolerable. It was right across the street from the newspaper office, so I would go home to have a bowl of soup for lunch and take a nap.

I miss those naps.

Tom Smith doesn’t drive now, but he can still be seen walking around town checking his rentals and chatting with the business people.

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