Few Inhibitions, Despite Prohibition

In 1926, Sally Miller Smith added 17 rooms to an 18th-century house in Schroon Lake, N.Y. The property now operates as the Silver Spruce Inn B&B.
In 1926, Sally Miller Smith added 17 rooms to an 18th-century house in Schroon Lake, N.Y. The property now operates as the Silver Spruce Inn B&B. (Silver Spruce Inn B& B)
Thursday, November 29, 2007

"When you have money, that's what you do," says Phyllis Rogers, pointing to a sign over the fireplace at the Silver Spruce Inn B&B. "Them That Has GITS," it reads. "Sally had that painted when she built this as her summer house in 1926. It shows her attitude."

The Sally in question was one Sally Miller Smith, and what money bought her was not just this country home in the Adirondacks of northern New York, but also lots of secret places to cache booze.

"This is where Sally hid her bottles," explains Rogers, proprietor of the Silver Spruce, swinging open a bookcase. "The house was built during Prohibition, and she was a drinker." A serious drinker. There are, we are told, four hidden closets, a secret hallway and other spots for the bootleg liquor Smith acquired. All are scattered around the 17-room addition Smith built on the original homestead, which dates back to the 1790s.

It is a chilly morning in late summer, orange flames are dancing in the huge stone fireplace and nine guests are eating a breakfast of scrambled eggs, sizzling bacon and hot muffins, all the while listening to engaging stories about a woman who spurned the conventions of her time. Perhaps some visitors, like my husband and I, had driven to the little town of Schroon Lake -- 86 miles north of Albany, 45 minutes southeast of Lake Placid -- expecting only to commune with nature but had found in addition a fascinating intrigue of money and booze.

The Silver Spruce's six guest rooms are both visually rustic and comfortably modern, with walls and ceilings made of full-cut western cedar (three-quarters of an inch thick), tongue-and-groove set with no nails visible. The floor is fir. There are no knots in the planks. Doorknobs and sconces are original. The air smells like a forest.

The bathrooms, also wood, are spacious. The first thing we notice is a corkscrew. Not lying on the sink, a vestige of the previous occupant's revelry. Rather, gray-black metal, vintage, screwed into the wall.

Which brings us back to the real star of the show, Smith herself.

"What a hoot Sally was," says Marie Rice, owner of Pitkin's Restaurant on Schroon Lake's Main Street, an eatery that celebrated its 100th anniversary in July. "She used to bring the booze from Montreal by Greyhound."

Smith was born in 1875 to Charles Miller, a wealthy businessman in Waterbury, Conn., who later became president of Randolph-Clowes Co., a World War I-era brass foundry. Upon deciding to build a home in upstate New York, his daughter immediately began to cut an eccentric figure with the locals, but she was also known to be generous. "If someone needed a job," says Rogers, "she'd invite them to chop wood."

She also proved generous to future historians. Just before Manhattan's original Waldorf-Astoria Hotel was torn down to make way for the Empire State Building in 1930, Smith purchased its elaborate wooden bar, setting it up in her basement. There, she'd bring out the booze, rent gambling machines and throw wild parties.

How wild? Schroon Lake archives record Smith's buying the complete stock of three liquor stores in Waterbury just before Prohibition laws went into effect. "The cases were buried, hidden under floors, behind false walls and any place that provided an inconspicuous hideaway," Rogers says.

One of her bartenders later recalled how Smith had fallen down the basement steps in the middle of a party. "She just rolled down the stairs and got up and came over to the bar and said she'd have another drink," he told Rogers.

Robert Vanderwalker, Sally's chauffeur, was 96 when he visited Rogers several years back to reminisce. One of his jobs, at 25, was to pick up Smith's mail. "She insisted I sit on the edge of her bed and go over each piece with her," he recalled. "I was very embarrassed because she always had on a nice nightie."

"I think he had a crush on her," Rogers says with a twinkle in her eye.

Incidentally, it was Vanderwalker who drove Smith to New Hyde Park in one of her five Packards when she wanted to visit her friend Eleanor. Eleanor Roosevelt, that is, back in the days when FDR was the state's governor.

"The governor didn't much care for her," he told Rogers, "so we always went 'round the other side of the porch and smoked a cigar."

-- Audrey Hoffer

The Silver Spruce Inn B&B (Route 9, Schroon Lake, N.Y.) is open year-round; rooms start at $100 a night, including breakfast. For details, call 518-532-7031 or visit http://www.silverspruce.com.

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