Caddo Parish, Cemeteries

The Smiths of Shreveport

This engraved bit of concrete marks the threshold of the Smith family’s section of Oakland Cemetery in Shreveport.

I spent Easter weekend in Shreveport, where I saw the Oscar-winning Coda, visited the auditorium where a young Elvis Presley forged his musical career, met my youngest nephew (he screamed every time I tried to hold him), drove through a historic cemetery and ate pastries, ham, turkey, fish and chips, a shrimpbuster (it’s a Shreveport thing), salmon, loaded potatoes, hot cross buns and God’s knows what else. I’m never eating again as soon as I finish this bag of Skinny Pop.

But back to the cemetery … I love visiting cemeteries, and Oakland Cemetery in downtown Shreveport is a must for history buffs. It’s the oldest, existing cemetery in Shreveport and sits on the outskirts of downtown. It’s not in the best part of town -although it’s directly across from Municipal Auditorium – so it’s best to bring a friend with you and visit during broad daylight. Just be aware of your surroundings.

Oakland is the final resting place of multiple mayors, at least four congressmen, an ambassador, yellow fever victims, a madam, Martha Washington’s great-great granddaughter and the first Shreveport police officer killed in the line of duty. You’ll also find members of Shreveport’s founding families here. The cemetery is no longer in the business of burying people so it’s very much a tribute to the past.

The Smith family’s plot caught my eye on a recent visit. I decided to find out who they were.

The patriarch of this plot was Joseph B. Smith, who died in 1889 at age 58. Known as J.B. Smith, he was born in Kentucky but moved to Shreveport as a young man. He went into the pharmacy business under his brother. Eventually, he and a partner opened their own hardware store in downtown Shreveport.

Smith prospered in Shreveport. The business flourished and he built a handsome home to accommodate his wife and their five sons. His death was sudden and relatively unexpected. He’d been feeling poorly for a few weeks but had seemed to rally until he suddenly came down with congestion and died minutes later. This is according to The Shreveport Times, which described him as clear-headed, cautious and painstaking.

It appears that Smith’s wife, Mary, took over the family business. She hastened to assure the good people of Shreveport that the hardware business would continue.

Mary, who was 15 years younger than J.B., would outlive him by more than three decades. She is also buried at Oakland although her marker is much more modest. Instead of a monument reaching toward the sky, she’s remembered with a simple marker set in the ground. It seems fitting that the headline for her news obit simply summarized her as the widow of a prominent businessman (who had been dead for 43 years).

Near Mary is her son Leon Rutherford, who was just 14 when his father died. Leon got a grand marker with a wreath and tribute in stone, perhaps because he died rather tragically.

Remember on Downton Abbey when Lavinia rather conveniently died from the Spanish flu, paving the way for Mary to wed her true love and stay in her childhood home? There was nothing convenient about Leon’s death, but he did die from the Spanish flu that was sweeping Shreveport at the time. In fact, the flu was so feared that the family skipped a church funeral and just did services at the grave.

Leon accomplished a lot in his rather short life.

Like I said, Leon was just 14 when his father died. He’d been away at school but he came home to help with the family business. Leon explored a lot of interests before landing on a career. He worked for a jeweler and a bank and ultimately decided to go to law school. He went into practice with a former governor.

From the law, it was a natural move into politics. Leon first served on the School Board before winning election to the Louisiana Legislature. It was at a speech that he likely caught the Spanish flu. He developed pneumonia and died two weeks later at his home on Fairfield Avenue.

Leon is one of two of J.B. and Mary Smith’s children who is buried at Oakland (the rest of their sons are at another Shreveport cemetery). The other is Joseph Bruce Smith, who died in 1942. It appears that Joseph, who was a real estate agent, never married.

1 thought on “The Smiths of Shreveport”

  1. As usual, a post loaded with lots of history (and food — everything you ate sounds delicious, especially the shrimpbuster, which I had to look up). How sad that Leon died so young. I wish COVID would completely disappear the way the Spanish flu did.

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