Local iconic businessman, ‘Smitty’ dies at 84

Posted July 3, 2019 at 1:45 pm

Smitty's 60s.psd

These two photos were published along with an interview with James G. “Smitty” Smith by NEWS Editor Al Gibson for the June 26, 2000 issue of the Clinton County News, during the final week of business for Smitty’s Drive-In.

The above photo was a photo furnished by Smitty of how the restaurant looked when it first opened in the 1960s, before a rear storage addition and an east side inside dining area was added on.

At left, Smitty and his wife and business partner, Shelva, were pictured alongside that loaded up grill that they worked for some 38 years.


One of the most iconic personalities in Albany and Clinton County passed away last week.

James G. Smith, 84, most commonly known by his simple nickname – Smitty – passed away in Lexington, Kentucky after a lengthy illness.

Smith, and his wife, Shelva, owned and operated one of Albany’s most popular gathering spots from 1962 until 2000, a small drive-in restaurant, known by the same name, Smitty’s Drive-In, just south of Albany on U.S. 127.

He was also a well-known politician, running for and winning a seat on the Albany City Council for 40 years.

In many of those elections to the two-year seat, he would be the top-vote getter in what was a five or six person slate of winning candidates.

He also served as the chairman for the Albany Housing Authority and was an active member in the Albany Lodge #206, the Eastern Star and the Shriners.

Still, Smith, or “Smitty”, the name he was most recognized as, was best known for standing in front of that grill that was just behind the short block wall that separated the cooking area from the front order taking and drink and ice cream prep area that was more often than not staffed by his wife, Shelva, with others through the years.

Located adjacent to their residence, the Smith’s spent 38 years cooking and preparing a variety of foods, sides and specialty drinks at the small block building that was fronted mainly with large glass windows and two small windows where customers would walk up from their parked cars, lean in and give orders to a worker inside.

With a menu that ranged from burgers to chicken boxes to peanut butter milkshakes, Smitty’s Drive-In was the go-to place for lunch, dinner and late night meals and snacks for the better part of nearly 40 years.

After downing a “Big-Boy” double-decker burger that was topped with tarter sauce and always demanded a shirt clean-up when finished and a large cherry flavored Coke, customers would more often than not return to the window for a cone of soft-serve ice cream, a sundae topped with chocolate or strawberry topping, or even another favorite, a banana split resting in a plastic “boat dish” with a long-handled spoon sticking into the middle twist of vanilla ice cream.

Smitty’s likely most famous meal was his tenderloin sandwich, made from his signature choice of pork product purchased from “Uncle Charlies’” and no other substitute would be allowed.

In the late afternoons and into the night, customers needed to not even leave their automobiles to place an order, but rather just “honk” a horn when they spotted one of the two or three “car-hops” who would be working the parking lot that shift.

Equipped with a belt mounted coin changer, the car hop would return moments later with a tray that fit onto a slightly raised car window, and with a few clicks of that coin changer to make correct change for the payment, the transaction would be completed and the meal or treats would be passed out to the patrons sitting inside the vehicles.

Summer, fall, winter or spring, rain, snow or clear, it didn’t matter – Smitty’s was open and the car hops were on duty.

When the meal was finished, there was no need to leave the vehicle and take your trash to the large trash cans situated on the sidewalk near the building, it was customary, and accepted at the time, to simply toss one’s trash onto the parking lot.

Paper wrappings, paper cups, straws and boxes alike, they all landed on the blacktop surface, the customer would leave and the parking place would minutes later be filled by one of the other vehicles that had been circling the lot, and the cycle would be repeated until closing time each night, normally 9:00 or 10:00 p.m.

More often than not, a few stray dogs would be roaming the parking lot late in the evening, picking through the trash on the lot and grabbing a last bite of a cheeseburger, snagging a chicken bone from one of Smitty’s famous fried chicken boxes or even taking off with the bottom portion of a cone that still held the remnants of ice cream that a customer didn’t finish.

By morning, the parking lot would be spic and span from an early morning cleaning that Smitty paid someone to take care of each morning.

As attitudes began to change about littering and the appearance of our community, the custom of simply tossing trash and leftovers began diminishing and by the 1980s, was practically eliminated by the customer base.

Carhops for most of the life of Smitty’s Drive-In restaurant were local boys of high school age, earning a hard-earned wage that would give them the independence of having money in their pockets.

But the tradition of having boys only working the parking lot was not a result of Smitty being chauvinistic, but instead being a concerned adult – and a father of a girl – in considering the often inclement weather and other conditions those car hops were often exposed to.

The week of his last days of business in 2000, Smitty sat down with Clinton County News Editor Al Gibson for an interview about his nearly four decades of serving food out of that small restaurant, and the changes he had seen watching the world go by from his traditional spot in front of the smoky, hot and grease covered grill.

“When we started out with girl car-hops and we only had girls in the first two years, but because it’s so cold in the winters and because they have to work in bad weather, we stopped using girls after a couple of years and went to boys.” Smitty told the NEWS during that 2000 interview.

He also spoke then with pride of the respect he had not only with the entire customer base he served, but especially with the youth who work at the restaurant and also was a large part of his customer base, especially late at night and even more so on weekend nights.

Being the town’s most popular hang-out spot for the youth of high school age, there were often arguments and skirmishes that cropped up from time to time, but few of those disagreements would end up being resolved in the Smitty’s parking lot.

Smitty attributed that to the fact that he had earned the respect of the younger crowd who gathered in his parking lot, many of whom had been former employees of the establishment.

“Over the years, I’ve had a good relationship with all the kids working out here,” Smitty recalled in 2000. “I could relate to them and they put their confidence in me with their personal life and I always tried to give them good advice when they asked.”

In return for his friendship, he said he felt he had earned their respect and he seldom had any trouble out of the throngs of people who gathered in his parking lot.

“There would be times when on a Saturday night, the parking lot would be absolutely full one minute, and the next minute you would look out and everybody would be gone,” he recalled during that 2000 conversation with Gibson. “Someone would get into it, and the next thing you knew, they would leave and go to the roadside park and fight. When it was over, everyone would come back here.”

Through the years, there were a few additions to the actual original block building, including a small enclosed area on the east side that allowed for dining inside at booths, the addition of a jukebox and two or three paddle-style pinball machines in the back.

When a customer would play a song on that jukebox in the small dining room, patrons in the parking lot were entertained with the same tunes through outside speakers mounted near the building roof.

But while the building and the littering habits changed through the years, other aspects of the south Albany eatery remained much the same.

Saying that he worked on the theory of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” he remembered also that very few changes were made during the drive-in’s 38 year history to the menu.

That aforementioned peanut butter milkshake was removed from the menu during the last few years the drive-in was in business, simply because of the “mess involved” in preparing the drink as he remembered in 2000.

There were a few additions to the original menu, most notably the addition of chicken strips, which he said had been his most successful menu change through his 38 years of business.

One item that stuck in the menu for the entire 38 year span, was another item mentioned here earlier, the cherry flavored Coke, which he began serving well before the Coca-Cola company began producing a cherry flavored cola drink.

Smitty’s staff prepared their own cherry coke by adding cherry syrup to the fountain version of the drink. That same cherry syrup was also added to a host of other foods prepared at the drive-in.

A complete death notice for James G. “Smitty” Smith appears this week on page X.