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Taft Midway Driller - Taft, CA
  • Lee Smith: A man of many talents, many interests

  • Taft's renaissance man has been a rancher, businessman, teacher and an accomplished violinist
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  • Lee Smith has led an interesting life.
    He's a rancher, businessman, teacher and musician.
    And, a road warrior.
    In order to do all those things he's had to travel from his 175-acre ranch in Quatel (Chumash Indian word for quail) Canyon to Taft where he runs a print shop, then to Bakersfield to rehearse with the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra, then back to the ranch.
    Next month he'll begin his 47th season with the Symphony where he is second violin chair although his fellow members of the Rotary Club of Taft simply call him "second fiddle."
    He's never missed a concert and has rarely even missed a rehearsal all those years.
    "A long time ago when we were having a lot of problems with the fog I would start down Grocer Grade on my way from the ranch and look out and see a carpet of dense gray fog and turn around and go back home. But that's been rare."
    When it comes to classical music Smith is willing and able to travel anywhere. He recently studied about classical music in Spain and Portugal, came home briefly and then drove to Humboldt State University for his annual chamber music pilgrimage. He's driven to Ashland, Oregon for a similar event that coincides with the annual Shakespeare festival.
    Travel weary
    "I have to admit it does get a bit tiring," he said recently after returning from his sojourn to Humboldt.
    "I've always thought nothing of getting in my car and going wherever to play music."
    He regularly drives to Los Angeles for string quartet sessions and every Thursday night hosts a session in his home in Bakersfield where he recently moved to help reduce the miles.
    "The driving has never really bothered me before, but after the last trip to Humboldt I've started to think that maybe I should talk to the others about car-pooling."
    That's not the only thing that has him looking at simplifying his daily schedule.
    Smith just sold the ranch he has called home since 1967 and will be making Bakersfield his primary living quarters.
    He'll miss the ranch where he built a two-story home that has been his base for nearly half a century.
    The ranch has been in the family since 1914 when his grandparents, Art and Sarah Crissman, left their farm in Pennsylvania because arsenic in the water made his grandfather ill.
    "They took a train to Bakersfield, bought a horse and wagon and came to Taft," Smith said. "My grandfather went to work for Standard Oil. They lived in a tent house on Naylor Street."
    Page 2 of 3 - The Crissmans also established a homestead in Quatel Canyon in the Ventucopa area five miles east of Highway 33.
    Life was hard
    "They tried homesteading but that type of life was very hard so they moved back to Taft," Smith said.
    His mother was three at the time, the youngest of five children.
    "Her brothers would ride horses into Cuyama to go to school but the ride was long and they didn't get home until after dark."
    As a boy, Smith lived in Long Beach for schooling, graduating from Long Beach Poly High before earning a bachelor's degree from Chapman University as a triple major (math, music and history) and his master's from California State University Los Angeles.
    An accomplished musician, Smith joined the Long Beach Symphony at the age of 17.
    He did some graduate work at UC Santa Barbara before returning to the family ranch in 1967 and launching his professional career.
    He taught seventh grade music, history and home economic (cooking) classes for years at Cuyama Valley elementary before moving to the high school where he taught math and band for four years.
    First business venture
    He left teaching in 1979 to become owner, with his mother, of what was downtown New Cuyama.
    "We bought the Buckhorn restaurant and motel and the shopping center," he said.
    At the time Cuyama was buzzing because of an oil boom.
    "Standard Oil would rent all 22 of our motel rooms three and four months at a time," Smith said. "We even built a helipad for them so they could helicopter their workers in and out."
    The boom meant big business but it was demanding.
    "We were open from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. because we were so busy. Mother was the cook in the restaurant. For a time we even opened at 5 a.m. so we could get the sack lunches ready for the oil workers."
    That meant only three hours of down time.
    After four years of that the Smiths bought and operated the Caravan Spa Resort in Desert Hot Springs in 1983.
    Smith joined the Palm Springs Symphony and had a string quartet that played in the resort lounge.
    All this time he still maintained his connection with the Bakersfield Symphony.
    Coming home
    Then it was a move back to the ranch in 1992 where Smith resumed his commute to rehearsals and opening S & S Printing.
    He got into the printing business after being forced to take over a print shop in Desert Hot Springs that he had a financial interest in.
    Page 3 of 3 - "I had to learn the printing business pretty fast," he said.
    And, Smith has returned to the classroom. He teaches three music appreciation courses at Taft College – two of them on-line.
    After being on the go his entire adult life Smith said he has no intention of retiring.
    "I'm still having so much fun I can't imagine doing anything else."
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