essay: Ellen Galusha Smith

by Sarah Kelly, Bradley University
submitted November 2008


Ellen Galusha Smith is one of Peoria’s most interesting women. Born October 29, 1849, in Lisbon, Illinois, Ellen came from a long line of famous New England ancestry. Her great-grandfathers, Thomas Chittenden and Jonas Galusha, were among the first governors of Vermont. Her father, Orson B. Galusha, was also well established, and was appointed one of the first trustees of the University of Illinois. She lived in Morris, Illinois for much of her childhood.


On July 19, 1870, she married William Hawley Smith. William was originally from Massachusetts and later moved to Normal, attended State Normal University and graduated in 1870. He met Ellen while studying in State Normal University. After graduation, he went on to become principal in numerous schools and this brought the couple to Peoria, Illinois.


Ellen and William moved to Peoria in 1885. Named “the Thicket,” William and Ellen made their home quite famous. It is one of Peoria’s most historic and interesting places, situated at 2039 Knoxville Avenue.  Orson Galusha, Ellen’s father, designed the gardens at the house. Orson was the first to bring to Illinois the scientific knowledge of nursery culture, so this influenced Ellen throughout her life, especially in her art. The gardens in her home were even a small fruit farm for several years and was also partially owned by Lydia Moss Bradley at some time, according to the deed.


After living in Peoria for some time, Ellen’s life quickly changed. Her husband William abandoned teaching and became a commercial traveler, becoming a nationally known and prominent author, a well-known educator, entertainer, and reader. He toured across the country with the famous humorist Bill Nye and became very well recognized for his writings. He traveled more than 600,000 miles, and this left Ellen alone for many months at a time.


William influenced Ellen in many ways. After retiring from being a touring lecturer, William was named County Superintendent for Bloomington Schools. He was a well-known man of intellect, and was very popular. He was claimed to be one of the greatest masters of dialect interpretation and most known for his books The Evolution of Dodd and All the Children of All of the People.


With Ellen being interested and well gifted in many of the same things as William, their home environment and relationship created a productive atmosphere for many great things. Both were very involved in the Peoria community, especially in literature and arts. Ellen and William were recognized by many as an ideal couple by the community, devoting their lives to the betterment of humanity in perfect harmony, as well as among the wealthiest and most prominent in Peoria.


Ellen’s family was also very close and she involved her children in many of her endeavors. Her oldest son was named Arthur. He went on to become a well-known dentist, a leader in his profession, and graduated with honors. He was also well known for his poetry. Their second son, Leslie, was born with both mental and physical handicaps. A laterally curved spine, along with other physical weaknesses, deformed his body. He died in 1918.


Ellen was constantly involved in clubs, groups, and many other organizations in Peoria. She was a founding charter member or the Woman’s Club. Founded in 1886, the Women’s Club had many departments of discipline, including Art and Literature, Music, Social Science, and Home and Education. Ellen was a member of the Peoria Art League and studied with Frank Peyraud. She was part of the Allied Arts society and the Universalist Church as well, being very interested in the psychic phenomena. Being involved in so many things helped Ellen meet many different people in the community. Ellen was a very well-spoken and charismatic person, and people often looked to her for interesting stories or new events in her life.


Perhaps what Ellen was most famous for was her art. She was very involved in all kinds of art including writing, painting, needlecraft, and theater. Her entire family often wrote and performed plays for the Peoria community. Ellen, along with William, was very acknowledged in the theater arts in Peoria. They were part of the founding members of the Peoria Players in June of 1919. Ellen even wrote a book on needlecraft in 1889, published in Chicago, called How To Shade Embroidered Flowers and Leaves, Illustrated with Colored Plates and Engraved Patterns.


Along with her book, Ellen, as well as William, was published in Peoria Book of Verse for her poetry. Her son, Arthur, also became a well-known poet. An interesting fact is that Ellen and her family wrote “the New Hamlet” in 1902, which was a combined rewriting of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, and they performed the play at “the Thicket”. William and Ellen counted many people as friends, including Walt Whitman, Grover Cleveland, Adlai Stevenson, Mark Twain, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, to name a few.


Ellen especially loved traveling across the nation. Ellen often told many friends of her adventures, including her visit Walt Whitman while traveling out east with William. Walt was very kind and welcoming to the couple, and they learned much from the visit. As stated before, Ellen was very well liked and charismatic, and her strong relationships with famous writers and artists brought many interesting visitors to Peoria.


While William was touring in Nebraska, he was shown a painting by a young girl named Helen Porter. Mr. Smith immediately recognized her talent and brought her back to Peoria to meet Ellen and learn from the artists in the Peoria area. During this time, Frank Peyraud was teaching art classes in Peoria. Ellen was quite involved in the Peoria Art Society, and encouraged Helen to take classes.


Helen and Ellen became very close friends. Helen also met Señor Nechodoma, a Puerto Rican artist, and soon fell in love. She moved to Puerto Rico with him, with Ellen keeping in contact with her protégé, and even traveled to visit her in her island home. The tropical landscape was often a subject for Ellen’s landscapes. Ellen was quite known for these unusual landscapes in oil.

Ellen Galusha Smith (1849-1922)
“Tropical Landscape”


But perhaps what Ellen was most known for was her famous “Whistler painting.” Ellen painted a piece that created much talk in Peoria. She claimed to have been visited in her dream by the famous painter James McNeil Whistler and the artist commanded her to rise and get her painting supplies. She translated to the canvas what Whistler instructed her to do, his hand guiding her brush. She finished it all in one night, working feverishly.


It was shown at the Peoria Art League Exhibit at the Madison Theater and art critics said that the painting was a remarkable one. Interestingly, William and Ellen claim that they often have visits from those who have passed.


Although being one of her numerous talents, Ellen’s art is what resonates with the Peoria community as well as the Illinois art community. She constantly exhibited her art in shows around the central Illinois region. Many in the community admired her art, and she was among the most prestigious women artists in Peoria.


Ellen continued to be an active member in the Peoria community until her death. Ellen died September 14, 1922 in Denver, Colorado, while on one of her many visits with close friends. She died quite suddenly after a short illness, just months after the death of her husband.


With all of her many endeavors, talents, and friendships, Ellen Galusha Smith was quite a sensational woman. Intelligent, brilliant, fascinating, and engaging are just a few of the common adjectives used to describe Ellen. Being so friendly and charming, she had close relationships with some of the most famous creative minds in American history. Always trying and creating new things and flourishing off the wonderful relationship with her husband, Ellen constantly contributed to the betterment of the community and made herself widely known for her wonderful work.