Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt has been trying to find all the limbs on her family tree for 13 years. On Oct. 16, she'll be at the Virginia Historical Society to sign the result of her search, Finding Thalhimers, a beautifully written and thoroughly entertaining book she wrote about her journey. The public, and all former employees of the iconic department-store chain that carried her family's name, are invited.
It all started, at least for Smartt, with a green sweater. "My dad said that he saw this cute sales clerk in the men's department at Thalhimers, so he bought a sweater from her."
Her father, William "Bill" Thalhimer III, a menswear buyer for the family business, returned the sweater at another Thalhimers store, but he started dating the sales clerk, Sallie Brush, eventually marrying her. Smartt is the eldest of their three daughters.
Born and raised in Richmond and educated in North Carolina, Smartt lived and worked in New York City before returning to Richmond, where she's now employed as a naming consultant. "I meet with clients, and we decide what they're looking for in a brand name," she says.
It's perhaps fortuitous then, that Smartt would be the one to research the Thalhimer name, which originated in Europe.
"Thalhimer means ‘home in the valley' and represents a green, lush valley near Heidelberg, Germany," she explains. "In earlier times, Jews didn't use last names. Had I been born then, I would have been Elizabeth, daughter of William."
Smartt says she didn't realize she was writing a book at first.
"My dad has been researching his paternal genealogy since the store was sold in 1992. He surreptitiously got me interested when he suggested we visit a distant cousin in New York. We were looking at old family albums when a slip of paper fell out."
It read: "The first Thalhimer, Goétz Lazarus (1768-1844), a tradesman in wax and honey."
"That was the beginning," Smartt says. "I learned that his son, Wolf, immigrated to America in 1840, changed his name to William and opened a dry-goods store in Richmond in 1842."
At 16, Smartt was all set to work at Thalhimers when it was sold. She later married Ryan Smartt. They have a 3-year-old daughter, Lyla, one of the driving forces behind Smartt's quest to document the history of her family and their business.
"Lyla's generation won't know or have any reason to know about Thalhimers," Smartt says with obvious dismay.
"The [downtown] store itself was actually being demolished as my grandfather was dying in 2004. It was a poignant time for all of us. My whole understanding of loss was developed at that time."
As Smartt tells it, Thalhimers' 150-year existence was full of ups and downs.
"I guess what surprises me more than anything," Smartt muses, "is the fact that Thalhimers wasn't in stasis at any point in its history. It was constantly changing with the times, affected by wars, even a bankruptcy. The store actually failed in the 1870s, which I didn't know, and my grandfather never knew. No one had passed down that story."
The story is still unfolding, Smartt says: "People are continuously coming up to me and sharing meaningful memories about how Thalhimers affected their lives. I feel like Thalhimers established its own sense of community. That community is still alive, and that's very meaningful to me and my family."
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2010. All rights reserved.