December 13, 1926-June 9, 2014
Georgetown seems quieter with Mark Smith gone. In his 63 years of living on the Georgetown Divide, he was never still. Even when he was off on an adventure, or traveling, or at his cabin near Butte, Mont., his energy was felt. With the help of others, his dreams continued to become real. “His presence was larger than life,” said Glenda Gau, who worked for him as a Jeep adventure consultant.
An adventurer, an explorer, an outdoorsman, a visionary, a community benefactor, an historian, a promoter, a storyteller, a prankster, a generous friend, an animal lover, a forceful opponent–he was all those things and more.
In his 87 years, Smith was a Marine, a logger, a pilot, a real estate broker, a lumber business owner, a deputy sheriff, a building contractor, an airport manager and a developer of residential neighborhoods and a commercial center.
Smith was an active member of the Georgetown Rotary. To encourage tourism and boost the local economy in 1953, the Rotary members, with Smith in the lead as Jeepmaster, put together a four-wheel drive road trip from Georgetown to a camp at Rubicon Springs, along the historic Rubicon Trail. It was the first Jeepers Jamboree. Jeepers Jamboree is now in its 62nd year and continues to organize Jeep trips to Rubicon Springs every summer.
While Jeepers Jamboree concentrated on Rubicon trips, Mark went on to create Jeep Jamboree USA in 1982. Now the largest Jeep adventure organization in the world, Jeep Jamboree USA provides 30 road trips a year in different and difficult terrains across the country, exclusively for Jeep owners.
Smith was a consultant to Jeep for 60 years, helping develop the vehicles’ off-road capabilities and popularize the brand. He built a four-wheel drive course, duplicating sections of the Rubicon Trail at the Chrysler Proving Grounds in Chelsea, Mich., and a Severe Off Road four-wheel drive course for the Army and Marine Corps at the U.S. Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va. He trained military and law enforcement in off-road driving.
In the introduction to the book he published in 2004, “Driven by a Dream: Mark A. Smith’s Journal,” Smith said, “Yes, I have lived on the edge — to make dreams come true, chances must be taken, and many of my dreams have come true.” To him, the word “No” was a challenge, not a barrier. He welcomed challenges.
A history of service
Smith spent his formative boyhood years in northeastern Nevada, where he was able to fill his days exploring with his dog, “Jeep,” named after Eugene the Jeep in Popeye cartoons. His father was a self-educated mining engineer. His love of exploring was encouraged by his mother, who reveled in ancient history and exploration stories. Her two brothers would take him hunting and fishing, and taught him outdoor survival skills. His father’s brother, Mac, was Smith’s role model to become a Marine. Mac was on the USS Phoenix in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and was given a citation for shooting down a Japanese Torpedo Bomber during the attack.
When World War II broke out, the mines were closed and Smith’s family moved to Oakland. During the last two years of high school, Smith worked part-time in the Ordinance Department at the Alameda Naval Station. He joined the Marine Corps, but by the time he was trained and assigned to duty, the Japanese had surrendered. His ship was sent on a nine-month goodwill cruise, visiting every major port in South America. That was followed by a tour of the ports in Europe and the Mediterranean.
Smith remained in the Marine Corps until 1947. He used the G.I. Bill to learn gunsmithing and take a Commercial Pilot course.
He met his wife, Irene, at a convention in Fresno. They were married on April 1, 1951. The San Joaquin County license was $2. Smith put one dollar on the counter and told his bride-to-be, “It’s a partnership; where’s your dollar?” Embarrassed, she paid her dollar. That was the beginning of 63 years of partnership in life and in business.
Settling into Georgetown
After the wedding, the couple visited Irene’s sister, Rose, and her husband in Georgetown. The Smiths were on the way to Las Vegas, Nev., where each had a job waiting. Rose and her husband had a small grocery store in town. Irene was offered a job in the store, and Charlie Wentz, a logging contractor, offered Mark a job in the woods. The Smiths decided to give Georgetown a try.
Mark and Irene had a series of jobs and businesses as they settled in the community and raised four children: Mark Robert, Gregory John, Patti Irene, and Jill Irene.
Eventually, Mark and Irene started a real estate business, which Irene took over as Mark pursued other enterprises. He bought a World War II surplus Jeep and rode over the Rubicon Trail to Rubicon Springs. He fell in love with the beauty of the place. That was the spark that lit the way for Jeepers Jamboree. In 1985, Smith and 19 others would purchase 400 acres from Bohemia Lumber Company. It was incorporated as Rubicon Soda Springs, Inc.
In the 1950s, there were not many homes in Georgetown. In 1958, Smith created the first new residential neighborhood. The homes in Rolling Hills south of town are on half-acre to one-acre lots within walking distance of Main Street.
Mark Smith’s real estate business needed a good location. He built two offices along Highway 193 south of the main intersection in town. One building was for the real state office, and the other for lease.
A later residential neighborhood Smith built was near the intersection of Lower Main Street and Empire Creek Canyon. The 100-acre site with mostly three-acre parcels filled with homes quickly.
People purchased lots in their new neighborhoods with existing tall pines and hired local contractors to build their homes, put in drives, dig wells and install septic systems.
In 1958, Smith started dreaming about a commercial center that would reflect the mining towns he grew up around. He broke ground for Buffalo Hill Center in 1978. The 12-acre site was built in four phases, as financing became available. Instead of leveling the property, the center sits on five levels. It is anchored by the 20,000 square-foot Mar Val Food Store. Current tenants include the El Dorado County Sheriff substation; Mark Greenmun, the town dentist; the Georgetown Gazette newspaper office; the Marshall Medical Clinic; and Jeep Jamboree USA. The former St. James Catholic Church on Main Street, built in 1923, was rescued by the Jeepers Jamboree committee in 1980, and now has a prominent place in Buffalo Hill Center where it serves as a Jeep museum. The landscaping displays an outdoor museum of mining and western artifacts. At the entrance, a 1,200-pound steel buffalo greets visitors.
Smith’s last residential project was on Hotchkiss Hill, two miles east of Georgetown on Wentworth Springs Road. He wanted three-acre lots. County planners had other ideas. The final solution was five-acre lots, many with grand views.
Another Rotary project was the Georgetown airport. Smith was the Rotary Club chairman in charge of the airport project. When the airport was dedicated in 1962 with a 3,200-foot runway, it was accompanied by a fly-in. County Supervisor Gene Chappie presented Smith with an “Airman of the Year” award for his efforts. From 1969-72, he was manager of the El Dorado County airports — Georgetown, South Lake Tahoe and Cameron Park.
During the recession of the early 1970s, gas was rationed, and people were not moving to rural areas. The federal and state environmental quality legislation affected the Georgetown timber and business economy, causing residents to leave the “hill” to work or move altogether.
Smith was a member of the Georgetown Advisory Committee when it was assigned the task of developing the first Georgetown Area Plan for El Dorado County. Supervisor Joe Flynn wanted the committee to reflect the diverse interests of the community residents.
Also on the committee was Teresa Lengyel, who had moved from Los Angeles in the 1940s because she believed it was becoming overcrowded. Lengyel bought 100 acres of forestland east of Georgetown where she and her husband raised their family. She viewed Mark’s activities as representing everything she objected to. He, in turn, found her opposition more difficult to get over than the biggest boulder on the Rubicon Trail. Neither gave an inch, and each went on to leave their own legacies.
Smith left the committee to go on his dream trip. Fred Lambert, a local surveyor, replaced him. The committee was able to come up with a plan the community accepted, and the County approved it in 1979.
A big challenge
In 1977, at the age of 50, Smith had a serious surgery. His father had died of heart problems in his early 50s, and Smith didn’t know how much time he had left, so he decided he needed a big challenge — a Jeep trip from the southern tip of the Americas to the northern end. He built a new home behind Buffalo Hill Center for Irene, “just in case,” and left the new Buffalo Hill Center in her hands.
For 12 years, Smith had dreamed of conquering the ultimate challenge for a Jeep — the Darien Gap. The Darien Gap is the uncompleted section of the Pan American Highway, a paved and dirt road that goes from Tierra del Fuego in South America to Prudhoe Bay, in Alaska.
The Darien Gap is a 250-mile stretch of jungle and swamp between Panama and Colombia. The dangers from snakes, insects and poisonous plants make the trip a test of survival. Others had tried and failed. With the help of native Choco Indians, they came through, and in record time.
At the core of Smith’s Expedición de las Americas were seven men from El Dorado County and three from out of state. They started with seven CJ7 six-cylinder Jeeps in November 1978, driving through war zones and drug-smuggling areas in South and Central America. They returned to Georgetown for rest and vehicle repairs on March 19, 1979. On the trip north, the party dealt with snow, ice, whiteouts and below-zero temperatures. They made it to Prudhoe Bay and were back home on April 23, 1979. They had covered 21,000 miles in five months, two days, and set several records.
In his book, Smith said, “We were not sponsored by anyone. We stayed nonpolitical and non-commercial.” He said they did it for the adventure and the challenge.
In recognition of his accomplishment, Smith was invited to join The Explorers Club in New York, whose members include Admiral Byrd. He was also inducted into the Off-Road Hall of Fame.
Smith spent the next decades traveling the world as a Jeep consultant and for his own Jeep Jamboree USA, now the world’s largest Jeep adventure company. Family and friends usually accompanied him. When in Georgetown, he enjoyed the home he built for Irene with her and his dogs, first Jeep, then JJ. He had an office in Buffalo Hill Center, where he did business.
Son Robert, who works for the U.S. Forest Service, joined the Expedición de las Americas for the California to Prudhoe Bay portion.
Son Greg, a licensed building and cement contractor, built many of the buildings in Buffalo Hill Center, as well as homes in the area. He handled field operations and pre-scouting for Jeep Jamboree USA. Daughter Patti has taken over the real estate business and handled helicopter dispatch operations for the Rubicon trips. Daughter Jill is president and CEO of Mark A. Smith Off-Roading/JJUSA. Her husband, Pearse Umlauf, is vice president and general manager.
Smith’s grandchildren are Greg’s daughters, Sadie Smith and Tami Bears, and Patti’s son, Charles Bishop Dunham. Tami has a daughter, Alexis Bears.
Mark and Irene supported the community in many ways. In 2013, they were awarded the Marshall Foundation Helping Hands Award for 27 years of dedicated support. Mark was honored as “founding member of the Georgetown Rotary Club; founding member of the Marshall Hospital Board and spearheading hospital fundraising on the Divide.” Irene was recognized for “creating music programs for children on the Divide; starting a thriving women’s music program; volunteering her talent playing the calliope for most 4th of July celebrations on the Divide as well as Founders Day in Georgetown; and always ready to provide a meal to friends and neighbors who were sick.”
Success didn’t change Smith. In the acknowledgement of his book, he said, “No man lives in a vacuum nor can any man succeed at anything of importance alone. I’ve been telling stories for years of my adventures but without a push, endless encouragement and both personal and professional friendships, I doubt I would have ever started in the direction my life has taken nor been able to complete my story.”
Former El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Eddie Keller became friends with Smith in the 1970s when Keller joined the Georgetown Rotary. Now retired, Keller and his wife, Davis, would have dinner with Mark and Irene often.
“He was delightful, unique. He loved to stir things up. We had a lot of fun. There was never a dull moment,” said Keller. As an example, Keller mentioned the controversial speakers that Smith would bring to the Rotary meetings to surprise the members. “He was totally community conscious and had a sense of kindness and generosity,” he said. “He was a legend among off-roaders and sold more Jeeps than anyone.”
The Kellers had signed up to go on another adventure with Mark and Irene in September, this time to the Peruvian Amazon. Daughter Patti and her husband, Steve Rubick, Glenda Gau and Georgetown resident Jane Oates were scheduled to round out the party.
After that, Smith was looking into a trip across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Smith’s last public appearance was at the Divide Chamber of Commerce mixer on June 3 at the Georgetown Gazette office in Buffalo Hill Center. Not everyone there knew who he was or that he owned the center. When it came time for his turn at self-introductions, he simply said, “I’m Mark Smith. I collect rusty things (referring to all the historical artifacts around).” Irene followed: “I’m Irene Smith. I clean rust.” A partnership to the end.
In Mark’s words from his book, “When I’m gone, if there is another world out there, I’ll probably be exploring it with my dog in my Jeep.”
A memorial service is being planned for late summer or early fall. A notice will be posted on jeepjamboreeusa.com, and on facebook.com/jeepjamboreeusa.
(Note: I met Mark Smith in 1976, and as often happens over time in a small town, his family and my family became good friends.)