Our American Family – Episode 5: The Smiths

Genealogy author and expert Thomas MacEntee reviews Episode 5: The Smiths of the series entitled Our American Family and interviews producer Steve Young

Our American Family – Episode 5: The Smiths

NOTE: This is the fifth in a series of articles about a new documentary series entitled Our American Family available via Amazon Prime. Our American Family seeks to document our American family heritage, one family at a time, and inspire viewers to capture their own family stories – before those voices are gone. Click HERE to view any or all of the episodes and to get a FREE TRIAL of Amazon Prime.

Overview of Our American Family: The Smiths

Our American Family: The Smiths profiles Willie and Rena Smith of Goldthwaite, Texas and their seven children. The film tells the story of a family whose patriarch dies at an early age leaving the mother to raise seven children ages 18 months to 14 years old.

Commentary on Our American Family: The Smiths

When I was growing up during the 1970s in upstate New York, I remember the stories my great-grandparents told me about the Great Depression. I listened intently to stories about how difficult it was to raise a family during the 1930s in New York City and all the hardships they endured. My “takeaway” was that I was fortunate that our family had made it through and to count my blessings every day.

I also know that my Austin family was not unlike other families during that time. So while I watched Our American Family: The Smiths, I remembered by own family stories while learning about the hardships of Willie and Rena Smith and their seven children from Goldwaithe, Texas.

Every family seems to have a pivotal moment in their history that either makes or breaks them in terms of survival and endurance. The death of the patriarch Willie in 1937 from blood poisoning was that moment for the Smiths. How would Rena manage to raise those children and provide for them? I know from my own family that 1937 was probably one of the worst years of the Depression. For the Smiths it meant that the oldest son, named Willie after his father, would have to take on running the farm and providing for his mother and siblings.

After a brief trip to relatives in California, Rena moved her three daughters and the youngest son Arthur to Abilene, Texas which, compared to Goldwaithe, was the “big city.” Over time, the family became established, Rena and the girls all found jobs, and everyone contributed to the family success.

The interviews of the living Smith children – Robert (born 1924), Lou (born 1929), Mae (born 1931) and Arthur (born 1935) are engaging and we learn how love and faith kept the family together . . . even when Rena was asked to put the children up for adoption once her husband passed.

Tough times meant tough decisions. And these decisions during pivotal family events meant success and helped families endure.

Genealogy author and expert Thomas MacEntee interviews Steve Young, producer of Our American Family

Interview with Steve Young, Producer of Our American Family

Note: I had the opportunity to conduct an e-mail interview recently with Steve Young who produces the Our American Family series. Here are the questions and answers related to The Smiths episode and the series in general.

Q. The Smiths episode of Our American Family is especially touching with the interviews of several of the Smith children who were raised by Willie and Rena Smith. How many hours of interviews are taped in a typical episode of Our American Family and how much actually is included in the episode? And are there a standard set of questions or interview prompts used?

We allocate a full workday to conduct the interviews of the participating family members, so it is typical to have 5 to 7 hours of footage from which to work. Boiling all of this down to less than thirty minutes can be a real challenge, but always leaves us with a tight, compelling story line.

Our interview questions are built using a standard set of questions plus questions developed after conducting preliminary interviews with family members ahead of filming. This allows Michael Nolan, our writer, to develop a basic story arc ahead of time. What makes this process organic and enjoyable however, is that during filming there are always unexpected discoveries that will make their way into the finished documentary.

Q. I’ve noticed that you use different musical compositions and some sound effects in the scoring of each episode. How important is having a soundtrack in conveying these family stories?

It is more important for us than it would be for a family capturing and preserving their own story. Within a family, the storytellers are well known and a much larger volume of material can be collected to paint that picture. Our documentaries are produced to fit within a 30-minute time slot and in that period of time we have to introduce the family to the viewer, share the most important parts of their story and create a meaningful connection between the viewer and the family. Scoring is essential as it provides important emotional underpinnings. Here is a good example of how background music and sound effects help convey the emotional impact of an incident from Bob Smith’s childhood:

Q. After producing the series Our American Family, with most of the families living in rural areas, would you say that many of them had to move to the “big city” seeking opportunities? What did this mean in terms of an adjustment from rural life?

During this time in history, about half of American families lived in rural areas. It was very common for families to seek better opportunities in urban settings. This meant having to start over and adapt culturally at the same time. For some, that was a bridge too far, as was the case for the Smith family when they moved to California. However, the reality of the Smith’s struggles prevented them from being able to return permanently to rural life, hence their eventual move to Abilene. Another common aspect to point out demonstrated by the Smith’s experience is that family moves to urban areas often involved only the younger children as the older children had already left home. This resulted in siblings having significantly different experiences of their growing up years.

Q. So far, most of the families in Our American Family consist of at least six children. Did you grow up in a large family? How are the dynamics different than today’s smaller families?

Thomas, your question points to an important characteristic of families from the agrarian early 1900s. They were large and they needed to be! Getting by meant everyone pitching in and playing a part in the family’s economic reality. My father was one of eight children which was typical in this era. By contrast I am one of three children which is also typical of families a generation later. The dynamics are quite different, and due to a number of factors: economic, vocational, educational and cultural. This is another reason why it is so important for us to capture our family stories from this era while we still can. It is a link to a part of our heritage that we will never see again, yet where our families’ sense of identity was forged.

Want to be a part of Our American Family? Submit Your Application

If you are interested in having your family’s story considered for the Our American Family project, please review their requirements and submit an online application HERE.

Help Support Our American Family

Our American Family is a project of Legacy Filmworks, a non-profit organization, and your tax-deductible contributions are greatly appreciated to help the project continue – thank you for your support! Click HERE to donate.


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About the Author

Thomas MacEntee
Genealogy educator and author Thomas MacEntee has been researching his family history for more than 40 years and is the creator of Abundant Genealogy, Genealogy Bargains, DNA Bargains, The Genealogy Do-Over and numerous other web-based genealogy and family history properties.