Bar Harbor’s bagel-making fairy godmother dies
BAR HARBOR—She was unafraid of the not knowing. She was a magical bagel-making fairy godmother. She was unabashedly who she was, and if you didn’t like her? Agnes Smit didn’t really care.
Pedaling a bicycle. Hauling a sled. Walking. Driving a constantly breaking down Toyota. Agnes Smit was a fixture in the town of Bar Harbor. You knew her by her smile, her probing intellect, and her constant questions and curiosity.
Agnes died last week after a long illness. Her death was mentioned on the College of the Atlantic’s social media and then her obituary ran Wednesday. She was born in 1936 in a place that was somehow not Bar Harbor, but was actually Johnston, Rhode Island. She was one of seven children.
The first time I met her, I was in my twenties, bringing in my little girl to get a bagel. Agnes pointed a finger at my daughter and said, “Oh, you are brilliant.” She ignored the line of patrons, mostly tourists right then, all lined up for a bagel, and stared at my little girl dressed in a tutu, princess crown and firefighter coat, and said, “You are interesting.”
Another time I went back without my daughter, and she stared at me, long and hard, and said, “You need to stop being afraid of who you are. Be confident.”
I may have gawped.
But she smiled right afterward, the sort of smile that said “you can do this.” I knew she was right. She was. And the thing about Alice was that she wasn’t afraid of being right. She never seemed afraid of who she was. She didn’t want you to be afraid either. There’s a great generous gift in that.
Agnes was full of gifts.
When you met Agnes, she wanted to know you—really know you.
“Something I loved about her is she asked questions and she questioned and helped people get to clarity with questions, but her questions were genuine and without judgment. But in a way that made you want to strive to be more and do more, but she was equally proud of where you were in the moment,” recalled Jennifer Litteral.
Agnes was known for her baking and eventually mostly for her bagels that she created via a monster of a giant silver Hobart at the Bagel Factory. Some people somehow managed to never know her name and instead they called her The Bagel Lady. It is a title that fits. But Agnes was more than The Bagel Lady. She was a connoisseur of people, a dispenser of truths—harsh and kind—that you may or may not have wanted to hear. She would give someone a futon if she heard they had no bed. She would give someone a job if they needed a break. She would give someone a bagel if they needed, food, comfort, an ear, or a talking to.
Old Yelp reviews of the Bagel Factory, Agnes’s one-woman shop on Cadillac Street are a litany of love.
“Hands down one of the best bagels I’ve ever had. Probably the best ever. I got the sesame with dill and chive cream cheese. Made more delicious by the fact that this place is hidden down a short rocky road. And Agnes (the owner/baker) is a character – very nice. Overall, one of the coolest yummiest place I’ve ever been.”
“I happened upon this one-woman (Agnes) bake shop, close to where I worked at the then Bar Harbor Times. People visiting Bar Harbor from New York, the lauded home of the best bagels in America, reportedly bring back dozens of Agnes’ bagels to last them until their next visit to the Island. There’s never a guarantee about the quantity or variety, but the quality is always there! Never thought the best bagel I’d ever had would be in Bar Harbor!”
“This sweet, old woman made the BEST bagel and cream cheese I have ever had.”
She’d wear a winter hat far longer than most people. And often in the 2000s, her sweaters were heavy and gray. A heavy jacket hung from her gaunt shoulders. None of that mattered. What mattered was Agnes. Her heart. Her intellect. Her questions and her drive. She was always interested in how things worked and working with her hands.
“The only way I have learned is by my mistakes,” she told Navi Whitten, a COA student making a documentary film about her eight years ago.
In the video she talked about baking with wheat and rye and how you have to make them interact with sugars a certain way. That interaction could be tricky; it could be difficult, but it was worth it.
“She loved her work but the money was second to her creativity to her originality,” her neighbor Robert Phipps said in the eight-minute video.
“Baking does give you a lot of time to meditate if you want to,” she said in the video. “It’s just about making dough and it’s the same thing—I’m the same person no matter what.”
The bagel is comprised of simple ingredients, but when you put them together in just the right way, those ingredients become something almost magical. That can happen with people, too.
Bagel connoisseurs believe that bagels go stale in just a couple hours. They must be toasted, never microwaved. There are rules about bagels. And Agnes knew all of them. She made some of her own rules, too.
Marc Fine explained it well,
“Agnes wanted to make sure her bagels were in good hands even after they ‘left her care’. I once picked up a bag of bagels and she cautioned me not to close the bag because they were fresh and would steam in the bag. I acknowledged the advice, grabbed the bag and turned to leave. She looked over the counter and said, ‘don’t close it.’ I politely turned back to assure her I was just holding the top of the bag, it was still open.
“She took amazing pride in the bagels and wanted them enjoyed at their best.”
Agnes also was known for her memory, for taking people under her care and for making connections. Kimberly Ballard relayed,
“When I started at COA, I had work-study in the kitchen where Agnes worked. After working with her for a bit, she stopped and looked at me and asked what my mother’s maiden name was. I blinked, and answered, and she asked, ‘Dottie?’
“She had worked with my mom back in the early 60s at Wentworth by the Sea and recognized her in me. My mom passed suddenly when I was 13, so this moment was tremendously impactful for me and I loved Agnes for it.”
Agnes created a legacy of impactful moments. And sometimes, like with Ballard, it seemed intuitive. Other times it felt much more intentional.
Leslie Harlow had known Agnes since the 1970s.
“Not only did she bake for us at Town Farm Restaurant, she also worked in the 80’s at Little Lyford Sporting Camp in the north Maine woods during the winters for Joel and Lucy Frantzman where she was an outstanding Nordic skier and basic badass,” Harlow said.
“At Town Farm, Agnes used our tried and true recipes where she made our buckwheat pancake mix, chocolate cakes and some bread,” Harlow said. “She always tried to change our recipes, but not without protest from us. Sometimes we did not get our deliveries on time which we would be frustrated about because her trusty Toyota truck had broken down somewhere on the southern Maine coast where she was delivering to other restaurants and bakeries.”
“Agnes was a force of nature who was related to Dr Spock, and carried the burden of her own complex family,” Harlow said. “She either liked you, or dismissed you. For me, it depended on the season as she went from hot to cold, back to hot, into warm and sometimes frigid. But whatever was her view of me, I always held Agnes in the highest regard.”
She was one of many who thought of Agnes that way.
Keri Hayes said,
“I didn’t know Agnes well but I would go to the Bagel Factory from time to time and always enjoyed talking with her. Often, I would have a friend’s kid in tow and she always had kind words and often a treat for them. Agnes had dental issues for years and often seemed to be scowling but it was pretty clear that she didn’t want people to see her teeth. One day, I ran into her—maybe it was in the shop, I don’t remember—and she was grinning from ear to ear. She had gotten dentures and was pleased as punch to show them off. From then, I felt like it was her smile that defined her. She was an iconic part of Bar Harbor and has been and will be missed.”
The first bagel most likely occurred as far back as 1394 when it was the obwarzanek. Some say it started in 1683 as a tribute to Jan Sobieski, a Polish king that saved Vienna from conquest.
And for Agnes, it always seemed as if her bagels were a tribute too, not to any kings—ancient or current—but to the people that she took under her wing, people that she fed and cared for, teased and cajoled and inspired.
There is a magic to a bagel, but there is magic to a person and to a community, too. Agnes knew that. She knew a lot of things.
“As a story there doesn’t have to be any closure,” she said in that student documentary. “There are three guys out there. They are playing football. And all of a sudden one of them disappears. The other two are playing, they kind of shrug their shoulders and you just pan into something else.”
LINKS TO LEARN MORE
A celebration of Agnes’ life will be planned for October 2023 in Bar Harbor, Maine for her friends, family and people she knew who may want to attend.
You may contact her daughter Ellie Schafer for more information: 510-717-6626, firstname.lastname@example.org.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made in Agnes Smit’s name to Mt Desert Islands Land & Garden Preserve: gardenpreserve.org, The Jesup Library in Bar Harbor: jesuplibrary.org, and Mount Desert Island Hospital, a non-profit hospital: mdihospital.org. Condolences to the family may be expressed at BrookingsSmith.com
Bar Harbor Story is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber. Thank you so much for being here and being part of this community with me. And thanks to all of you who shared your memories of Agnes.
Apologies. I’ve been told Agnes was one of seven children, I had written “one of six.” I’ve changed this error.