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Opulent hotel, witchcraft part of Nelson woman’s past

Tenth in a series of pioneer profiles

A lifelong Nelson resident whose family history stretched from the Salem witch trials to the glory days of the Phair Hotel has died. Agnes Baker passed away March 13, six days after her 95th birthday.

“A large part of Nelson’s link to her past went with her,” says friend and local historian Patricia Rogers. “She saw it all.”

Baker’s grandfather, Edwin Ernest (Pop) Phair, was builder, proprietor, and namesake of the magnificent hotel at the corner of Victoria and Stanley streets where the library and police station now stand. Erected in 1891, and later known as the Strathcona, it burned in 1955.

Baker’s father John Ayton (Jock) Gibson was Nelson’s postmaster and one of the signatories to the city’s incorporation petition in 1897. For a time, he managed the hotel — where he met Pop Phair’s daughter Gretchen. She worked at the Daily News, and was also a teacher, poet, and author. They married in 1915, and had two daughters, Agnes and Jean.

“Money was tight but Gretchen managed to hold her family together,” Rogers says, adding Baker learned of Nelson’s beginnings “on her father’s and grandfather’s knees. As both did not die until she was in her teens, she had plenty of time to absorb the stories.”

Inheriting her mother’s literary and pedagogical proclivities, Baker worked as a teacher and also volunteered in the city’s library for many years.

She enjoyed bird watching, walking, and tending to her flowers and vegetables, and with her husband belonged to the local naturalist and mountaineering clubs.

Her granddaughter recounts her home “always smelled of homemade bread, cookies, or delicious sauces made from the garden.” She kept active by cross country skiing and playing bridge, and was deeply interested in West Kootenay history.

“Agnes had a lifelong love for Nelson and its exceptional past,” Rogers says. “She very graciously shared her family photos and all her stories with me. Her mind was sharp — she remembered the most minute details, which made the stories all the more delightful.”

In 2007, those stories were related at the Kootenay Storytelling Festival in Procter, as compiled and written by Rogers and performed by Susan LeFebour, who played Baker’s mother.

“I had a few lunches with Agnes and Pat,” LeFebour recalls. “It was like a little window of history opened up, meeting someone whose family I was talking about. It was a great pleasure and privilege.”

LeFebour says Baker was “overwhelmed” by the performance.

“I think she was really happy her family was brought to life. She could relive something of her family history — and what a family history.”

As if tales of early Nelson weren’t compelling enough, the story also detailed how Baker’s great great grandmother was hanged as a witch.

Mary Estey, a 58-year-old mother of seven, lived in Salem in 1692 when she was accused of witchcraft. Villagers blamed her living ghost for causing all sorts of bizarre behaviour.

One of Estey’s sisters was similarly executed, and another imprisoned. Twenty years later, the families received compensation for the wrongful deaths.

It was just one of many fascinating family anecdotes Baker could draw on.

“Agnes was a wonderful woman and an incredible storyteller,” Rogers says. “She was a kind and gentle soul with enough feistiness to keep her with us for 95 years.”

Baker was precedeased by Ted, her husband of 50 years, and her sister Jean — who married Ted’s brother. She is survived by three sons and their wives, as well as many nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. A memorial service is planned for the May long weekend.

Previous installments in this series

Aya Higashi

Gordon Fleming

Jake Conkin

Walt Laurie

Eric and Peggy Denny

Ray Kosiancic

Lois Arnesen

Cameron Mah

Fran Horan

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