A cache of early Kaslo photos has turned up, providing new insight into some of West Kootenay’s black pioneers.
The Star recently wrote about Hester Pierre Waggener (1895-1980), who grew up in Nelson in the early 1900s and was the only black high school student at the time.
MaBel Collins of Los Angeles, the youngest of Waggener’s nine children, has since produced some remarkable photographs and explained the ties between three families — the Pierres, Perkins, and Browns — who weren’t related, but regarded each other as kin.
Alfred W. Perkins shows up in the 1893 civic directory as a porter at the Nelson Hotel. By 1895 he’s a bartender at the Kaslo Hotel. One of the photos depicts the Kaslo fire department dragging a hose reel in front of the hotel during an exercise or competition.
Other photos show Alfred’s wife Arvell as a member of the Kaslo Methodist Church ladies aid society, and daughter Lucille as a student at one of Kaslo’s first schools. There are also portraits of Alfred and Arvell taken in Nelson, and of Alfred and Lucile, taken in Kaslo by A. Hugo Albrecht in late 1895.
A curious group photo shows the “Birthday celebration given by Smith and Adams to the Missouri Club, Kaslo, Sept. 1, 1895.”
Concerning the event, the Kaslo Claim wrote: “Last Sunday night the Missouri Club got up on its hind legs and stretched itself. It was the birthday anniversary of two members, Bob Smith and Gus Adams, and it was a season of great joy. Both are shining lights in the club ranks and both were 30 years old the Wednesday before.”
The newspaper didn’t explain the club’s purpose or membership requirements, but Alfred, pictured in the back row, was in fact born in Missouri.
The back of a postcard of Kaslo’s Catholic Church says: “Across the street from our old home,” suggesting the Perkins lived roughly where the post office is today. Another photo shows them standing in front of a log cabin.
Alfred was last listed in the Kaslo civic directory in 1904. Afterward the Perkins moved to Spokane, where Lucile worked in the Davenport Hotel. She married twice before moving to Los Angeles, where she died in 1966, age 75.
The Browns, meanwhile, were John and Ellen and daughter Minnie. Minnie attended school in Kaslo in 1895, where her exceptional singing voice earned the city’s adoration. Citizens helped pay her tuition to a Spokane music school. She returned to visit in 1902 and penned a letter to the Seattle Republican praising Kaslo.
In 1906, Minnie joined the touring troupe of prominent African-American comedian Bert Williams and later moved to New York, where she was a prominent singer, choir director, and music teacher until her death in 1936. MaBel Collins has several very glamorous portraits of Minnie, who kept in touch with the Perkins family over the years.
The Pierre family immigrated in the 1860s from California to Victoria. Sam Pierre came to Nelson in 1897 to establish a tailor shop and was followed in 1900 by his brother John, a recent widower.
John’s daughter Hester was lifelong friends with Lucile Perkins. Collins says her mother didn’t talk much about her childhood, but was frequently asked to model her father’s clothing.
“Being an only child, she had a very strict upbringing because her father was trying to run a business and raise a family by himself. He pushed her hard to be excellent. She had to take French and play the piano and dress just so because that was a reflection upon him.”
Brought up to be prim and proper, she “maintained that persona all her life.”
Although Hester had fond memories of high school, ultimately she found Nelson stifling, “so she was anxious to get away from the humdrum.”
She went to Yakima, Wash., where an aunt lived, and married Charlie Waggener in 1922. She returned to BC when her father died in 1938, but was unable to settle his estate, which included a boat named the Alleas, built at Nelson and named after his sister. Collins has a photo of it, probably taken somewhere on Kootenay Lake.
Collins was too young to know her grandfather, but has a deck of cards he gave to customers as souvenirs, as well as one of his Nelson business cards, which has a long, humorous poem.
His aptitude for tailoring was passed on to her mother, who sewed her family’s clothes. When Charlie’s shirts got to the point where “we would think they were just rags, she would turn the collar and cuffs and they would be brand new.”
Collins’ eldest sister Ann was a fashion designer with ideas far ahead of her time, and had famous clients including Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan.
Collins has another noteworthy family connection: her husband’s aunt was Hattie McDaniel, the first African American to win an Academy Award, for Gone With the Wind.