Not even their descendants know exactly how the Bair family ended up in Steilacoom, other than that pharmacist W.L. Bair left Michigan in 1887, married Hattie Godfrey in Salinas, Kansas, then headed west without her.
In Steilacoom, Bair reunited with two brothers, Ed and Jeff, who’d preceded him and were among the founding fathers of the new community.
W.L. opened a drug store and became postmaster. Ed, a steamboat captain, built the Steilacoom Aquarium.
In 1890, Hattie came by train to join her husband.
The family’s impact on the town was felt for generations, and today six of W.L. Bair’s descendants are still there — granddaughter Jane Bair Light and great-grandson John Leech, his wife and three children.
“My grandfather brought his mother out, too, and when Mary Bair died in 1898 she was the first member of our family buried at the Steilacoom Masonic Cemetery,” said grandson Barney Bair, who lives in Portland.
In the 117 years since, more than 30 members of the Bair family have had their ashes buried at the cemetery. And for 116 years, the Bair family has celebrated those lives with an annual Decorating the Graves day.
This year, the family will visit the private, fenced cemetery May 23.
“We gather at the cemetery and bring water and flowers for all the family graves,” Light, 87, said. “There’s no water there, and it’s maintain-it-yourself, so we pull weeds and mow the grass. After we decorate the graves. And because we lost a family member this year, we will have a memorial service.”
Light’s brother, Barney, 89, lost his wife, Patricia, in 2014. Her ashes were buried near the rest of the family, which includes Light’s husband, I. Kenneth, and son, Gary.
“We decorate the graves near Memorial Day, to honor the memories and lives of our family,” Light said. “It’s always followed by a family picnic, which has been in Steilacoom from the beginning,”
Last year, 27 members of the extended Bair family took part. Some, including Barney’s three sons, came from Oregon.
“I don’t remember the first time I went to the cemetery, but I remember the picnic,” Barney Bair said.
“Our grandfather, W.L., died and was buried in 1930. Grandma Hattie lived another 18 years.”
While the Bair men left their mark on Steilacoom — W.L. owned a plumbing shop and hardware store, in addition to the drug store — Hattie may be better remembered.
In the late 1890s, she began cooking at the Iron Springs Sanatorium. When W.L. and Ed Bair bought it, Hattie’s fried chicken special (50 cents, with biscuits) brought diners from miles away.
Hattie later opened a bakery, specializing in doughnuts and pies. Then, in 1928 —over the objections of her husband —she bought the Waverly, a three-story hotel she turned into a boarding house.
During the Depression, when homeless men came through town looking for help, Hattie would give them chores in exchange for food and a place to stay in a warm shed behind the Waverly.
“Some of those men stayed for months,” Light said.
Hattie had a love of young folks, too, and put a pingpong table in the front parlor of the Waverly, allowing Steilacoom youngsters to come in and play.
“Everybody called her ‘Grandma Hattie,’ ” Barney Bair said.
Aside from the Decorating the Graves occasion, the Bair family launched another Northwest event in 1930.
“For years, we’ve had a one-room cabin on the Hood Canal,” Light said. “And our father, Godfrey L. Bair, decided he wanted to have a party for his birthday. He invited the entire Elks Club out, along with the whole family.”
It became an annual tradition, minus the Elks. The family now calls it “The Bash” and holds it as close to Godfrey’s Aug. 3 birthday as possible.
Steilacoom, meanwhile, has seen major changes over Light’s years there.
“There used to be wooden sidewalks, dirt roads,” she said.
“It’s become more citified, but everyone has worked hard to keep the small-town feel.”
Both she and her brother have grave sites reserved alongside family members. They hope the family tradition of decorating the graves continues once they’re gone.
“At least I hope my sons decorate my site,” Barney Bair said, laughing.