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City Historian Steve Baker Reflects on History for His 80th Birthday

City Historian Steve Baker (but he's got a beard now).

As he approaches his 80th birthday on Sept. 4, we got Steve Baker, Monrovia Historical Society President and official Monrovia City Historian, to reflect on the past – his own and Monrovia's.

Baker says he came by his interest in Monrovia history by osmosis, that perhaps being osmosis from his parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and great great grandparents, all of whom were Monrovia residents. He is the fifth generation.

"Growing up I heard lots of stories. Granny was good storyteller and my dad was even better. I didn't have to work at it, just absorb it."

Though he was too young to remember it, he first came to Monrovia to visit for Christmas 1941, then came to live in 1945. His banking job led him to Northern California for a while, but he returned in 1967 and has been a resident ever since.

He said his interest in Monrovia history probably really started when he was a preteen or teen. "I remember checking Charlie Davis's 1938 ‘History of Monrovia and Duarte’ out of the public library. I read it carefully and was particularly interested in the section about old homes." Steve said he wasn't old enough to drive, "so my long-suffering dad drove me around so I could see them first hand."

While the Monrovia Historical Society was formed in 1979, and acquired the historic Anderson House on East Lime that same year, Steve did not become an active member of MHS until 1981, when he became a board member, and he's been on the board ever since, and been president, he said, "entirely too long." In 1991 he was also named by the City Council as Monrovia's official city historian, succeeding Myron Hotchkiss.

And what does he do as city historian?

Generally, he said, it's answering questions, mostly from people asking about the homes they live in. "Most of the time," he said, "I can come up with an answer."

He lives in one of Monrovia's first houses, built for John F. Brossart, president of the First National Bank of Monrovia, and later occupied by his great great grandfather, Bradford Arthur, and his great grandmother, Jennie Arthur Church. The house was probably completed in September, 1887, and was initially located on South Heliotrope, then was moved to East Lemon, and finally to South Ivy, where it is today. Steve said his great grandmother moved it to Ivy to be closer to downtown shopping when her father died and there was no man in the house to hitch the horse to the carriage.

So why has Steve focused so much of his life on what is dead and gone?

Well, it's not dead and gone, he says, quoting a passage from William Faulkner's novel, "Requiem for a Nun," "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Meaning, he said, that we assume when things are out of our experience that they're gone, but they're not; they still have a significant impact, such as the sacrifice of Jesus almost 2,000 years ago. That event, he said, is still influential.

And he cites his own house. "I grew up where my grandparents lived. That had a subtle impact. I know which rooms they lived and died in. I've encountered the imprint of the two generations that preceded my grandmother, plus my grandmother and my parents. The parlor and the back parlor have a distinct feeling, a presence, if you will. An old house bears the imprint of everyone who ever lived in it."

It makes him consider the interconnectedness of all things, and that "the will of God exists for each moment. Our greatest task," he said, "is to discern and do that will."

And for Steve that involves a commitment to the past, for both the City of Monrovia and the Monrovia Historical Society.

So, while "I'm not against development per se, I am concerned about it on a scale that could alter the character of the community. It has the potential to do that at a certain level.

"I'm glad much of it is being done near the train station. That has less of an impact on the heart of the city.

"ADDs [accessory dwelling units, i.e. granny flats] are a good compromise. They create more housing without compromising the view from the street."

And for the Monrovia Historical Society he believes its goal should continue to be, through the Anderson House, to "provide the public with an immersion experience. To give the feeling of how people lived 100 years ago. There's nowhere else where you can step into the past.

"Consider the kitchen, what Lizzie had to deal with every day. Building a fire, canning, baking, cooking three meals a day, washing, ironing, sweeping carpets, taking them out to beat them.

"It's important to understand what formed their character, their discipline, their stamina and self-discipline, the character of rising to the task, the rhythm of their lives."

Even the history of his own life has left a mark on his life. He reminisces ...

"My mom would tell bedtime stories. The adventures of Dorothy, made up as she went along. She asked me to recite my evening prayers. 'Now I lay me down to sleep...'

"I remember our first TV set. It was about four-inches square. Slightly larger but not by much. And there was the William Tell overture that I played on a wind-up Victrola.

"Dad would read a bedtime story and would skip parts to speed it up. I'd say, 'No daddy, the next sentence is...’

"Nana's older sister taught me my colors using spools of thread. Then when my mother bought meat at the butcher she would ask me for a ration coupon [during World War II]. 'Stevie,' she said, 'I need a red (or blue) point,' and I could give it to her because I'd learned my colors.

"My earliest memory of a public event occurred when Franklin Roosevelt died. I wasn't sure who he was but from the emotion of the adults I knew it was a big event."

Happy 80th Birthday, Steve.

- Brad Haugaard

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