Editor’s note: This is the second of a four-part series exploring the history and evolution of Valley Appreciation Day, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year when it takes place in Invermere on Saturday, July 21.
For Nelson Phillips, what started out as a novel business idea quickly became something much more, as assuming the role of the Invermere town crier took him to places he never thought possible.
“I’ve talked to many of my British friends since, and they said, ‘What you did in one day, we’d be lucky to do one of those things in a lifetime,’” Phillips laughed.
The journey to becoming an internationally recognized town crier started small, as most things do. As a man in his mid-20s, Phillips first moved to the Columbia Valley in 1979, and at the time was working as a waiter at Fairmont Hot Springs Resort. One night, after a resort-sponsored movie night showing of the 1980 film Somewhere in Time, Phillips returned home, only to have the most peculiar dream.
“I had this dream about a town crier walking the streets of Invermere,” Phillips recalled. “So I woke up and I thought, ‘What a great idea.'”
So, in his spare time, Phillips devised a costume featuring knickers, a tri-corner hat, a sandwich board and a tiny little bell, and began approaching local businesses about selling space on the board. To his surprise, he immediately sold the vast majority of the spaces and, on the Easter weekend of 1981, Phillips took to the streets of Invermere to ply his trade.
“Initially people asked me, ‘What are you?’” Phillips said. “I had to explain to them what a town crier does.”
At first, Phillips would roam the streets on weekends, but as summer hit he could be seen all throughout the week, all the while still working at Fairmont Hot Springs. One day, a visitor from Nova Scotia saw him and remarked that they held an international town crier competition in Halifax each year. Phillips was intrigued, but didn’t end up participating until the next year in 1982, when he received an invite to attend. By his own admission, Phillips didn’t do particularly well as some of his competitors had decades of experience.
“I was a rookie,” Phillips said. “But I did learn a lot.”
After returning to the Columbia Valley, Phillips had the honour of being named the official Invermere town crier, which is when his new career really began to pick up steam.
In 1983 Phillips received an invitation to perform at another town crier competition as well as Buckingham Palace in Great Britain. This time, Phillips placed second — behind the reigning world champion — and was honoured by an invitation to eat lunch with the mayor of London and to visit the British Parliament House of Commons. He was didn’t get the opportunity to meet the queen on this occasion when he did make it to Buckingham Palace, but did leave gifts for the royal family, for which he later received letters of thanks from Princess Diana and the queen.
That same year he moved to Calgary to pursue further business opportunities, where he was again honoured by being placed in the Calgary Walk of Fame, alongside such names as Marc Garneau, the first Canadian in space. That year, Phillips also attended the Calgary Centennial celebration, reading proclamations from the premier, the mayor and the prime minister of Canada.
Phillips finally got his chance to meet the queen a few years later in 1987, when he was invited to attend the British-Australian bicentennial ceremonies on the Isle of White.
Throughout all his adventures, Phillips still never forgot where he got his start, which is why he said he absolutely thrilled to be invited to take part in this year’s Valley Appreciation Day celebrations in Invermere.
“I was shocked (when they asked me to attend),” Phillips said. “Shocked with happiness… I love coming to Invermere; the people have always been great, and it’s a very friendly community.”
Phillips isn’t sure what role he’ll play in the celebrations, but plans on arriving in full town crier regalia and with a larger bell to boot. He said what he enjoys most about his craft is the reactions he gets from people, especially children.
“The children always wonder, what am I?” Phillips said. “You didn’t always have text messaging, or radio, or television, and so I ask the kids, ‘Hundreds of years ago, how did they spread the news?’ and they really have no idea.”