There have been several owners of Nevada City’s most famous hostelry — now rebranded with its original National Exchange Hotel name — and the longest-serving were members of the Rector family.
Although John and Bayliss Rector are identified in local history as its primary owners, two second-generation Rector brothers also operated the National, as did Bayliss’ widow.
If ever the phrase “family-run business” applied, it was the Rectors’ 44-year association with the Gold Rush-era building. But considering that John and Bayliss’ parents had been resort owners in Missouri, the brothers’ lives in Nevada City seemed preordained.
Elijah John Rector, known as John, was born in 1842 in Pike County, Missouri, where his parents owned and operated the Elk Lick Springs Hotel — a popular health resort that drew thousands of guests yearly. Five years later, Bayliss Strother Rector was born, also in Pike County.
John began his lifelong career in the lodging business when he was 20, joining with his parents in the operation and growth of the resort, while Bayliss continued with his education, attending McGee College — a small, Presbyterian school in Macon County, Missouri. When 23-year-old Bayliss graduated from McGee in 1870, both brothers became fully involved with daily affairs at the Elk Lick Springs Hotel, as well as helping maintain a family farm. From that point on, the lives of John and Bayliss Rector bore a remarkable similarity.
In 1871, Bayliss married Susan Frances Griffith, a young Pike County woman. Then, in 1874, John marred Susan’s sister, Margaret Alice Griffith. Later that year, the couples left Missouri for California — settling in Hollister, where the brothers owned and operated the Western Hotel and McMahon House for eight years.
Their final two ventures as hoteliers were in Nevada City, leasing the Union Hotel in 1882, then leasing the National in 1886 — a decision that led to ownership in 1892.
SETTLING IN NEVADA CITY
The 100-room Union, built in 1864, was located on lower Main Street, less than a block from the South Yuba Canal Building, and current home of the Nevada City Chamber of Commerce. (Actually, it was the third Union Hotel at that spot — the first two having been victims of fires in 1856 and 1863, and the final version razed to make room for the Golden Center Freeway in the 1960s).
Once John and Bayliss Rector acquired ownership of the National, changes began. One of the first things they did was relocate the dining room from the second floor to street level. A couple of years later, they built the distinctive full-length veranda in order to host the wedding of a Rector niece. Also in the 1890s, they built an addition to the hotel. Known as the National Annex, it fronted Broad Street and its second-floor rooms connected to the hotel’s second floor by way of an enclosed walkway spanning National Alley.
The National Annex featured large suites, referred to in advertisements as apartments. And it was in one of the suites that Nevada County-born, internationally acclaimed opera star Emma Nevada stayed while appearing at the Nevada Theatre in March 1902. Some suites served as second homes for the Rectors.
In addition to running the National, the brothers became involved in local affairs — politically and socially. John was a founding officer of both the Nevada County Promotion Committee in 1897 and Nevada City Chamber of Commerce in 1901. Fraternally, he held the top offices of the Elks, Odd Fellows and Knights of Pythias, and in 1901 became a founder and first president of the Bank of Nevada County.
Bayliss was also a founder of the Bank of Nevada County and its president during the last couple of years of his life. He also served on the Board of Town Trustees, (now called Nevada City Council), including a term as mayor. And, like his brother, Bayliss was active with the Nevada County Promotion Committee, Nevada City Chamber of Commerce, Elks, and Knights of Pythias.
Margaret Rector died in 1901, only 43; John in 1914, 71 years old; Bayliss in 1915, 67 years of age; and Susan in 1918, 63 years old. And when Bayliss died, it was Susan who stepped in to assume the National’s day-to-day management, joined shortly thereafter by a second generation of the Rector Bros. business entity: John and Margaret’s sons Gilbert and Edwin.
In 1925, the Rector family extended a five-year lease to Fred Worth, who later acquired ownership. Today, the National Exchange Hotel is owned and operated by Acme Hospitality, a Santa Barbara-based company that also operates the Holbrooke Hotel in Grass Valley.
Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at [email protected]