Main Street, Smithers, 1960s. The town had a very different feel to it prior to the adoption of the Alpine Theme resolution. (Bulkley Valley Museum collection)

Main Street, Smithers, 1960s. The town had a very different feel to it prior to the adoption of the Alpine Theme resolution. (Bulkley Valley Museum collection)

An Our Town about our town: Part II: Diesel and patchouli

In July 2019, Smithers town council declared a climate emergency.

It was, of course, a controversial issue. Setting aside the extreme position that climate change is a hoax, many people questioned why it was Smithers council’s place to make such a declaration.

The decision was also criticized for being merely symbolic and a waste of time.

Council disagreed, using it as an opportunity to advance certain green initiatives such as beginning to convert the town fleet to electric vehicles.

Despite a heated public debate — it even became an election issue in the 2020 mayoral byelection — Smithers’ climate emergency declaration remains on the books.

How many people know, though, that Smithers is also officially a nuclear weapons free zone (NWFZ)?

In 1986, (the United Nations Year of Peace) a group called Project Ploughshares Smithers, sponsored by the Smithers Anglican Church and St. Joseph’s Church, led the charge to have the town declared an NWFZ.

Unlike the climate emergency, which was decided by a simple 4-3 vote by council, the nuclear weapons free zone question was taken to the public.

Like the climate emergency, there was a heated public debate.

The proponents faced the same kind of opposition then as council faced more recently. In fact, just three days prior to the referendum, which was held in conjunction with the 1986 municipal election, Alderman Henk Hoornenborg, the only member of council who voted against holding the referendum tried to derail the effort.

In a letter published in The Interior News, Hoorenborg urged voters to vote no “and let the militant protesters know how you feel.”

Apparently, the voters felt differently than the alderman because the referendum passed by a 64 per cent majority of 704 votes to 404.

Bylaw 771 remains on books today and earned Smithers a mention in a 2015 British Columbia Magazine article entitled “10 Bizarre British Columbia Laws.”

It would seem Smithers’ reputation for being an odd mix of very conservative and very liberal elements is not a new development.

Smithers early history was characterized by a lot of starts and stops, growth then decline. Despite early visions of a city along the lines of Vancouver, the population by the 1940s was around 700, about the same as it had been a year after the town was founded in 1913 by the Grand Trunk Pacific railroad.

Following the Second World War, a combination of European immigration and the post-war North American baby boom renewed optimism the town would become a major centre. The town did grow, albeit not as quickly as optimists may have expected.

By 1951, the population had crested 1,200 and that doubled by 1961 to 2,487.

Emblematic of the optimism of the times were the neon signs that flooded the town during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The first neon actually went up on Main Street in the summer of 1937, a Chevrolet logo on the dealership of W.J. O’Neill.

In August 1937, The Interior News reported on the development.

“W.J. O’Neill is the first to erect a Neon sign in Smithers and this bright director stands out in such prominence that others are liable to follow.

In 1950, The Interior News reported on the Hudson Hotel being the “latest local business establishment to bloom forth” with a new sign.

“Smithers is rapidly developing a big city look along Main Street,” the paper said.

In the early ’50s the race to neon took on an almost competitive tone with The Interior News cheerleading.

When Goodacre’s Grocery joined the pack in 1952 the paper appeared to egg on the east side of Main to catch up.

“The community’s bright lights on Main Street were enhanced to a considerable extent this week with the installation of another neon sign,” The Interior News reported. “Of further importance and interest, however, is the fact that this one is on the much-malingered [sic] east side, which has had to take a back seat to the big business interests on the west, with their many neon signs.”

It is not clear why the east side was “much-maligned.” Bulkley Valley Museum curator Kira Westby said in a Facebook post it is likely “one of those “you had to be there” references that we’ve lost now.”

The article also appeared to challenge other businesses to join the race.

“While not wishing to detract from any of the other neons, we think Goodacres’ have one of the neatest and brightest signs yet to appear on Main,” it said.

By the 1970s, though, sensibilities were changing.

Whereas early immigration to the valley was based on industrial and agricultural opportunity, the late 1960s saw a new kind of lifestyle-seeking migrant.

The town council of the day appeared to recognize this and tourism potential in a resolution adopted in 1972.

WHEREAS Smithers is well-known in the Pacific Northwest for its fine winters for skiing, snowmobiling, skating, curling, jam pail curling, and other winter sports,

AND WHEREAS Smithers is known far and wide as the friendly town and for its good shops & good people,

AND WHEREAS it is desirable to retain this facet of our character though our population grows,

AND WHEREAS tourists to our mountains and rivers is a natural, desirable and welcome industry to support our town and its people,

THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that we encourage this trait by adopting an alpine theme in our business district architecture to relate to our mountain and winter sport heritage that particularly belongs to the Town of Smithers,

AND BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED we suggest to all of our business district to adopt this alpine theme of extended roof lines, shuttered windows, balconies, pictured exterior walls, wooden signs & other devices keeping with the theme of an Alpine village.

While the neon sign competition was organic, the alpine theme took a more formal direction.

In September 1972, town council approved the Alpine Award for 10 years to be given to “the building or business establishment with the best alpine theme.”

The inaugural Alpine Award went to Northcountry Realty.

While transition to the alpine theme was voluntary during the 1970s, by 1980, the council of the day was ready to entrench it into law.

An initial attempt to make the alpine theme mandatory in the town’s development permit bylaw was killed following a public hearing in April 1981 during which the business community overwhelmingly rejected the first draft of legislation prompting council to withdraw the bylaw.

By 1990, though, the town had entrenched the concept into law and since it has been largely, if sometimes grudgingly, accepted.

In 1990, then-Alderman Carman Graf, although opposed to the bylaw, said the designs certainly looked nice according to The Interior News.

“I was never in favor [sic] because I don’t think we have the right to tell someone how to construct their business,” he said, an early echo of sentiments that still crop up to this day.

Regardless of where one stands on the issue, it is inarguable that Smithers has a unique feel in Northwest B.C.

In fact, the overall character of the town is pretty unique.

A little bit country, a little bit rock and roll.

Industrial with an artistic flair.

Diesel and patchouli.