Updated: Jan 18, 2018
The man who carved the signs seen below (or at least their original iteration) has died at 94.
According to his obituary, Art Waldie was a wood carver from the age of five until carpal tunnel syndrome forced him to stop in his late 70s. He was a prolific artist, whose work included a coat of arms to commemorate a visit to Nelson by the Archbishop of Canterbury. But his best-known works were Nelson’s welcome signs.
In 1995, with the city’s centennial a couple of years away, it was suggested that it might be time to replace the signs with something more in keeping with the Victorian heritage theme. The community heritage committee recommended city council develop a plan to revise the signs. But I was curious how the existing ones came to be.
I learned they were built in 1968 at the suggestion of future mayor Tex Mowatt, then president of the Chamber of Commerce. “[There was] a big pile of signs saying where everything was,” he told me. “I suggested to the group we could do something more appropriate for Nelson. They all sort of jumped on the bandwagon.”
Ron Sawyer, a former partner in the Fairbank Architects firm, designed the signs. The first to be put up was on the North Shore, just off the orange bridge, followed by the one toward Salmo, and the last toward Castlegar. (Now that I think about it, I wonder if the latter wasn’t installed until after the new highway interchange went through a few years later.) Gerhard Renk donated a week’s worth of stone work on the bases of the first two signs, while Laszlo Huszak did the other.
“I was fortunate enough to have people in the community who specialized in those things,” Mowatt said. “None of those signs cost a penny. Kootenay Forest Products gave us the wood, Wood Vallance [hardware] donated supplies and city crews put the poles in place. It was very well organized.”
However, all those involved said Waldie deserved the real credit. “We just poured concrete. He did the main part,” Renk said. Mowatt agreed: “That was a tough job, all that cedar work.”
I went over to interview Waldie at his home on Johnstone Road — within sight of one of the three signs. He told me he did all the carving on the first two, and started the third, which Bank of Montreal manager Bill Murray finished. He worked in a warehouse near the airport and it took him every weekend for a summer. It was a labour of love, for he was eager to try out his new router.
The story appeared in the Nelson Daily News on Aug. 25, 1995, with a photo of Waldie sitting in front of the North Shore sign. While he wasn’t sentimental about them, he didn’t understand why the city would bother replacing the signs.
It had not been my intention to convince anyone to save the signs, but the minor public outcry that followed probably helped kibosh the idea of replacing them. A few years later, the city did replace them — but with exact replicas of the ones Waldie created.
According to a story by Bob Hall in the Daily News on Oct. 26, 2001, city carpenter Arny Zaitsoff used any spare time in his day to carve the new signs because the old ones were on the verge of falling over.
“The supports had rotted,” said then-public works manager and present city councillor Bob Adams. “We have done work on them over the past few years, but it is time for new ones.”
Unlike the original signs, these ones came with a $27,000 price tag for taxpayers.
“I’m very happy to see them not change the look,” Waldie said at the time. “A lot of people put a lot of time and energy into that project.”
This story actually put the date of the signs’ creation as 1974 instead of 1968. I can’t reconcile the discrepancy; although Waldie showed me a newspaper clipping from the time the signs were created, I don’t know its exact date.
No other West Kootenay/Boundary community has retained the same design for its welcome signs for as long. Usually they are redesigned and replaced every few years. Since the 1990s, Slocan, New Denver, Silverton, Kaslo, and Nakusp have had a unified theme to their welcome signs, which are very appealing, although they are in varying states of repair.
Updated on Jan. 13, 2018 after I located the August 1995 Nelson Daily News story mentioned and again on Jan. 17 after I found the 2001 Daily News story. I corrected the spelling of Laszlo Huszak’s first name.