Updated: Apr 13, 2021
In 1959, Joe and Freda Zimmerman opened the Swiss Inn and Motel at Kettle Valley, a little east of Rock Creek. It was quite a building, as described in the Grand Forks Gazette on July 16 of that year:
From its split cedar shake roof to its big fireplace, Swiss clocks and comfortable rooms it reflects not only the beauty but the efficiency for which the Swiss have become known … Neutral wood has been used throughout. The entrance gives the appearance of warmth and friendliness with its carved wood, the shutters, and pretty window boxes. Hand made black lanterns, carvings of Edelweiss flowers on the door and the charming appearance of the two storey structure invite you to stop and visit.
Inside was a cork floor imported from Europe, dozens of Swiss clocks and mugs, and hard rock maple furniture. Around the walls were the crests of the cantons of Switzerland. Above the giant fireplace was a painting of Swiss folk hero William Tell. Joe Zimmerman hired Gunther Weinrich and Stefan Werner to help him build the inn, while the carvings were done by a Mr. Egli of Vancouver.
Two items from the Grand Forks Gazette of July 16, 1959.
But there was no mention of what would become the inn’s most famous feature: a wooden carving of a man blowing an alpenhorn. The man who created it was European, but not Swiss. Josef John (Johnny) Tokios was born in 1924 in Ujvidek (Novi Sad) in what was then Yugoslavia and is now Serbia. He trained as a goldsmith and beautician, but wanted to design jewellery.
At age 19, he enlisted in the Hungarian army. During World War II, he was captured by the Americans in Italy and held as a prisoner of war at Camp Ruston, Louisiana.
After his release in 1946, Tokios returned to Europe and worked in a coal mine in West Germany. He married Ursula Pendzich there in 1950, and they had a daughter, Marikka.
Tokios came to Canada in 1951, but lost several jobs due to the language barrier. He lived in mining camps and saved his earnings to bring his wife and daughter to Canada the following year.
“He was always whittling,” his daughter Marikka Nicklin recalls. “I was always close to my dad and would go out into his studio and watch him work.” He won first place in a competition at the PNE. He also carved an ice bear during the Revelstoke winter ski jump festival.
The family moved to Beaverdell, where Tokios worked at the Highland Bell mine. Somehow the Zimmermans learned he was an artist and commissioned him to create a piece for their inn. He made the carving in his studio, attached to the old Highland Bell cookhouse.
The finished carving was placed a little ways away from the Swiss Inn, with the horn sitting on a rock cairn inside a fenced fish pond.
John Tokios at work on the Alpine Man, ca. 1960s. (Courtesy Marikka Nicklin)
Alpine Man in place at the Swiss Inn, ca. 1960s. (Courtesy Marikka Nicklin)
John Tokios’ mother-in-law Elfriede Lipkovits at Rock Creek during a visit from Germany, ca. 1962. (Courtesy Marikka Nicklin)
The earliest newspaper mention I can find of the carving is in the Grand Forks Gazette of Aug. 19, 1970, where it was described as a “familiar wooden statue” that had recently been given an “extensive clean-up by an Osoyoos firm.” So presumably it had been there for several years, even if it wasn’t present when the inn opened.
While the caption referred to the statue as The Old Man, I don’t know if that’s what it was actually called. It appeared on a few postcards, including the one seen below.
The Zimmermans sold the Swiss Inn to George Ortman of Yakima in 1967. Sadly, it burned down on Aug. 15, 1971, but The Old Man survived.
What happened next is a little blurry, but one way or another, it came to the attention of Smithers town councillor and Lions Club member Andy Stalker, who championed an alpine theme for his town.
By one account, the statue went to a second-hand dealer in Osoyoos. By another, Stalker saw it when he drove by the former inn site one day and contacted the owner, who was then in California. (Presumably George Ortman had moved there.) In a third version, Stalker saw the statue in a Vancouver newspaper and tracked it down to Christina Lake.
In any case, he bought the statue, now referred to as the Alpenhorn Man, for $50 and moved it to Smithers with his son in the summer of 1972.
“We found it standing in a grove of jack pine trees,” he said in 2013. “We loaded it into the station wagon with the horn strapped to the carrier on the roof.”
Once in Smithers, the statue was placed in the local shopping mall to be viewed while it dried out. It received repairs and a paint job, but they had a hard time figuring out a permanent location. Finally, it was placed on the median of Main Street, close to Highway 16.
“It stayed there with little harm except someone thought a little grass in the pipe would enhance its looks,” Stalker wrote.
The Interior News, Sept. 26, 1979: Unveiling of Alpine Man.
The Alpine Man became a symbol of the town. In 1995, the Smithers and District Chamber of Commerce developed a costumed mascot based on the statute that was dubbed Alpine Al. They also began making figurine-sized replicas, which they handed out at their annual business awards.
The statue even inspired a Swiss emigre to dream of establishing an Alpenhorn Academy in Smithers — but it ran afoul of local zoning bylaws.
When a new town logo was unveiled in 2004, featuring a sunset rather than Alpenhorn Man, most councillors were aghast. The issue was partly over the fact the logo was owned by the Chamber of Commerce rather than the municipality, but the chamber agreed to turn it over to the community — and a version is used to this day.
The Alpine Man gets a paint job. The Interior News, Aug. 9, 1989
As for the statue itself, in 1996 it had a firebreglass coating added to protect it from weather damage. But 20 years later, that shell had deteriorated, and cracks began to appear. Alpine Al, as he was now known, was removed from Main Street for repairs but those attempts proved unsuccessful.
Instead, the Chamber of Commerce commissioned a replacement. The job fell to chainsaw sculptor Joerg Jung, who carved a seven-foot tall replica in cedar that was unveiled on Oct. 3, 2016. The new Alpine Al was said to be younger and slightly taller than the original.
The current Alpine Al, unveiled in 2016, has been masked a few times in the past year due to COVID-19. (Chris Duncan photo)
Back in Rock Creek, the Zimmerman family built the less architecturally imposing Edelweiss Inn (pictured below) to replace the Swiss Inn. It operated from 1974 until it too burned down in May 2006.
John Tokios, who carved the original Alpine Al, moved his family to Oliver in 1964 and began developing a vineyard. He was also one of the first viticulturists on the Golden Mile between Oliver and Osoyoos. He moved the bunkhouse from the Sally mine at Beaverdell to his property by taking it apart, numbering the pieces, loading them into his Volkswagen truck, and rebuilding over the course of a year. It was turned into a Swiss-style house with a new roof that consisted of plywood, tar paper, sod, and according to an account published in 2001, “a scattering of animal horns for an even more creative touch.”
The house is still standing, although no longer in the family. It is now part of the Rust Wine Co. vineyard.
The Sally mine bunkhouse-turned-Tokios home at Oliver, date unknown. (Courtesy Marikka Nicklin)
Daughter Marikka remembers Tokios carving many other large pieces, some of which surrounded the house. She and her children still have some of them, while others remain as crossings on churches in the Okanagan or in private collections.
Tokios died in Oliver in 2000. Marikka recently discovered that Alpine Al was moved to Smithers and contacted the museum to find out how it arrived there.
“It is an honor to know that the Town of Smithers so loved that beautiful landmark and that it has contributed to the town architectural theme,” she says. “My father would have been proud. He wanted to make a mark for himself in this world and I am so glad and proud that the people of Smithers have enjoyed this piece of artwork over the years so much so that they had another commissioned.”
While Alpine Al is long gone from the Boundary, two other Tokios creations can still be found today in Beaverdell: monuments carved in 1967 and 1971 to commemorate Canada’s centennial and the centennial of BC joining confederation. Both stand today along the highway in front of the post office and fire department and have been repainted. The 1967 monument has Tokios’ signature on one side.
1971 monument at Beaverdell. (Courtesy Marikka Nicklin)
1971 monument at Beaverdell, as seen in 2021.
1967 monument at Beaverdell, as seen in 2020.
UPDATE: The fenced area and cairn in Rock Creek that the original Alpine Al’s alpenhorn once rested upon still exists at 3610 Highway 3.
— With thanks to Bulkley Valley Museum curator Kira Westby and Marikka Nicklin
Updated on Jan. 13, 2021 to credit John Tokios as the creator of the original Alpine Al and to add the photo of the replacement Al as well as the Smithers newspaper clippings. Further updated on Jan. 17, 2021 to add more photos and information about Tokios and his work. Corrected on March 15, 2021 to state that it was the Smithers Chamber of Commerce, not the Town of Smithers, that paid for the replacement statue. Updated on April 13, 2021 to add the modern-day photos of the 1971 centennial sign in Beaverdell and former Alpine Al perch in Rock Creek.