Uncommon heritage

As the buildings were going up, Nelson and environs were getting more than the usual influx of miners and woodsmen. A Pacific agrarian sect of Russian Christians known as Doukhobors also arrived, about 5,000 of them, and with them a militant fringe group, the Sons of Freedom, that staged hundreds of nude marches, arsons and anti-government bombings. Then during World War II, the Canadian government set up internment camps and imprisoned about 8,000 Japanese Canadian men, women and children.

As the Vietnam War stretched from the 1960s into the '70s, came the Americans — perhaps as many as 10,000 draft resisters (a.k.a. draft dodgers, a.k.a. conscientious objectors) by some estimates, along with others eager to start communes in the countryside. Most of the communes fell apart fast, and President Carter pardoned the draft resisters in 1977. But like many Doukhobors and Japanese Canadian families before them, many of these immigrants stayed, raised families and worked as farmers, artisans or entrepreneurs.

In the late '70s, Nelson boosters started tidying up the town's then-bedraggled old buildings. By the summer of 1986, the renewed downtown was fetching enough to attract Steve Martin, who arrived with a prosthetic nose and film crew to work on "Roxanne." The film, released the following year, features Martin as the big-nosed chief of a bumbling small-town fire department and Daryl Hannah as the bespectacled astronomer of his dreams.

Controversial statue

After learning all that, it was a letdown to meet no avowed draft resisters, Doukhobors, Japanese Canadians or movie stars. But I did hear plenty about the furor of 2004, when Isaac Romano of Nelson proposed a monument to the draft resisters, stirring scorn from many sides, prompting denunciations from local business leaders and inspiring a New York Times headline that dubbed Nelson "Resisterville."

The monument idea was quickly shelved, but in 2006 a reunion of resisters was staged (with Doukhobor help) in nearby Castlegar. Locals say a 3-foot-high bronze model of artist Naomi Lewis' proposed draft-resister memorial now resides at the Vallican Whole Community Centre in the nearby Slocan Valley, a favored haunt of countercultural folk.

Yet when author Ernest Hekkaman and his partner, Margrith Schraner, were looking to relocate from Vancouver 11 years ago, Hekkaman told me, they chose Nelson "because it's a small town with an active arts community and literary community.... I didn't realize there was such a large antiwar population here, so many draft dodgers from the '60s and '70s."

But since Hekkaman is a draft dodger himself — having moved from Seattle to Vancouver in 1969 — that was hardly a problem. He helped underwrite the 2006 reunion and briefly housed the model draft-resister sculpture at his home-gallery. When I reached him by phone after our visit, he estimated that perhaps 300 draft resisters remain in Nelson and surrounding areas. But good luck spotting them among the other free spirits.

On our last morning in town, we grabbed breakfast at the Kootenay Bakery Café (vegetarian), then watched as the real firefighters of Nelson — an entirely competent-looking bunch, noses unremarkable — fanned out from their truck, shut down Baker Street and sent a man skyward on the ladder. His task: to string up a banner for an upcoming event.

Half an hour later, amid nods of approval from a dozen sidewalk superintendents, they reopened the street. Through it all, traffic was unaffected, and you could nearly hear, on the surrounding slopes, a billion leaves fluttering in the Sunday morning breeze. Nelson was at peace, and we were due to head south again.

chris.reynolds@latimes.com