Can Winnipeg’s wonderful elm survive a second century?

ROBERT METCALFE January 16 1960

Can Winnipeg’s wonderful elm survive a second century?

ROBERT METCALFE January 16 1960

Can Winnipeg’s wonderful elm survive a second century?


Can Winnipeg’s wonderful elm survive a second century?

Vandals have attacked it with fire and dynamite. Motorists have cursed it as a hazard. City fathers have ordered it chopped down. But the magnificent tree that Mary Ann Good planted 100 years ago still stands stolidly in the middle of a residential street-a monument to the many whose stubborn affection has saved it



WW hen Mary Ann Good, as a fresh young bride of seventeen in the summer ol 1859, planted elm saplings on a bleak farm beside the Assiniboine River where Winnipeg now stands, she had one burning hope in her heart.

She hoped the scrawny shoots would grow into big and glorious trees which one day would lord it over this flat, cheerless prairie that stretched for mile after tedious mile.

And so they did. 1 he trees she planted by the dozen grew tall and vigorous. In summer they cast a restful shade and serenity over the farm, in winter an air of stubborn dignity while their naked limbs bent before the icy winds which whipped around the austere lives of the settlers.

Mary Ann lived to see her benevolent elms pass into the grateful hands of other settlers who followed with steam-heated houses, hot and cold running water, electric lights, fridges, radios, cars and asphalt roads. And she lived to defend her trees against the axes of early engineers who thrust their streets, their power lines and their gas. steam, sewer and water mains onto the farm she and her husband sold to make way for a growing city.

One tree in particular was marked for execution by the engineers. It was a huge elm with three thick forks and towering branches. It barred the route of a road they were building parallel to the river.

This tree also happened to be one of the first elms that Mary Ann had planted almost fifty years before. Quickly organizing her friends and neighbors, she petitioned city council to let the tree stay. Mary Ann won her case, the tree was saved: and the engineers glumly wound their road around either side of it.

The saga of The Wolselcv Tree had begun.

Since that first skirmish over its fate in 1908, other attempts have been made to remove The Tree from its mid-street island. Each has been foiled.

The big elm. though scarred and scorched from repeated attempts on its life, is now a hundred years old — older than the City of Winnipeg, older than Canada. Its domain is the middle of Wolselcv Avenue, a tree-lined street which winds through a genteel neighborhood of aging frame and stucco family homes in Winnipeg's west end.

Today’s engineers argue that somebody could easily drive into The Tree and be killed (so far nobody has); today’s defenders say The Tree is as good as a traffic cop because it safeguards their children by making motorists slowdown to get around it (it certainly does).

The Tree is an affront, though, to modern street-planning and policing. It causes frustration, to city engineers, bitter disputes between city politicians, embarrassment and rifts between old neighbors, arguments among Winnipeggers wherever they live. Local newspapers have covered its trials and triumphs as thoroughly as they’ve covered floods, blizzards, wars and elections, and Robert Ripley made The Tree and its tiny grass plot famous as “the smallest park in the world.” Believc-lt-Or-Not.

Winnipcggcrs on trips in Canada and abroad are often asked: "How’s that tree of yours doing?” For vandals and pranksters, it’s a target for destruction — though they’ve paid dearly in magistrate’s court for their fun.

But mostly. The Tree is an object of obstinate affection for people who live in its neighborhood, for people who used to live there and. so it seems, for tree lovers everywhere. The fact that it still stands is proof of the tenacious sentimentality that spurs the neighborhood into battle with officialdom whenever attempts are made to cut it down.

Of all the battles over The Tree, none caused such widespread excitement and wrangling as that of September 1957, when a grim and determined band of Wolseley women, backed by Winnipeg’s mayor, ringed The Tree with a wall of defiant humanity and stood their ground against police and city engineers.

As word and picture of the unforgettable scene flashed abroad, the world might have wondered at the spectacle of the citizens of Winnipeg, in the age of sputniks and cold wars, finding time to argue the fate of a tree. But find time they did — and the meaning of trees to prairie people had a lot to do with CONTINUED ON PAGE 44

Winnipeg’s wonderful elm continued iront page 19

it. The story of The Wolseley Tree is the story of the city which grew up around it and of the woman who planted it.

Mary Ann Good was born in 1842 to an English couple named Kirton at the Red River settlement of Fort Douglas where, thirty years earlier. Lord Selkirk's first colonists had built the log cabins which were actually the foundation of Winnipeg. The K irions and their five chil-

dren were among the few dozen Hudson’s Bay Company families, farmers, small traders. Indians and nomadic métis buffalo hunters in the sparse settlement.

Mary Ann’s mother and two older brothers died in a scarlet fever epidemic at Fort Douglas: her father, who lived not much longer, placed her. a younger sister and brother in the care of settlement families.

Their farjiis were narrow, two-milelong strips fronting on the Red River. The soil was rich, the landscape bleak. On land almost devoid of trees, log cabins and out-buildings sat exposed to the blazing summer sun and the frigid winter winds which swept off the plains.

The harsh life of the settlers demanded that everybody pitch in and Mary Ann. who grew into a frail girl of little more than five foot two. did her share of work. There were no schools; the children learned to read and write from the Bible.

There was little affection or beauty in

the childhood of this orphan girl. She joined in the settlers’ Presbyterian prayers. watched them dance the wild Red River jig at celebrations, listened to their songs and stories and.tried to picture the green hills and valleys, the trees and wild flowers in the homeland they often recalled.

In 1859 she met and married Joseph William Good, twenty-year-old son of a Hudson’s Bay Company family at Lower Fort Garry, and the young couple moved to the new farm by the Assiniboine. which flows from the west into the north-bound stream of the Red.

Cutting through the farm was the narrow. rutted Portage Trail (now Portage Avenue) which met the Main Trail (Main Street) at Red River, l ong trains of Red River oxcarts creaked and groaned on their way through to parishes as far west as Fort Qu’Appelle (in Saskatchewan) and trading posts on the plains beyond.

Mary Ann’s home was a tiny, two-room log cabin. There was no stove: a mud fireplace in one corner did for cooking and heating. There were no lamps; at night they lit bits of rag placed in a saucer of buffalo fat.

I he Goods kept cows, poultry and horses, and broke the land largely by hoe. And the land was almost bare. Below the river, pockets of scrub oak petered out a short distance from the hank: above the river were thin poplar and scraggly bush along the bank, then the naked, soulless, disheartening prairie stretching as far as the eye could see.

One day, while bringing the cows home from a pasture near Omand's Creek. Mary Ann stumbled onto three tiny elm saplings in the bank of the creek where it empties into the Assiniboine. There were no native elms in this part of the prairie; it is believed these ones grew from seeds carried down the Assiniboine by high water in the spring.

Mary Ann uprooted the saplings, took them home and planted them near the log cabin. Soon the three saplings were flourishing young trees and from them she collected the seeds for the trees she glew row upon row from the river to the Portage Trail.

One of the three saplings plucked from the creek was to become world famous a hundred years later as the Wolseley I ree. And Mary Ann Good became known throughout Red River as "the tree planter."

She was thirty - one and The I ree a sturdy fifteen years old when the first city fathers named the settlement Winnipeg. The Red River settlement had grown, and new settlers, following hei' example, had planted trees by the hundreds in their gardens and along the streets. As well as elm. maple and oak. there were trees she had never seen before—weeping birch and willows, mountain ash and firs.

Mary Ann knew why they planted them. On the prairies a tree was like moisture to a parched throat: it was something to be loved, even worshipped.

When the new streets edged closer to the Goods’ market-garden farm, they sold to land-hungry builders who clamored for more space.

The sale had barely been completed when Joseph Good suddenly died. Mary Ann moved into a smaller house a block from I he I ree. By then I he I ree had already been marked tor destruction by engineers pushing through the street named after Colonel Garnet Wolseley a military leader at the time of Louis Riel — but Mary Ann had appeared before the city council and persuaded them to spare it.

The people who moved onto Wolseley

Avenue during the building boom that followed World War I were grateful for her defense of The Tree and, whenever the occasion arose, became its staunch defenders themselves.

One such crisis occurred in 1925. w'hen engineers were planning to asphalt Wolseley Avenue. They decided The Tree would have to go. Workmen were preparing to cut it dowm when one resident, Mrs. L. F. Borrowman. was roused by a tearful neighbor. "They're cutting down our tree.” the woman cried. Mrs. Borrowman rushed out and persuaded the workmen to wait until she got in touch with her husband, then a member of city council. He turned up with Mayor Ralph Webb and several other councilors, and a conference was held around The Tree.

The aldermen agreed with the mayor that there was no real need to cut it down, that careful drivers could get around it without trouble. "As long as this tree lives,” said Mayor Webb, "it should be left alone.” The Tree came out of the struggle with a concrete curb around its tiny grass plot and an asphalt traffic lane around either side.

On a January day in 1932, Mary Ann Good died at the age of ninety. She had outlived her husband and three sons, left six grandchildren and thirteen greatgrandchildren. Her great-great grandchildren are youngsters in Winnipeg today.

Her Wolseley tree was unknown to most Winnipeggers until Ripley made it famous. Then they came to admire it and to find that Wolseley Avenue was a delightful walk. Other trees hadjoined Mary Ann's to tower over the roadway in leafy Gothic arches.

City council considered removing the tree in the late Thirties, after a couple of cars bent their fenders on it; and again after World War 11, when the traffic began getting heavy.

Reprieve after reprieve

Between 1947 and 1949 city engineers bulldozed more than a thousand old trees out of boulevards when they widened downtown streets in once-elegant residential areas that were fast changing over to business districts. Public opinion finally curtailed the engineers and saved the trees on a number of streets they later widened. But at least three times in the early Fifties the public works committee considered cutting The Í ree down. Each time they were warned off by Alderman IT. B. Scott: "Touch that tree and there'll be hell to pay.”

By 1957 cars jammed the streets morning and evening, and at times it took longer to get from the old Main I rail to Mary Ann’s farm with three hundred chrome-encased horsepower than it once did with a lumbering oxcart.

One traffic problem centred around the Wolseley Tree. Beside Omand's Creek, not far from where Mary Ann had found three young saplings ninety-eight years before, the city had built a large football stadium, a baseball stadium and a hockey arena, and businessmen were raising a twenty-million-dollar shopping centre.

Fans attracted by the thousands to major sports events filled every east-west road with cars and buses, and quiet Wolseley Avenue was in the thick of it. Bus drivers and motorists, encountering The Tree for the first time, cursed as they swerved to avoid it and made their gripes loud and clear.

The Tree, police and traffic experts agreed, was a hazard. If they got it out of the way, Wolseley would be a fine thoroughfare for helping them out of this new traffic problem. Winnipeg's

youthful traffic engineer. William Finnbogason. and the city's traffic commission, asked city engineer W. D. Hurst to cut it down.

Now Hurst didn't require permission merely to cut down a tree. But he knew what was at stake on Wolseley Avenue. He dumped the problem into the laps of the six aldermen on the public works committee.

The committee sec - sawed back and forth in debate but finally voted to cut The Tree. The engineers were closer to victory than ever before.

Next morning Winnipeg Tribune city editor Val Werier sent a reporter and photographer to Wolseley Avenue to find out what the neighborhood thought of the cutting edict.

Most housewives admitted they were fond of The Tree and would hate to see it go. But if the decision was made, what could they do about it? One woman cried: "Of all the nerve!" But she refused to pose by The Tice or join in any move to save it. A couple actually felt it was time the old tree was removed.

The news team was almost ready to

give up on the story when the next householder they asked turned out to be an elderly woman who was hard of hearing. She didn't seem to quite understand the situation, but she understood that they wanted her to pose for a picture beside The Tree, and she agreed.

When the other housewives saw one of their neighbors walk with the reporters toward The Tree, the spirit of Mary Ann Good took over. Out of their houses they came, first one. then two. then three and four, until a little group of women stood around The Tree, discussing in shocked

tones the aldermen’s order to cut it down.

Soon they were thoroughly riled and perfectly willing to link arms around The Tree for a picture. It showed a group of women who appeared ready to defend their tree at any cost. Next day the picture and the story of an aroused neighborhood jolted* the works committee into staying Hurst's hand until the ladies had their say.

Mrs. Borrowman headed the delegation that appeared before the public works committee. She argued that I he free helped make the street safe for children because it forced traffic to slow down. Besides, she added, I he I ree was a beautiful old landmark.

The aldermen listened respectfully, then turned on one another to argue the issue hotly. When it was time to vote, they recorded a 3-3 tie. Thus, by procedure rules, the order to cut down The Tree still stood.

“I’ll cut it down in the course of normal business,” said engineer Hurst.

Two days later, shortly after 8 a.m. on Sept. 19. 1957, a city truck pulled up to the Wolseley Tree and disgorged workmen with ladders, saw's and axes. Immediately. doors along the block opened and the Wolseley women, led by Mrs. Borrowman, converged on the spot. Some were in pin curls and slippers; coats and sweaters had been hastily thrown over housedresses against the chill fall ail. They were joined by several residents who, a tew days earlier, had appeared to care little about The Tree’s fate.

At first there was only heckling as the workmen unloaded their truck and the foreman, chewing a cigar, sized up The Tree. Newspaper reporters and photographers, tipped by phone, drove up. So did television cameramen and radio announcers, who set up equipment to broadcast on-the-spot reports.

Then a voice in the crowd suggested that they surround The Tree. Eight women thrust forward, encircled the thick trunk and linked arms. The engineers had anticipated trouble; police were called and a couple of constables, led by a sergeant, arrived on motorcycles. They ordered the women to get back onto the sidewalk.

"We re not moving,” the women declared.

"This is a serious matter,” said the sergeant. “You can’t obstruct the city like this.”

“We’re not moving,” said the women.

The police withdrew into a huddle and decided to call for reinforcements. The women were unimpressed. But the workmen had their orders. The Tree was to come down. A tall ladder w'as placed against it and a workman started up with a saw.

Mrs. Ellen Bird darted out from under The Tree and grabbed an axe lying on the guound. "I wouldn't go up there if I were you,” she admonished, waving the axe under the man’s nose.

"Now, lady,” said a constable. “You mustn't do that. That's not the way things are done.”

“He'd better not go up that ladder,” she retorted, taking a firm grip on the axe.

The workman and the constable retreated to the curb and the women started shouting “Where's Juba? We’re not going until the mayor comes. Is he afraid to come?”

Chewing his cigar in exasperation, the foreman beckoned to the man with the saw: “Get up that tree and start cutting those branches.”

With a wary eye on the angry women, the man scampered up the ladder and started sawing. Leaves, bark and sawdust

showered on the people below. A branch came crashing down.

The foreman pointed: “Now that one.” The saw went to work again.

“Come dow'n, come down, come down,” the women chanted.

“Is this a communist country?” a defender yelled. “Are you men just going to say to the devil with the people?”

“You’re not supposed to cut down that tree until the mayor comes.”

Mayor Stephen Juba had already been phoned at home by his city-hall secretary. With shaving soap still stuck to his ears, he rolled up in his big mauve Cadillac and stepped out to the cheers of the Wolseley women and three hundred bystanders who had been attracted by radio accounts of the melee. Reporters scribbled and cameras whirred.

“Don't let them cut it down,” pleaded Mrs. Kathleen Johnston.

“You’ve got the authority to stop them, you know,” said Mrs. Borrowman.

“Well, I tried to stop them before,” said Juba, brushing leaves off his shoulders. “I don’t know what I can do now.”

The women roared.

“I thought we had some say about city affairs!”

"We pay taxes. We didn’t get a chance to attend the city-hall meeting!”

"Just wait until next election!”

The mayor turned to streets engineer Clarence Keeping: "Can you hold things up until I check on this?”

“I've got my orders not to stop,” said Keeping.

"1 don't want to interfere,” said Juba, “But can't you delay things for a few minutes?” Keeping promised he would and the mayor headed for the nearest house and a phone.

“That's the stuff, Juba,” the women yelled.

The patrol wagon with police reinforcements arrived. The women cheered. A police inspector stepped out, took one look at the mob of angry women. “I’m not going to start a riot here,” he said.

The mayor reappeared to announce that John Taunton, acting’as city engineer in Hurst’s absence from town, was on his way. “Will you take orders from me?” he asked Keeping.

“It’s a difficult position,” Keeping hedged.

Juba said he would ask the police chief to withdraw his men. The chief, said the mayor after another phone call, had refused.

Taunton arrived and the women jeered. “What’s holding things up?” he asked Keeping.

“The women won’t move and we can’t work,” Keeping complained.

“Get your men up that tree,” Taunton ordered. “If they won't move that’s their fault.”

“Will you hold up the work?” the mayor asked Taunton.

“If you order me to I will,” replied Taunton.

“Well, then I'm ordering you,” said the mayor.

“You’re ordering me to stop and you’re taking the responsibility, is that right?” asked Taunton.

“Right,” said the mayor.

“Then we’ll stop the work,” said Taunton. He waved the workmen away from The Tree and the women cheered.

While police, workmen and engineers withdrew before the grins of the happy mob. Mayor Juba, visibly shaken, was escorted into the quiet front parlor of the Borrowman home.

Sipping coffee, he pondered his actions: “I just couldn't stand there and see those branches cut off over their heads. Somebody might have got hurt. If council says I've done wrong, then I guess I'll have to resign.”

"Mayor Juba,” said Mrs. Borrowman, “you’ve got us all behind you. You've made a lot of friends today. Do have another cup of coffee.”

Four days later city council received a delegation of Wolseley women. A petition with 104 signatures asked that the tree be spared; it also commended Juba and the police for “exemplary conduct.”

But the 18 aldermen shied from a decision on The Tree and passed it back to the works committee. On September 25, six days after the incident at The Tree, the committee voted 3-2 to stay the execution order.

The victory of the Wolseley women didn’t save The Tree from further ordeal. Instead, the attention it got made The Tree fair game. The night of the melee firemen twice doused fires set at its trunk and neighbors organized a night watch

for vandals. Doors popped open one morning when city workmen stopped at The Tree — only to fix the sign which warns traffic: “Keep Right.”

Nine months later, three air - force cadets, out on a nocturnal lark, stripped off a layer of bark all around one trunk and set fire to it. They were caught almost immediately, fined $150 each for public mischief.

“If this had been any other tree in Canada,” their lawyer told the magistrate, “the story would have been much different. The tree presents a challenge ... it has assumed a stature out of all proportion to its true value.”

Sorrowing neighbors feared The Tree would never recover. City parks board refused to come to its aid: “We're too busy,” they said. So did the engineering department: “It’s time that tree came down,” they said.

But University of Manitoba plant scientists were sure it could be saved. Tree expert Alec Gudziak grafted green saplings across the gaping wound and vouched it would live if it got plenty of water.

The Wolseley women took care of that. All summer they watered The Tree and it bloomed as green and glorious as ever. Newspapers published regular reports on its state of health and the women kept watch again at night for vandals.

All had quietened down by Hallowe’en, 1958. But early that morning two loud noises like explosive blasts awakened the neighborhood. Residents rushed out in their night attire to find one of The Tree’s three thick forks lying across the road with a hydro pole sitting smack across it. On the ground were wood chips that might have been made by a drill. Neighbors concluded that dynamite had been placed in holes bored into the fork, that the blast toppled it over the hydro lines and the pole was dragged down with it.

The Winnipeg Free Press ringed its front-page account of The Tree's latest misfortune in black borders of mourning under the solemn heading: “The Tree Is Dead.” Then it proceeded to vie with the Tribune in daily and contrary speculation on The Tree’s chances of survival.

While neighbors still suspect that The Tree was dynamited, police concluded that the fork had fallen from age and rot (though a tree expert said there wasn't enough rot to make it fall).

Alec Gudziak replaced the torn saplings on the main trunk, told the neighborhood they would know in spring if The Tree would pull through. Last spring The Tree did stir to life; jubilant neighbors watched the green leaves sprout on the remaining few branches and state-ofhealth reports appeared again in the newspapers. The saplings appeared to have rejuvenated The Tree; the leaves were as small as those that Mary Ann Good had seen when it was young.

Early on May 7 last year it was burned again, this time by three young men who planned its demise over a few drinks in a pub. One was a truck driver, who told his friends he had nearly struck a child who had run out from behind The Tree. The fire caused little damage; the culprits were soon caught and fined a hundred dollars each.

Gudziak patiently repaired his saplings, the neighbors patiently watered the elm through the summer and maintained a zealous guard, and its story disappeared once more from the newspapers. But after its ordeals in fifty years of dispute, there's no certainty that The Tree will ever be left alone to live out its days in peace. ★