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Battle of the Wolseley Elm — “Wild Women” became famous for defending the tree
Sep 21, 2012

 

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
The “Wild Women,” who successfully defended the Wolseley Elm from being felled by saws and axes, became international celebrities. Life magazine on October 7, 1957, featured photos and a brief article entitled Women of Winnipeg Save a Tree. But the women had to remain vigilant in their defence of their cherished tree as threats still existed to the American elm’s survival in the middle of Wolseley Avenue.
Soon after they won their battle to save the elm, the tree was set on fire twice. The Winnipeg Free Press on September 21 reported: “Someone with arsonist tendencies wanted to make a lonely old tree, the ‘smallest park in the world,’ into the smallest forest fire ...
“The triple-trunked elm in the middle of Wolseley Avenue stands on a plot of land a bit larger in circumference than grandpappy’s portable bathtub. Some people say it should go; others say it shouldn’t.”
Using gasoline, the culprit(s) burned off a 13-foot strip of bark, charring the trunk of the elm which still remained standing thanks to the efforts of “diligent defenders of the tree,” who turned in alarms to the Winnipeg Fire Department at 1:35 and 3:05 a.m. on Saturday, September 21.
Newspapers called the arson another chapter in the “Episode of the Elm.”
After the fire, city council was in a quandary about what to do with the Wolseley Elm. It’s fate became a political issue, dividing council and pitting those who supported its removal for traffic safety issues and those who believed in the historical and aesthetic value of the tree.
During a luncheon meeting of the sixth Commonwealth Mining and Metallurgical Congress, Winnipeg Councillor (then referred to as an alderman) Walter Crawford said that Mayor Stephen Juba’s stopping of the work crew designated to cut down the elm only temporarily halted the “fracas.”
“I expect to be hung from that tree in the next day or two,” he told the delegates at the congress luncheon. “I believe that if I am hung from that tree, (Councillor A.E.) Bennett will be hung on another branch.”
Both Crawford and Bennett had supported the demise of the Wolseley Elm, although the latter councillor had begun to waver in his commitment after the women had successfully protested the removal order.
Seventeen councillors declared how they would vote on whether or not to save the elm tree on September 20: nine said they would leave it alone, while eight said they would have the tree chopped down.
But most supported Juba’s action regardless of where they stood on the issue of the Wolseley Elm. In fact, city council voted 12-6 in support of the mayor’s decision to halt the workers.
At city hall, councillors discussed the fate of the tree for an hour on September 23 with over 400 spectators in the gallery watching the proceedings.
Mayor Stephen Juba didn’t resign after he “broke the law” by ordering the city crew to cease their efforts to chop down the tree. Before the meeting, the city’s legal department had advised the mayor that it wasn’t necessary to seek the confidence of the councillors since he wasn’t responsible to city council, but to the people. Unlike city councillors, who were elected in individual wards, Winnipeg’s mayor was elected at-large by all the people of the city. In essence, he received his mandate to govern by earning a majority vote from Winnipeggers.
But it was a mute point, since Juba
already had the support of the majority of city councillors as shown by the earlier vote. 
Councillor Paul Goodman suggested that since the residents of Wolseley were intent on keeping their elm where it stood, the road could be moved. The lane to the south of the tree could be closed and the lane to the north could be widened. The tree would then be situated on a “sort of peninsula jutting out into the street” (Free Press, September 24, 1957).
“Mrs. Harold Strom of 431 Greenway Place, who was the tree defenders’ spokesperson, told the council that she feared the suggestion would provide “just another twist in the road.”
The twists in the road were many as changes to the street required the approval of traffic commission which might not want to act without the approval of the planning commission, and if the island  containing the tree was turned into a park, approval had to come from the parks commission.
Councillor Walter Crawford, one of the more vocal opponents of the Wolseley Elm, wasn’t pleased by any of the suggestions made at the meeting.
He told a local radio station (unnamed in the article) that: “I’m going to lose most of those people’s votes in Ward 1. But I don’t want their votes. It makes me sick to think of Winnipeg being advertised as a place where the council is ruled by mob law. I’m going to fight these people on every street corner in Winnipeg.”
The same station quoted Councillor Maude McCreary, another opponent of the tree, as declaring: “These people here tonight are professional agitators. Most of the real Wolseley Avenue people aren’t here.”
To prove the latter point, the city clerk said a 104-name petition was signed by some residents of St. Boniface, which was then an independent city outside Winnipeg’s borders.
But it’s difficult to understand how the group of local grandmothers and housewives who were defending the Wolseley Elm could be given the label “professional agitators.”
When defending his decision to order the work crew to cease their tree-cutting, Juba said he was acting in “an extraordinary situation,” and he was prompted to halt the work “to prevent further disturbance and the possibility of injury to the public.”
“Ald. Slaw Rebchuk rapped the engineering department. Deputy city engineer John Taunton, he said, had refused to tell him when the tree would be taken down. Ald. Rebchuk had found out elsewhere and in turn had refused to tell Mr. Taunton where his won information had come from.”
At 7:30 a.m. on September 19, the day the tree was to be cut down, Rebchuk had telephoned Taunton warning him to “leave that thing (elm) alone. There’s going to be trouble down there (Wolseley Avenue).”
Taunton didn’t heed Rebchuk’s advice and the city workers were ordered to start hacking the tree down at 9 a.m.
Councillor H.B. Scott, a defender of the tree, deplored the actions of the women, “particularly the lady with the axe.”
In Winnipeg Tribune photos taken on the day the tree was to come down, one of the “12 angry women” is shown holding an axe while confronting city police and city workers. In one famous photo, the “lady with the axe” is glaring at a police sargent and holding her weapon in a menacing fashion. The same lady is seen in another picture without her axe and applauding Juba after he stopped the workers.
“I don’t know what she wanted to do with it,” said Scott, “but it’s almost as a bad as Little Rock, Arkansas.”
Scott was referring to race riots in the U.S. that were being shown daily on CBWT, the Winnipeg CBC television station. In September 1957, at Little Rock, violent rioting erupted over the integration of Central High School. Nine black students — called in media reports, the “Little Rock Nine” — were successfully enrolled, but not before 1,000 paratroopers and 10,000 National Guardsmen were sent into the beleaguered city.
At the end of the debate at city hall, it was decided that the matter of the Wolseley Elm would be dealt with at a special meeting of the public works commission at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, September 25. 
Writing about the special meeting, Free Press reporter Ted Byfield, the following day, said: “Winnipeg’s civic public works committee lifted the death penalty on the Wolseley Avenue tree.
“The move was made in the finest city hall tradition — fists slamming the committee table, charges and counter-charges echoing through the chamber, voices booming and flash bulbs popping from every corner.”
Frank Wagner was the only councillor who didn’t participate in the vote. He told the commission that he wouldn’t vote until he was given more information. As a result, he was told by Councillor Slaw Rebchuk, the chair of the public works commission, to leave the committee table because the rules stated that any councillor present had to vote.
“In a moving moment,” wrote Byfield, “Ald. Wagner raised himself from the table and stared with feeling at the blank east wall while the vote was counted. Then he sat down again and plunged back into the discussion.”
Councillor A.E. Bennett decided to change his vote and support saving the elm, saying the commission had not been given all the facts about the ill-fated decision reached three weeks earlier to chop down the tree.
Councillor McCreary was unapologetic in voting against saving the Wolseley Elm as was Councillor Goodman.
Those supporting the motion to save the tree were Mayor Juba and councillors Bennett and Rebchuk. Councillor David Mulligan, another commission member, was absent when the vote was taken and Wagner was staring at the wall.
In another motion, Bennett proposed that the engineering department bring in a recommendation to widen the street around the tree, which resulted in another round of arguments.
Juba interrupted and calmed the antagonists by asking: “Why fight over that? They’ll tell us whether it’s possible or not. Save it. Wait till we see what the engineering department says.”
Given an official reprieve, the Wolseley Elm was left to stand or fall on its own, although the greatest danger to the tree remained vandalism.
On June 22, 1958, three vandals attacked the tree using a crowbar and two saws, ripping bark from the ground up on the tree to the height of about a metre. 
Police received a 3 a.m. call from a local woman saying three youths were damaging the tree.  When police arrived, they saw bark strewn about. 
A woman passer-by told the police about three youths walking west on Wolseley Avenue. They pursued in a cruiser car and observed the trio about to get into a parked car. When confronted, the three admitted to damaging the tree and told the officers it was merely a prank that they planned weeks ago following all the publicity the tree received.
John Paul Kargher, 23, and Norman Graham Leathers, 22, from the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) base in Macdonald, Manitoba, and Douglas Francis Whalley, 21, who lived on Eugenie Street in Winnipeg, were arrested and charged with willful damage. Two of the so-called “youths” had graduated from the University of Manitoba and the third was slated to complete his courses the following year. The trio plead guilty in city magistrate’s court and were each fined $150 plus costs.
In court, defence counsel David Bowles said that “the tree assumed the stature out of proportion to its true worth. Had it not been any other tree in the Dominion of Canada, the matter would have been treated differently. I guess the tree presented a challenge.”
F.J. Weir, the Manitoba government’s horticulturalist, inspected the damage  to the tree’s water- and nutrient-carrying cambrian immediately below the bark that was removed and pronounced the tree doomed (Free Press, June 23, 1958).
“The leaves I expect will shortly start to wilt. They will dry up and either fall or blow off. Then the tree will start to die and rot.”
It was the third attack on the Wolseley Elm over the course of a year — the first was by the city, while the second occurred three days after the first incident when the tree was doused with gasoline and set on fire, damaging about three metres of bark.
But the services of a “tree doctor” were enlisted to once again save the Wolseley Elm. Alex Gudziak from the University of Manitoba’s plant science department began working on the mutilated tree days after the last act of vandalism. To bridge the gap between the damaged cambrian and the surviving portions of the tree, Gudziak grafted on young elm branches (saplings).
“When these branches begin to leaf,” he told the Free Press (June 28), “I’ll know I’ve been successful. That would be in about a year.”
The tree doctor gave the grafts a five per cent chance to succeed in rejuvenating the elm.
Meanwhile, Kathleen Johnston, one of the women who had linked arms with others to save the elm in 1957, rose before dawn each day to water the tree. Other neighbours in the Wolseley area took turns to safeguard the elm from more acts of vandalism.
But when the neighbourhood had relaxed its watch, an even more vicious attack was made on the tree. People living near the Wolseley Elm heard a loud explosions at 4 a.m. on Friday, October 31. It was a Hallowe’en trick instead of a treat, for dynamite had been used in an attempt to level the famous tree. An adjacent hydro pole had also toppled over, striking the tree.
When inspecting the twin trunks of the tree, Gudziak noticed drill holes and thick shavings near the base of the tree. Most of the grafts he had worked so hard on to save the tree were mangled by the blasts. Up to that point, the grafts had taken well and the tree was regaining its health, added Gudziak.
The explosions were heard as far away as Home Street, six blocks from the Wolseley Elm.
Kathleen Darling, who lived along Greenwood Place, said she heard two separate explosions. The loud reports of the explosions awakened her from her sleep, she told a Free Press reporter after the incident.
Severely damaged by the blasts was the remaining trunk of the tree that had been spared other acts of vandalism. With the trunk destroyed, Gudziak said the tree could not survive. Still, Gudziak repaired the damage and grafted more elm saplings to the main trunk of the tree.
Six days after the explosions, Councillor Wagner, the chair of the public works committee, said he would recommend the removal of the ill-fated tree at the next committee meeting.
“Let’s face it,” he said, “the tree is a danger to traffic, and a danger to the public. It may fall down and kill someone” (Free Press).
“If, as we are lead to believe, the big branch just collapsed, then the rest of the tree must be rotten and is just as liable to collapse at any moment.”
Despite the testimony of residents following the Hallowe’en incident, some still felt the noises reported resulted not from explosives being used, but simply due to a rotten trunk giving way. Winnipeg inspector of detectives, James Toal, said there was no evidence that explosives were used. He explained that the tree was “rotten to the core” and the two “loud noises” heard by people was the result of the trunk and hydro pole falling.
This particular explanation suited the stand taken by those who wanted the tree to be chopped down. They saw no sentimental value in the Wolseley Elm, proclaiming it a traffic hazard. But most agreed with Gudziak’s assessment that someone had dynamited the tree.
Despite Wagner’s stance, the public works committee on November 10 agreed to let the Wolseley Elm remain where it was until the following spring. If the elm survived the winter, it would be left alone and allowed to die a natural death.
Mayor Juba, although he expressed “no fixed views” about the fate of the elm, was the member who proposed letting the tree on its own stand until  spring.
“It’s a wonderful tourist attraction,” said Councillor H.L. Stevens. “We should let it stand. And if it dies we should put a plaque up there in its memory.”
“I agree,” said the mayor. “It is even listed in Ripley’s Believe It or Not as the smallest park in the world ...”
“Well,” countered Wagner, “it isn’t a park and it is not under the parks board.”
But when it came to voting to let the elm stand as it was until the spring, Wagner, who had been chastised for not voting in an earlier committee meeting, didn’t object to the mayor’s proposal and the motion was passed unanimously.
(Next week: part 3)