by Bruce Cherney (part 3 of 3)
The following spring, Alec Gudziak, a plant scientist with the University of Manitoba, announced that despite the dire predictions of experts, the Wolseley Elm had indeed survived the winter. Only six of the 23 grafts Gudziak had used in the fall of 1958 to save the tree had remained intact, but buds were beginning to show on the tree. Barring other acts of vandalism or accidents, Gudziak proclaimed that leaves would erupt from the buds and the Wolseley Elm would survive the summer.
Kathleen Johnston, the same woman who had faithfully watered the elm every day to ensure the grafts took, proposed a new petition asking for a fence to be erected to protect the tree from further damage.
But people were beginning to become tried of the whole issue. According to the April 18, 1959, Winnipeg Free Press report on the petition: “The long drawn-out battle of Wolseley Avenue has taken its toil of the defenders — two have already moved away because of the strain it has created. Those who remained, even the staunch-hearted, were reluctant to put their names to the petition this time.”
Johnston asserted that few wanted to sign her petition because they were afraid that their homes would be bombed, just as the tree had been dynamited in 1958.
“You can hardly blame them” she said of their reluctance, citing threats that had already begun to circulate in the Wolseley neighbourhood against those supporting the elm.
But there were still some who were not prepared to give up the fight. An elderly lady said she remembered “Mrs. Joseph (Mary Ann) Good, who planted all the elms along here. She loved these trees. The city wanted to take down the tree (Wolseley Elm) a long time ago around 1907, I think. She organized a petition then to stop them.”
“My boy used to play in the tree,” added Johnston. “So did all the other little boys who lived on the street.
“A lot of them went away to war. Some of them didn’t come back. The tree is sort of a memorial to them.
“It’s a beautiful tree, especially in summer. Why anyone would want to take it down, I don’t know.”
On Thursday, May 7, 1959, a new attack was launched against the Wolseley Elm. At 11 p.m., as they returned to their Wolseley Avenue home after a Shrine Circus show, a husband and wife saw a group of youths drench the tree with oil and set it on fire. They took up the chase and wrote down the licence plate number of the car used by the fleeing youths, which was later turned over to the police. After giving up their pursuit, the couple returned to put out the fire. Fortunately, the tree had sustained little damage from the latest act of vandalism.
On May 11, the Free Press reported a 22-year-old Transcona man confessed to Winnipeg police that a near accident to a little girl had convinced him that the Wolseley Elm had to go.
“Ronald Oldenburg ... said in a statement that he had been driving along Wolseley Avenue early Thursday (May 7) when a child ran from behind the old elm, and he almost hit her. He had decided to get rid of the tree.”
Oldenburg enlisted two friends, Thomas Battagalia and George Robert Philbrow, to perform the deed. They doused the base of the tree with a quart of oil and a quart of gasoline and then lit the flammable liquids. When the couple happened along, two of the men fled the scene in a car, while Philbrow ran off on foot.
Since the police had the licence plate number of Oldenburg’s car, it wasn’t difficult to track the culprits down.
In city magistrate’s court, the three men pled guilty and were each fined $100.
While the damage inflicted was slight, the tree’s strength began to wane. When further vandalism resulted in all but two grafts being ripped out, Gudziak and Professor J.A. Menzies, also of the University of Manitoba’s plant sciences department, finally pronounced the Wolseley Elm dead.
According to a June 9, 1960, Canadian Press report, the tree experts said the tree could stand for another 10 to 15 years, but it would have no leaves and look black and lifeless when compared to the other elms and maples along the street.
Even Councillor Slaw Rebchuk, a vocal defender of the tree on city council, had given up the fight and announced it was time to chop down the tree.
On the morning of July 18, 1960, the last defender of the Wolseley Elm, a black-and-white dog named Sparky that lived at 1080 Wolseley Avenue, tried to keep city workers at bay, but his barks failed to deter the crew, who began to dismantle the tree limb by limb.
Fifty human spectators, mostly men and primarily from other areas of the city, watched in near silence as parks board workers, Mike Bortej, George Hutchinson and George Delaronde, sawed each limb off the battered elm.
“There’s been so much fuss over a dead tree that I came to see the last of it,” declared Beverley Street resident Alf Nedd.
“There are no tears today because of the way it looks,” Mrs. Ben Nemy of Wolseley, told Free Press reporter Jerry Lee. “It is not a thing of beauty any longer.”
The only hitch to the felling of the tree came when a chain saw refused to work, which to some seemed to indicate the power tool was haunted by the spirits protecting the tree.
“It’s been running like a top,” city worker Delaronde told Lee, “but just because we’re here with all these people it won’t turn over.”
The end of the Wolseley Elm was delayed for 30 minutes until another chain saw was procured.
How low the once-mighty and famous tree had fallen. Sapped of its strength by years of abuse, the Wolseley Elm was relegated to the status of an historic anomaly with no one remaining to champion its cause. It was no longer the stately tree in the middle of the road that so many had fought for so long to save from the axeman. The Battle of Wolseley Avenue had been lost and the spoils of victory for those who had claimed the elm was a traffic hazard was the satisfaction that it was finally falling, limb by limb.
But one person hadn’t given up on the Wolseley Elm. Winnipeg Mayor Stephen Juba told the city works committee on November 2, 1960, that an anonymous Winnipeg firm had proposed to him that a portion of the root could be dug up from under the avenue and then be used to grow a new tree.
Committee members wondered how a new tree could be grown from a dead tree, but they authorized the mayor to make arrangements to dig up roots along the boulevard near the former site of the elm. They would not authorize the company to dig a trench in the newly-paved street to search for Wolseley Elm roots.
The other question was how the firm would determine from digging beneath the boulevard which of the maze of elm tree roots actually belonged to the famous, but former, Wolseley Elm. Because of the highly suspect circumstances of the quest, the project was doomed to fail and it didn’t proceed any further.
The only remnants of the Wolseley Elm were souvenirs made available to the public. Mayor Juba mused that souvenirs from the tree would become a popular commodity. Many scoffed, but pieces of the Wolseley Elm did become popular icons of its past life.
Edith Borrowman, who since 1936 had been defending the tree from the axe, was given first choice of a limb. In a letter to Rebchuk, she thanked him for his past efforts to save the tree, and said the chunk of wood she received would be used to make an “electric lamp.”
F.A. Aldon, a former secretary-treasurer of the Winnipeg school board, presented a gavel made from a piece of the elm to the Metropolitan Council of Greater Winnipeg, which was established in March 1960. He also presented a gavel and striking board made from the tree to the school board. He obtained the pieces of the tree from the city engineer.
Victor Feldbrill, the conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, received a limb sawed off from the tree, “which Mr. Feldbrill threatened to bring out from under his podium anytime his musicians got out of hand,” according to a caption under a photo of the conductor holding the section of tree limb that appeared in the September 19, 1961, Free Press.
An editorial in the July 19, 1960, Free Press, noted that the Wolseley Elm was “a symbol of defiance of those who put the demands of vehicles ahead of the wishes of the people. It also offered less tangible lessons, for it served as a constant and necessary reminder that we live by and with nature, and cannot afford to remove it entirely from our lives.
“There are times, of course, when it is necessary or excusable to put steel and concrete ahead of greenery. That is the way of the city and we accept it.
“Irrespective of its own merits, the tree was a major redoubt in our continuous battle to retain in our city the cool and towering arch of foliage ... If the tree accomplished nothing else, it taught us at least that the battle is never entirely won.”
Winifred Keep, the last of the original “12 angry women” who confronted city workers and police to defend the tree on September 19, 1957, died on August 27, 2011.
To commemorate the Wolseley Elm and the “unsung” heroes who battled to save it , a plaque was erected in the plaza just east of Robert A. Steen Community Centre, 980 Palmerston Ave.
Today, the battle involves retaining all the majesty of the city’s American elms, not just a single tree. Dutch elm disease is now the threat and each year between two and three per cent of the city’s 170,000 American elm trees, some well over a 100 years old, are lost to the deadly fungus carried by elm bark beetles from tree to tree. As in the past with the Wolseley Elm, Winnipeggers have to remain forever vigilant to prevent the demise of the shade foliage that blesses the city’s boulevards, parks and homes. It is a debt owed to the memory of Mary Ann Good, who so long ago recognized the intrinsic value and natural beauty of trees.