A passion for trees

Winnipeggers love their trees. That can be said without reservation and with little argument forthcoming. It’s a passion that arose in the community’s early history and continues to this day.

Not surprisingly, the city of Winnipeg has embraced a $20,000 grant from Tree Canada and TD Friends of the Environment Foundation to fund the Winnipeg ReLeaf program. According to the city’s press release announcing the program, it’s a partnership with Trees Winnipeg to encourage homeowners to replant trees lost to Dutch elm disease (DED) and provide them with training on the “Right Tree Right Place” approach; that is, the correct planting techniques to help ensure the survivorship of the newly-planted trees.

“Eighty per cent of Winnipeg tree losses due to DED occur on private property,” said city of Winnipeg acting Deputy Mayor Janice Lukes. “The Winnipeg ReLeaf program will help property owners replace many of these trees and create awareness about the importance of tree species diversity to the health of Winnipeg’s urban forest.”

Up to  700 property owners can participate in this year’s ReLeaf program, receiving a tree replacemernt package at a subsidized cost of $55, including a workshop, technical support and follow-up after planting. Registration for the program will take place over the summer online at www.savetheelms.mb.ca/projects/reLeaf.php

Last year, more than 6,500 American elms were marked for removal by the city due to DED, the scrouge of elm trees that was first detected in Winnipeg in 1975.

Historically, elm trees have been lauded as “imparting character to the city.” In truth, Winnipeggers over the years have shown an almost fanatical pride in the green canopy over city streets, in parks and along rivers. This was demonstrated time and time again whenever a threat was posed to remove any elm trees except when absolutely essential (DED for example), typified by the battle for the Wolseley Elm.

During what was described as a “knock-down, drag ’em out”  September 17, 1957, civic works committee meeting, Winnipeg Councillor (then referred to as an alderman) Slaw Rebchuk , the chairman of the committee, pleaded for saving the tree, saying the (Wolseley) elm “gives moral support ... it gives beauty.”

He was quickly interrupted by Councillor Walter Crawford, who blurted out: “It gives nonsense! What a stupid line of argument.”

Crawford argued that the only practical thing to do was “chop down that tree.”

On the other hand, Councillor David Mulligan claimed that the residents in the area felt a “sentimental attachment to this tree.”

The Wolseley Elm’s novel position on a city street had received the nickname, “the tree in the middle of the road.”

The tree came under the threat of the axe due to a report by the city’s traffic division. William Finnbogason, the traffic engineer, came to the conclusion that the elm had to be removed, but city engineer W.D. Wright successfully argued that the tree’s fate should be decided by the public works committee, which was why the debate arose, with the aldermen on the committee divided over how to deal with the Wolseley Elm.

The elm dated back to 1860 when it was planted as a seedling by Mary Ann Good (nee Kirton: she was adopted by the Polson family when she was a young lass) on the farm along the banks of the Assiniboine River she shared with her husband. At the time, Wolseley Avenue didn’t even exist. Over the years, Mary planted rows of trees along Wolseley Avenue, Newman Street and along other streets in the city’s West End.

The coming of the new road due to the march of civilization was nearly the death-knell for the elm, but Good was still alive and she rallied her friends and neighbours to petition city hall to keep the tree on Wolseley Avenue at the foot of Basswood Place.

In the September 20, 1957, Winnipeg Free Press, “Mrs. J.W. Glasier,” the granddaughter of Mary Good recalled the first battle for the Wolseley Elm in 1907: “It began when Wolseley was first laid out and the engineers decided the tree would have to go. The neighbors loved that old elm and I remember grandmother telling me how they had banded together and petitioned the city council to let it be.”

The neighbours were successful and the road was built around the elm.

The next threat to the tree came in 1925 when the city decided to pave Wolseley Avenue with asphalt. A city crew was dispatched to take axe in hand and chop down the stately elm. Ann Borrowman, whose home on Wolseley faced the elm, noticed the crew and rushed out, pleading with them to wait until city hall could be contacted. With the intervention of Borrowman, Alderman Ralph Webb was contacted and a hastily-formed conference was  held around the tree which resulted in it again receiving a reprieve.

The tree had to be saved once again in September 1936. Residents of the area heard that the civic improvements committee had declared the Wolseley Elm a traffic hazard and recommended its removal. Councillor Margaret McWilliams, a staunch defender of the Wolseley Elm, told city council: “The tree is a link with the early settlement of this city. With development of a great city we may have to remove many of these links. At present, I see no need to remove this one.” The councillors voted 11 to 4 to rescue “the tree from the clutches of the aldermanic woodsmen ...”

Public opinion also saved the tree at least three times in the 1940s. But a turning point was in the 1950s, when the civic works committee’s plan was to widen Wolseley Avenue and remove the Wolseley Elm. Councillor Rebchuk called deputy city engineer John Taunton on the day that the tree was scheduled to come down, fearing the worst, “We’ve gotta leave that thing alone. There’s going to be trouble down there.”

Despite Rebchuk’s apprehensions expressed, on September 18, 1957, city workers showed up at the site  to hack down the Wolseley Elm. But standing firm were “12 angry women” surrounding the tree who with arms linked refused to move. Among the women was Ann Borrowman who had led the protest in 1936 to save the elm. “If they chop it down, they’re going to have to chop us down first,” vowed Mrs. C.A. Orr. The women gathered around men and ladder. One of them had picked up an axe and was holding it like “one might a golf putter,” according to Free Press reporter Ted Byfield, who said that the woman with the axe was a “grandmother.”

Mayor Stephen Juba pulled up in his yellow Cadillac and eventually saved the day for the elm tree. No councillors objected to order the men to cease their work due to the “hysterical situation.”

But on the morning of July 18, 1960, the elm was in its death throes from natural causes and human vandalism, so it was finally tore down with few tears shed. Still, the passion the battle instilled reverberates to this day when the city’s trees are under threat. Saving trees is seen as heroic, as are any plans to replant those that have been lost through disease or misguided human intervention.