by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
For 26 minutes, a raucous debate pitted those who supported saving a lone tree on a single street against those who believed that their mission was to have it hacked down in the name of public safety.
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 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 tree drawing so much heated debate was the Wolseley Elm, which, because of its 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.
In the early years of the 20th century, homes had begun to encroach on what had been open farmland along the Assiniboine River. With the advance of “civilization,” the city decided to serve the burgeoning population with a new road named after Colonel Garnet Wolseley, who had brought British Army regulars and Canadian militia west to Winnipeg to uphold the authority of Canada when Manitoba became a province in 1870.
The coming of the new road 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.
“The land was in the process of being sold when my grandfather died in 1907,” she told the newspaper.
“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.”
Still, there was no record in the city offices in either 1907 and 1908 about the petition, although there is evidence that the city planned the demise of the elm to make way for the road in 1909.
Whatever the actual facts of the initial battle, 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.
When the road was paved, a concrete curb was erected around the Wolseley Elm, and traffic was directed around the tree. In his publication, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Robert Ripley proclaimed the tree on its tiny grass island as “the smallest park in the world.”
Good lived until 1932 and went to her grave at age 91 satisfied that the tree she planted so many years earlier had survived continual threats to its existence, but maintaining its role as “the tree in the middle of the road” wasn’t assured by the city as long as some officials considered it an impediment to road expansion in the area.
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.
“Why that tree is all that saves this street being turned into a speedway,” said one resident (Free Press, September 9, 1936).
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 of the civic improvements committee ...”
To ensure the tree wasn’t a traffic hazard council approved the erection of lights to warn motorists of its presence in the middle of the road.
Public opinion saved the tree at least three times in the 1940s.
In an August 8, 1942, Winnipeg Evening Tribune article, entitled Winnipeg ... Our Beautiful Trees, the Wolseley Elm was called “our ‘Controversial Tree’ ...
“It is a much publicized tree; a large elm standing square in the middle of the road on Wolseley ave.” that defied being cut down, because “in a free country people may protest government suggestions and decisions, and lovers of the middle-of-the-road tree did protest loudly and long.”
At the September 1957 committee meeting, Councillor Mulligan said the tree caused few accidents, according to a city traffic report.
“Well then,” said Councillor Crawford. “Let’s grow trees on every street in Winnipeg (Free Press, September 18, 1957). “Let’s grow a big old fat tree right in the middle of Portage avenue and Main street.”
According to the newspaper report, Crawford was drowned out by laughter.
“Man is a creature of habit,” said Councillor Mulligan. “And he makes that little circle around the tree ... and he wants to keep on making that little circle ... and that’s why the tree should not be cut down.”
“But there are other men,” countered Councillor Maude McCreary, “who also are making that little circle around the tree. And they don’t want to keep making that little circle ... and that’s why the tree should be cut down.”
Besides the alleged traffic hazard the elm presented, city officials argued that the west end of the city was building up rapidly, especially with the construction of a new stadium and arena. Potentially adding to traffic congestion was the proposed Polo Park Shopping Mall (begun in 1957 when the race track was torn down and completed in 1959). Critics of the elm said Wolseley Avenue was being a major thoroughfare for motorists attending sporting events, and they cursed the tree when it slowed them up en route to the new Winnipeg Arena (since demolished) and Winnipeg Stadium (now Canad Inns Stadium and also slated for demolition when Investors Group Field opens at the University of Manitoba).
Mayor Stephen Juba, who would eventually play a major role in the Wolseley Elm controversy, asked engineer Hurst when the tree was slated to be chopped down. Hurst replied that “his boys” had to been given instructions on when to fell the tree, but wouldn’t elaborate further.
On September 3, Hurst told the civic works committee that the plan was to widen Wolseley Avenue and the traffic commission had subsequently recommended the removal of the Wolseley Elm. The councillors at the meeting passed a motion allowing its removal, which under the existing city charter did not require the approval of the full council. But Hurst also recommended that the committee delay the removal for at least two weeks to gauge public reaction. Others hinted at a delay until after the city elections were held in October for fear of a voter backlash.
A Free Press editorial on September 4, 1957, suggested that city councillors were inviting a “torrent of criticism when they eye one particular tree — the one that grows in the centre of Wolseley street.”
The editorial echoed other councillors in saying that there was no proof that the tree was a traffic hazard. Instead, “one suspects, is that the tree bothers some strange, civic clique which abhors individuality and has a passion for unrelenting conformity.
“But if we cannot afford to be different once in a while, if we cannot indulge our little eccentricities, we have come to a pretty gloomy point in life.”
The newspaper predicted that a majority of residents on Wolseley Avenue would see to it that the tree would continue to grow on their street.
The tree was well along the way to becoming a cause célebre. Some councillors were becoming extremely wary about proceeding with the controversial task of cutting it down.
Councillor Rebchuk called deputy city engineer John Taunton at 7:30 a.m. on the day that the tree was scheduled to come down, fearing the worst. “Listen,” Rebchuk said, “we’ve gotta leave that thing alone. There’s going to be trouble down there.”
Despite the apprehensions expressed by Rebchuk, on September 18, 1957, at 9 a.m., 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, a resident of 1200 Wolseley.
When a city worker approached the tree with a saw, an elderly woman shouted, “You get out of here!” He did.
When reporting on the incident, the Free Press of September 19, contained a headline describing the protestors as “wild women.”
Police cruisers arrived at the scene, but still the women refused to budge. Even a paddy wagon pulled up to haul off any unruly elements among the protestors.
The man who had obeyed the woman’s threat was ordered to return with a saw by a city official, who was only described in the Free Press account by reporter Ted Byfield as a “man with a cigar.”
The man with the cigar had consulted with city traffic engineer, Clarence A. Keeping, who informed him that the tree had to be chopped down.
The man with the saw was accompanied by a man with a ladder as well as two constables. The ladder was placed against an overhanging branch. The women then gathered around the men and ladder. One of them had picked up an axe and was holding it like “one might a golf putter,” according to Byfield.
“We don’t think you should do this,” related Byfield, who said that the woman with the axe was a “grandmother.”
“‘Now lady,’ said a towering police constable. ‘Is that any way to behave?’
“‘Don’t lady me,’ said the grandmother, getting ready for a 300-yard drive. ‘We know our rights around here.’
“‘You simply can’t do this sort of thing,’ said the constable, helping to get the axe back to the putting position.”
The constable urged the women to move to the curb, saying that the matter had gone through city council and was therefore the law of the land. But the women knew it hadn’t — the tree’s removal had only been approved in committee. They shouted out their displeasure in not having had a say on the tree’s fate before city council. The women wanted their day at city hall and they weren’t going to budge regardless of the men lined up against them.
“Get your dirty hands off me, you, you, you cop!” warned one woman.
“Fine city council it is that takes down trees without giving us a hearing.
“If you want us to move to the curb, then you move us.”
Calls arose for the mayor and McCreary, the local ward councillor who the protestors vowed they would “get” for voting to remove the tree.
By this time, the protest by the “12 angry women” was being watched by a crowd of about 200 or 300 spectators.
Calls were sent out for deputy chief engineer John Taunton and Mayor Juba.
While Taunton’s office said the engineer was on his way to the scene of the protest, a yellow Cadillac pulled up — the Tribune called it a “heliotrope”cadillac. To cheers, Mayor Juba had arrived.
At first, Juba said he couldn’t do anything to prevent the tree from being removed, as it had been approved by the works committee and there was nothing in the city charter to allow the mayor to overturn their decision. But people yelled out that as mayor he could do anything he wanted.
Juba got on the telephone to check with the city’s legal department whether he had the power to stop the crew from cutting down the Wolseley Elm. He was informed that he lacked such power.
Juba told the women he had another idea. As the city’s chief magistrate, he would order the police to leave, which would stop the city crew from carrying out its orders.
This idea was squashed when Police Chief Robert Taft said over the telephone that he didn’t take orders from the mayor and only worked for the police commission.
“Why isn’t the work proceeding?” demanded Taunton when he pulled up in his car.
When Keeping hesitated, Taunton shouted to get the men up the tree. “We have our orders. Take down that tree!”
The women screamed out in protest and men among the crowd booed.
According to Byfield’s report, Mayor Juba then approached Taunton and asked him to delay the order for at least a week.
“Do you order me to, Mr. Mayor?” asked Taunton, vowing he would obey such an order.
“Public safety,” said the mayor. “That’s it! Public safety. Yes, Mr. Taunton, I order you to. You’re endangering the safety of those women.”
Taunton called over Keeping to witness being given the order, which he asked the mayor to repeat. When Juba complied after a brief pause to rethink his solution, a cheer arose. “We’ve won!” shouted out one ecstatic woman.
But at least two limbs had been sawn from the tree before the mayor was able to stop the workers.
Borrowman, the woman who had for so long championed the Wolseley Elm, asked the mayor to have a cup of tea in her home, and then promised to give him the highest honour she could bestow, which, as it turned out, was a kiss on the cheek.
Over tea in the Borrowman parlour, Juba muttered, “Boy, am I in the soup now.”
To which Borrowman replied, “Do have another cup of tea.”
He was indeed in the soup. To save the tree, Juba had also promised that if council didn’t support his decision to order Taunton not to proceed, he would have to resign and run again for mayor before his two-year term was up. Juba had every right to be concerned as he had only been elected to his first term as mayor in late 1956, and was sworn into the top civic office on January 7, 1957.
His action was unprecedented and technically not within his powers as Winnipeg mayor.
“I have broken the law,” Juba admitted to reporters soon after the 80-minute standoff ended.
According to a September 20, 1957, Free Press article, 17 of the city’s councillors had declared how they would vote on the Wolseley Elm question. Nine said they would leave it alone, while eight said they would have the tree chopped down. One councillor, Frank Wagner, was said to be non-committal.
Councillor Albert Bennett suggested a little more time be taken to consider how they should vote.
“I’m still in favor of removing the tree, of course, but I’d like to see the plans of the engineering department for the widening of the street and some of the other details,” he added.
However, none of the councillors objected to the mayor’s decision to order the men to cease their work due to the “hysterical situation” and the need for a cooling off period.
(Next week; part 2)