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Thorning Revisited

by Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015

Elora led most places in tree planting in 19th century

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.

Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

A few weeks ago, I came across an interesting editorial in the May 16, 1884, issue of the Monetary Times, Canada’s leading business paper of the period.

The editorial was not about a business topic, but tree planting and Arbor Day, which became a popular annual event in the 1870s in the United States. School students spent a day, or even a few hours, planting trees in their communities. Here are a few excerpts from the Monetary Times article:

“Following the example of some of the American states, the provinces of Ontario and Quebec have severally designated a day, in the spring of each year, called arbor day, for tree planting.

“It is well to designate such a day arbor day, for it calls attention to a work that it is desirable to do. Nevertheless the work should be done at the time most suitable for it. A tree transplanted in full leaf would almost certainly die; the evaporation through the leaves being more than the roots, in their new home, would be likely able to supply.

“The main use of an arbor day is the tendency it has as a reminder of the performance of a duty that might not otherwise be thought of.

“Some of the American states try to interest school children in tree planting; an achievement that might seem to be accomplished, when it was not, by the interest they took in the inevitable holiday. If children could be taught to respect trees, so far as not wantonly or thoughtlessly to injure them, a great point would be gained for next to drought, if not more than drought, the street urchin, as the enemy to trees, without malice in his heart, is to be feared.

“One of the most interesting things in connection with tree planting is the extension by artificial means of the natural range of the growth of trees. The change is generally to a colder and more severe climate.

“In Toronto, three kinds of magnolia are grown in the open air, one of which will attain a height of 40 feet. Magnolias have been grown in Toronto for 30 years, yet so seldom are they seen that the newspapers but last year spoke of one, on College Street, as if it had been the first of its kind. The dwarf chestnut, and the buckeye, another and beautiful variety of chestnut, can be grown here without difficulty, but seldom is either of them seen.

“The black walnut must either be reproduced or its use in the manufacture of furniture be abandoned. At present, it is perhaps the most profitable tree that can be grown; and yet it is doubtful whether it is being planted to any extent worth mentioning.

“If we are now to begin to replant in earnest, the work must be done with discrimination and with a view to producing the best results, aesthetic and economic.”

Edward Trout, the editor of the Monetary Times, assumed in this editorial that the benefits of tree planting were so well known that they did not need to be repeated.

This shows a considerable shift in thinking regarding trees from the 1860s, when hardwood was often valued only for the money that could be made selling the ashes.

The concept of Arbor Day began in the United States, and it was first proclaimed officially in Nebraska in 1872. The idea became popular, particularly in the Midwest, and Arbor Day eventually became a public holiday in some states.

In the 19th century, Elora was ahead of most municipalities in the encouragement of tree planting.

Colonel Charles Clarke and banker Water Newman were two local naturalists who began planting shade trees in the 1850s on their own properties. When John Brown laid out and planted the Elora cemetery in the 1860s, he used ideas that had been pioneered in the previous decade by landscape architects on such big-city projects as Central Park in New York, and Mount Royal in Montreal.

Informal arrangements of trees were a vital part of these designs.

A few people began planting trees in their yards in the 1860s; these can be seen in photographs of the period. The Norway spruce was the most fashionable species at this time, but many homeowners preferred to fill their yards with fruit trees.

The planting of street trees in Elora did not begin until the 1870s. Part of the reason for the delay was that marauding livestock still roamed the village’s streets, and droves of cattle coming into town to market would trample anything in their path.

The first was a double row of maples along the front of the current community centre. At the time, this land was privately owned by the Elora Park Company. In reality, this was a group of race horse fanciers, and they used the property for a race track. Several of these trees still survive, but they are no longer in the best of health.

Another planting was made at the Elora Junior public school grounds. (Now the Elora Centre for the Arts). Inspired by the Arbor Day movement, David Boyle, the principal, had his students line the school grounds with a row of maple trees as a class project in the 1870s. Boyle used the trees as a demonstration of public tree planting and as a tool for lessons in natural science. Many of Boyle’s students retained a life-long interest in nature; they were responsible for the planting of most of Elora’s street trees in the 19th century.

A few of Boyle’s trees still survive, bordering on the house on the southwest corner of Church Street and Chalmers Street.

The large-scale planting of street trees in Elora took place in the 1890s, and particularly in 1897, which was the 60th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s reign and the 30th anniversary of confederation.

By this time, the maple leaf had become the most popular Canadian symbol, and the sugar maple was used almost exclusively for street planting, though a few chestnuts, elms and oaks were also used.

The volunteers out on April 25, 1992, planting trees on Elora’s streets, are carrying on a project that was started by John Brown, Charles Clarke, and David Boyle well over a century ago.

They are making certain that Elora’s tradition of attractive, tree-lined streets will continue for future generations.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on April 21, 1992.


Vol 50 Issue 21


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Wellington County


Barrie Hopkins
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Barrie Hopkins
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Bruce Whitestone
Ray Wiseman
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Stephen Thorning
Stephen Thorning

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