September 19, 2020

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Helping us over the hump

Wellington Crescent family's famous camel brings some much-needed smiles — and lovely spring flowers — to appreciative passersby

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Paul Stewart with Wednesday the Camel.</p>


Paul Stewart with Wednesday the Camel.

Two Thursdays ago, when the afternoon temperature in Winnipeg climbed to a pleasant 18 degrees, pedestrians and cyclists along Wellington Crescent near Lanark Street were greeted by a peculiar sight in a homeowner’s front yard: a two-metre-tall, topiary camel sporting a bright yellow surgical mask, surrounded by pots containing close to 4,000 flowers, every last one of which was free for the taking as per a sign that read, "Help yourself to some spring."

We’ll get to the camel in a sec — that’s the real star of today’s story — but first, the flowers.

Dawn Stewart, who along with husband Paul, are the homeowners responsible for the bountiful bouquet and accompanying ungulate, works for a flower wholesaler that supplies local florist shops. Although florists have been allowed to remain open under the government’s Public Health Act that closed non-essential businesses, there has been a glut of unsold product at Stewart’s place of work lately, owing to the postponement or cancellation of celebratory events such as weddings, anniversary parties and birthday gatherings.

Early last week Stewart struck a deal — a floral arrangement, if you will — with her bosses. If she and Paul did most of the heavy lifting, they were welcome to take home 3,700 stems earmarked for the trash heap. There they could distribute the mix of daisies, spider mums, mini carnations and lilies gratis to those who habitually pause in front of their two-story abode to take selfies with their moss-filled camel, which, since it came onto the scene three years ago, has appeared as the Easter bunny, a Winnipeg Jets booster and one of Santa’s reindeer.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Paul Stewart: ‘Flowers make people happy and so does a camel wearing silly costumes’</p>


Paul Stewart: ‘Flowers make people happy and so does a camel wearing silly costumes’

"Flowers make most people happy and so does a camel wearing silly costumes," says Dawn, whose family used to own Ormistons Florists. "Together they are an awesome combination to make people smile (and) smiles are contagious, no matter how much social distancing we are practising."

In April 2017, Dawn took part in Art in Bloom, an exhibit held every second year at the Winnipeg Art Gallery that invites floral designers, professional and non-professional alike, to submit arrangements inspired by works of art in the WAG’s permanent collection. One of the displays that year was a massive, living wall made out of moss that measured close to seven metres high and six metres across. When the four-day show was over and the wall was slated to be removed, Stewart felt it would be horrible for all that moss to go to waste. Figuring she could find a use for it one day, she commissioned Paul to help her bag and box the lot, which they transported home in their van.

Paul, a retired school teacher, says his wife has been partial to camels ever since they spent a year living and working in Australia, where feral camels are as common a sight along highways as kangaroos. He wasn’t surprised, in that case, when one night over dinner she proposed constructing a camel out of the mountain of moss resting in their backyard.

It took him about a month, using chicken wire and rebar for the interior frame, until he came up with a version resembling the dromedary of Dawn’s dreams. One problem: the finished product tipped the scales at close to 400 pounds, so he had to enlist his son and a few neighbours to help move Wednesday — a tag suggested by their daughter Zoe in honour of the day of the week commonly referred to as Hump Day — to the spot in the front yard they’d picked out for him. (Yes, Wednesday is a him. Yes, Wednesday has about 300 more followers on Instagram — — than we ever will.)

As one might expect, it didn’t take long for Wednesday to become a veritable roadside attraction. Soon, people were waving or honking their car horn whenever they went by. Others called out to the Stewarts if they were mowing the lawn or tending their flower beds, letting them know how much they enjoyed the camel, which in time, again at Zoe’s suggestion, began sporting getups appropriate to whatever holiday was approaching or what event, such as the Teddy Bears’ Picnic or Movember, was scheduled to take place in the city.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Stewart’s yard sign invites passersby to take a one of his 3,700 flower stems.</p>


Stewart’s yard sign invites passersby to take a one of his 3,700 flower stems.

"One woman left a card in our mailbox, telling us that her six-year-old daughter was receiving cancer treatments three days a week, and that driving by our place to and from the hospital always put a smile on her face," Paul says. "That’s when we kind of told ourselves, I guess Wednesday’s here to stay."

Except that wasn’t quite the case. In December 2018, while the Stewarts were away on vacation, somebody — a grinch, Dawn calls them — decided it would be amusing to knock the camel over and, while they were at it, destroy a few inflatable snowmen that were on the Stewarts’ front lawn. The damage was extensive. So much so that, when they returned home, Paul and Dawn were forced to drag a legless Wednesday to the backyard, tether what was left of the sculpture to a tree and decide whether it was worth the effort to put everything back together again.

That’s when a funny thing began to happen. The same as when people left notes thanking the couple for erecting the camel in the first place, many began depositing cards and letters between their doors, asking what they could do to help, after they read a curbside sign explaining what had occurred. A group of cyclists that regularly bikes down Wellington Crescent during their Sunday morning ride went so far as to drop off an envelope filled with cash, along with a letter stating they hoped the enclosed money would help cover any repair bills.

In November 2019, the week before the Winnipeg Blue Bombers beat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Grey Cup title game, a new-and-improved Wednesday made its triumphant return, draped head to hoof in Bombers blue and gold.

"There was definitely a sense of obligation involved to get him up and going again," Paul says, mentioning there is also a bit of self-imposed pressure when it comes to costume ideas. "People going by like to ask what he’s going to be dressed as next so, yeah, we’re always thinking of what we can do to improve on the last one." (Our favourite? When Wednesday once appeared as Yoda in honour of Star Wars Day, which falls annually on May 4, as in "May the fourth be with you.")

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Paul Stewart puts out 3,700 flower stems (free for passers-by to take home) by Wednesday the Camel.</p>


Paul Stewart puts out 3,700 flower stems (free for passers-by to take home) by Wednesday the Camel.

Last week wasn’t the first time the Stewarts — and Wednesday — have offered flowers to passersby. But it was the first time the giveaway numbered in the thousands; an appropriate amount, Dawn feels, given what’s going on in the world at the moment.

"Hundreds of people came by on foot, bikes, scooters, cars and trucks, many of whom told us they were taking the flowers to a friend or neighbour who couldn’t get out," Dawn says, stressing most florist shops in the city remain open for business and offer curbside pickup and delivery for anybody wanting to treat a loved one to a bouquet.

Finally, we’ll leave the last word to someone who, after helping themselves to some free flowers, returned later that afternoon to drop off an anonymous, sealed note that expressed the feelings of scores of others.

"I’ve been meaning to thank you for months," the message began. "I’ve enjoyed seeing your camel and its many costumes. Always brings a smile to my face. Giving out flowers was a lovely touch. Now let’s pray for spring weather."

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Paul Stewart’s flower stems are free for passersby.</p>


Paul Stewart’s flower stems are free for passersby.

David Sanderson

Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.

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