First 'city gardener' chose elm trees that line boulevards
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/06/2016 (2262 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Summer is almost here, and thousands of Winnipeggers are taking advantage of the city’s parks and enjoying the shade provided by its canopy of elms.
We take for granted that these spaces have always been here for our enjoyment, but, of course, they have not. It took years of work by a man named David D. England and his dedicated crew of seasonal workers to bring them about.
From the time of its incorporation in November 1873, Winnipeg’s city council struggled to provide the most basic infrastructure needs of a booming metropolis. “Soft” services such as parks and libraries took decades to establish, and even then often grudgingly.
In 1892, a group of 300 residents presented a petition to city council demanding a public parks board be created. Because the request would have financial implications, the matter was put to a referendum during the civic election later that year. It passed, 1,129 to 185.
In January 1893, the City of Winnipeg public parks board was established, with brewing magnate and outdoor enthusiast Edward Drewry as its chairman. Drewry knew the city had already waited too long to begin the process of gathering land for parks, and the board had to act fast if it was going to find any available land.
It identified eight parcels scattered throughout the city and in 1893-94 spent nearly $100,000 to acquire them. As Drewry expected, most of these lots were only available for purchase because they were swampy expanses considered unsuitable for other types of development.
The task of getting this land into shape fell to David D. England, the city’s first superintendent of public parks, who was hired by the board in April 1894. England, who hailed from Scotland, arrived in Winnipeg a year or so earlier. Details about his background are scarce.
England, who shunned his official title for the less formal “city gardener,” wasted little time getting down to work. He assembled a team of seasonal workers to start fencing off the lands, clearing them of debris and, on those that could be used right away, had rudimentary paths laid.
For the swampier lots, he arranged contracts for the massive amounts of fill required to level them off. Notre Dame Park, for example, required 2,000 cartloads and Central Park a mind-boggling 14,000 cartloads before any further work could be done.
England had to quickly figure out what plants and flowers could be grown in Winnipeg’s soil and climate. Settlers, being settlers, were not that interested in the array of local flora available to them. They instead wanted to see plants and flowers from their homeland represented in their streets and green spaces.
A greenhouse and plant nursery were set up at the eastern edge of Notre Dame Park. Over time, as more of the park’s land was built up, these facilities grew in size, and England established large experimental gardens that showcased both old-world and indigenous plants. These gardens became an attraction in themselves.
England also had the task of choosing what species of trees the city would plant in its public spaces.
The demand for trees was so great England had no time to set up an arboretum. By summer 1898, he and his crews were planting an average of 200 trees per day — about 5,000 per season — in parks and on boulevards. England frequently visited them, noting which species thrived and which ones withered.
He decided on the American elm as the tree of choice for the city’s growing network of residential boulevards. He acknowledged they started out slow but after a couple of seasons began to thrive and had a 95 per cent survival rate. Their leaf canopy, which was his top criteria for a good urban tree, was second to none.
England enjoyed a good reputation in the city as a competent and helpful gardener. The newspapers wrote favourably of him, and he was a regular speaker at the Manitoba Horticultural Society, sharing his knowledge with other enthusiasts. He also travelled extensively throughout North America to see what other cities were doing both in terms of gardening and the administration of their parks systems.
His relationship with his parks board, though, was not always an easy one.
He had long complained, sometimes at public forums, a “gardener” was not considered a profession here as it was in most of the other cities he visited. As a result, he could only pay those working under him labourer’s wages, making it hard to retain talented staff.
In 1898, the relationship truly soured under the park board’s new chairman, Dr. Edward Benson.
The board had been under increasing fire for the huge amount that was being spent to build and maintain boulevards, especially in the downtown area. England blamed the problems with downtown boulevards on careless construction crews and utility workers who were constantly tearing them up. Within a few years, the practice of planting boulevard trees in the commercial district was scrapped.
To keep things in check, England’s spending was reined in when the city clerk was instructed not to approve any boulevard construction or maintenance contracts without the board approving it first.
That same year, the parks board initiated an investigation into allegations England had done some private gardening contracts for his own gain and even used city-purchased greenery and workmen in some cases. He denied the allegations and defended himself by saying he was constantly offering advice and assistance to a wide range of people and organizations, adding it was never for personal financial gain and always for the improvement of the city.
His explanation seemed to satisfy the board, and no disciplinary action was taken.
The allegations surfaced again in the summers of 1905 and 1906. By November 1906, the parks board’s business had devolved into a series of acrimonious and hostile special meetings after chairman Richard Waugh openly accused England of professional misconduct and theft of city property.
A subcommittee, which included Waugh, was created to investigate the latest allegations, which were based mainly on the testimony of two parks employees. The report noted the employees complained of having to cut wood that was used by England personally, that his horse ate feed that was bought for the city horses and that some of the plants from the city greenhouse were planted in England’s personal garden.
As for the serious charges levelled by Waugh, the report did not provide any details, stating in its conclusion only that: “England has been pecuniarily interested in work for private parties.”
For Waugh, the findings were a smoking gun. Some on the board, though, accused him of hounding England, perhaps even for political interests. (The latter point was not explained in the papers, but Waugh went on to serve for a number of years on the city’s board of control before becoming mayor.)
The report’s conclusion admitted there was no criminal wrongdoing that could be established. Still, its release made it impossible for England’s employment to continue. Over the objections of Waugh, who wanted England fired outright and for charges to be laid, he was instead allowed to resign and remain on salary until March 5, 1907, if he agreed to provide a final annual report for the parks board.
England brought a lengthy letter of resignation with him to the meeting, and he presented it after the report was read. He wrote:
“The work which I have done as superintendent speaks for itself… I have, so far as my discretion and ability permits, given my services to the parks board and to the City of Winnipeg with the end in view that the results achieved would assist most materially in beautifying not only the city property itself but those private residences and grounds whose owners desired my services. If I have erred in the matter of giving private assistance to public-spirited citizens, then I submit I have erred in the direction of my duty.”
England served as superintendent of parks for Victoria, B.C., from 1907 to 1909. He then moved to California to become a landscape gardener on private estates. He died in Los Angeles June 18, 1929.
Christian writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.