Arbor Day Centenarian

[Neil Carleton]

Many times during my explorations I’ve wondered how old this tree or that one is. Some shady characters catch my eye because of their significant size. Others draw attention by their distinctive shape or bark. The success of their survival has been influenced by many things. These range from soil depth and drainage to competition for sunlight from other trees.

 If a tree has been cut down, its age can be determined by counting growth rings on the stump, or from a cross section cookie. For a living tree, counting rings from a core sample can provide a good idea how old it is.

 This month’s tree of renown is unique because the day it was planted is known. If you walked or drove by recently, it’s possible that you didn’t recognize it by size as a centenarian. It was planted on the last Friday of April, Arbor Day 1914. The white spruce in front of the old S.S. No. 9 Ramsay Public School on the 8th Concession has been growing there for a century. It’s just down the road from the Auld Kirk Church west of Almonte.

 This school by the Tannery, also known as Hillcrest Public School, was built in 1856 of local stone. It served residents of Leckie’s Corners as a school and meeting hall for 114 years. Michael and Jean Macpherson converted this building to a home in 1972.

 My late neighbour, John Sutherland, used to teach there. In the early years of the last century, he would walk cross country in all seasons to the school from the back door of his house in Almonte on St. George Street. During the white-out conditions of winter storms, he was never concerned about getting lost crossing the hollows and ridges of the fields. He told me that he knew every farmer’s fence by its construction, and where to cross to keep his direction.

Tannery White Spruce 2 January 30 2011
Below the January snow, S.S. No.9 Ramsay sits on a ridge of sedimentary sandstone from the lower Ordovician period, about 480 million years old. The soil cover is thin. Down in the hollow, the winding Tannery creek marks a geological unconformity with the metamorphic rocks of the Canadian Shield. These date from the Proterozoic eon, about 1.2 billion years ago. This unconformity represents about 720 million years of time during which no rocks were preserved in our region.

The story of the Hillcrest spruce was told by Logan More just the other day at a schoolhouse gathering around Jean and Mike Macpherson’s table. Raised on his family’s farm a short distance farther along the 8th line, he recalled his father telling him about the day the spruce was planted. Milton, then 12, and his 10 year old brother,

Andy, dug up the tree on the farm and carried it to school. They planted the spruce out front that day in 1914 as an Arbor Day activity.

Logan attended the same school as his father, and remembered that the prickly spruce wasn’t a good climbing tree like the maples in the yard. Thinking about the years gone by, he also observed that the spruce didn’t seem to grow much in its first 100 years on the schoolyard.

Tough growing conditions would account for a slower growth rate of this survivor. The tree has shallow roots on sandstone bedrock where the feet of many students over the years would have compacted the thin soil.

Logan More had many stories this week about attending S.S. No. 9 Ramsay in the 1930s and 40s. Arbor Day activities for the students included washing windows, cleaning up the schoolyard, and carrying pails of soil from the woods for the flower beds.
Logan More had many stories this week about attending S.S. No. 9 Ramsay in the 1930s and 40s. Arbor Day activities for the students included washing windows, cleaning up the schoolyard, and carrying pails of soil from the woods for the flower beds.
Although it’s the end of April, the buds of maple trees beside the spruce hadn’t opened yet this week.
Although it’s the end of April, the buds of maple trees beside the spruce hadn’t opened yet this week.

An annual tree planting day was first started in 1805 at the small Spanish village of Villanueva de la Sierra by the local priest, don Ramón Vacas Roxo. Arbor Day in North America was launched on April 10, 1872, by J. Sterling Morton on the treeless plain of Nebraska City, U.S.A. Arbor Day was named a legal Nebraska holiday in 1885 and April 22, Morton’s birthday, was selected for its permanent observance. During the 1870s, other states passed legislation to observe Arbor Day. The tradition began in schools across the United States in 1882.

There are several early references for Arbor Day in Canada:

1883 – Arbor Day, Province of Quebec: Proclamations, Instructions for Planting Trees;

1887 – Arbor Day, Ontario. Suggestions and regulations in regard to its observance by school trustees, teachers, and pupils in Ontario.

The 1890 Annual Report of the Schools of New Brunswick has a section on Arbor Day, including a record of plantings for 1888-1890.

“Arbor Day was celebrated May 16th, in accordance with the following provisions of Reg. 19-2:

Arbor Day: With a view of encouraging the improvement and ornamentation of school grounds, and thereby of cultivating, on the part of pupils, habits of neatness and order, and a taste for the beautiful in nature, the Board of Education makes the following provision:

Teachers are hereby authorized, with the sanction of the Trustees, to set apart any Friday that may be deemed most suitable during the months of May and June for the purpose of improving the school grounds and planting thereon trees, shrubs, and flowers such day to be known as ‘Arbor Day’, and when duly observed, credit to be given for it as a lawful teaching day.”

In 1890, 436 school districts observed Arbor Day in New Brunswick. The plantings that year were 4040 trees, 504 shrubs, and 538 flower beds.

Canada can lay claim to a community named for Arbor Day. Arborfield, Saskatchewan, population 329 in 2006, is a town located about 70 km / 43 miles northeast of Melfort, and 14 km / 9 miles west of the Pasquia Hills on Highway 23. As the story goes, in 1910 the town requested that it be named Fairfield. Although that name was not accepted by the federal post office, an official noted that the town’s request was received on Arbor Day. Would the residents accept Arborfield?

Thank you to Jean and Mike Macpherson for their nomination of the white spruce at the Hillcrest Public School.

Do you have a notable or favourite tree? Readers are invited to submit their nominations for an honor roll of trees in our area that could be featured in future articles. You can contact me at 613-256-2018, <>, or Neil Carleton, 3 Argyle Street, P.O. Box 1644, Almonte, Ontario, K0A 1A0. I look forward to hearing from you.

My volunteer columns started in March 2010, as print features, to support the tree planting and tree awareness initiatives of the Mississippi Mills Beautification Committee. The contact for the Tree Committee is Ron Ayling, 613-256-4617. In Carleton Place, the contact for the Urban Forest / River Corridor Advisory Committee is Jim McCready, 613-257-5853.

Until the next column, you’ll find me looking for and hanging out with shady characters.