I was out of town this weekend, so I missed a horrific storm Friday night that knocked down several trees around Toronto, including an historic maple on Laing street. It is a tree with deep connection to my family roots, as well as the source of an urban myth connecting it to the song “The Maple Leaf forever.”
My great-grandfather built a house on Laing Street. He and his brothers were early Leslieville settlers, moving there in the 1860′s to fish and work in the many local brick-making factories. The house they lived in, near Laing and Queen, is no longer there, but I grew up hearing stories of the famous maple on that street that inspired Alexander Muir to write that famous song. My family even embellished the rumour over the years: at one point, the tree was on our family homestead; in another story Alexander Muir was a boarder at our family home property who wrote the song looking out of our window.
It was local historian Joanne Doucette who set the record straight for me. She is the author of an excellent local history of the Leslieville area: “Pigs, Flowers and Bricks: A History of Leslieville to 1920.” I got in touch with her when researching my own family history, since the book does tell the exploits of some of my ancestors. She also has a chapter devoted to the Maple Leaf Forever tree, and calling into question the well-meaning urban myth.
Doucette makes the point that Alexander Muir never lived on Laing street: the Muir homestead is at Pape and Queen. She also points out that the Maple Cottage at the site of the tree was built in 1873, long after the song was written and the Muirs had left Leslieville. She quotes interviews with the Muir family that suggest the song may have been inspired by a walk with George Leslie through the trees in the Leslie nurseries on the south side of Kingston road.
So where did the urban myth come from? Doucette writes the first published stories linking the tree to the song came out in 1937, when a group called the Men of Trees put the first plaque on the tree:
“The story goes that returning from a walk, accompanied by his pupils, Alexander Muir, then principal of Leslieville School, sat down in teh shade of this maple tree to rest. Blown by the breeze, a handful of maple leaves showered the school teacher and inspired the writing of the song adopted as Canada’s national song. The maple tree which was to make history shades the lawn fronting “Maple Cottage,” the home of Mrs. F.M. Southam, 62 Laing Avenue.”
Pigs, Flowers and Bricks, page 200
Doucette writes that there was an organized campaign by the Orange Lodge to drum up support for the Maple Leaf Forever as Canada’s official national anthem. It was widely used in English Canada, but it’s pro-British, imperialistic language made it very unpopular in Francophone Canada. She writes the Orange Lodge was looking for a symbol to pay tribute to Leslieville’s most famous man (and Orangeman).
Even Orange Order historians now acknowledge that the Maple Leaf Forever Tree in Leslieville has nothing to do with the song – other than the fact that it is an old maple tree. The Roughian, and Orange website, speculates that, by 1930, this particular maple tree was likely to have been the only really old silver maple standing in that part of Leslieville. In short, it was the only candidate left that could have been around to drop a leaf in 1867. Most of the trees along Queen Street had been cleared when the street was widened. In the 1920s most of the Toronto Nurseries, where Muir and Leslie were walking, had been cleared, levelled and graded for housing. Though far to the east of the Toronto Nursery grounds, this silver maple was the sole survivor, and therefore, a candidate for myth.
Pigs, Flowers and Bricks, page 204
I’m sad to see such a beautiful, old tree go, but I’m comforted to learn of the story of Bill Wrigley, who has managed to grow an offspring from that tree, which now grows in another city park nearby. It will ensure the urban myth about the “Maple Leaf Forever” tree continues.