Perth Inside Out: Stewart family gave much more than Jessie the Silver Maple

Shannon Baillon, Director of Community Services and John deRosenroll, Chief Administrative Officer, are shown with the remains of Jessie, the silver maple, before final removal. Photo credit: Terry O’Hearn
Posted on: May 29, 2018

Terry O’Hearn

Much has already been said about Jessie, the elderly silver maple in Stewart Park which was taken down Thursday, March 15, by arborists. However, some updates on the removal, and insights into the remarkable life of the tree’s namesake, are in order here.

Jessie was cut down because her health was deteriorating, and she was showing her age – with rotting, and previous damage from severe weather. There was the possibility of falling limbs in the future, and this became a safety issue. The stately tree was 93 years old, and she was the named after of Jessie Mabel Stewart, who left a wonderful legacy for the Town of Perth in the form of family lands and endowments.

A newspaper report from Feb. 6, 1947, headlined a story about Jessie Stewart’s gift with: “John A. Stewart Park Is Given to Perth at Special Meeting.” It was described as a “magnificent gift – on terms that will not be a burden (to the municipality).”

The Mayor of the time, R.K. Gemmell, explained to councillors that “We felt it was a thing of such importance that it was a pleasure for the council to have a special meeting to consider it. It is something that happens only once in a lifetime.”

The terms of the gift of park lands were: “It is to be known as the John A. Stewart Park, and will be used in the same manner as it now is. It is not to be used for competitive sports, or for commercial enterprise, nor in any way that would damage the lands. No other memorial is to be erected upon it, and it is to be kept separate from any other park schemes. Oher parks may be joined to it, however, provided such park lands are owned by the municipality and do not change the use of the present park. If the town fails to maintain the park properly in the opinion of the company handling the trust, the lands may revert to the trustees.”

Later in the same year, Jessie Stewart penned a letter to the chairman of the public school board stating: “Not long ago, I was approached by Dr. C.B. Church and others associated with him with regard to a site for a new school. It was thought that a suitable site would be the property which I own in the town of Perth which fronts on Wilson St. and is in part bounded by the River and Leslie Street, which I believe has an area of about 11 acres.

“It was suggested that I sell the property to the public school board but, on considering the matter, I would prefer to make a gift of the property to the Board.” A term that was imposed with the offer was that her chauffeur be allowed to keep a house and outbuilding on the property for his lifetime. Jessie Stewart had proved to be a caring person indeed, and her final line of that offer speaks much about her character: “I am offering this property to the school board as a gift because of my long interest in the welfare and advancement of the town of Perth.”

Stewart had been pre-deceased by her husband The Hon. John Alexander Stewart, K.C., L.L.B., M.P. for Lanark County, who was reported as passing away “at four o’clock in the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 7th, 1922, in the Ross Memorial Pavilion of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal after a lingering illness with anaemia.”

The Oct. 13, 1922 issue of The Perth Courier went on to say about John Stewart: “A life-long resident of Perth, has gone to his reward and an aching void is left behind. He was taken ill on June 16th and entered the Hospital on July 19th. Mrs. Stewart was at the bed-side when the end came. Although not unexpected, when the news of his death soon became wide-spread the people of Perth experienced a sensation of keen sorrow that such a sterling character should be snatched so soon from his picturesque career. His niche in the business life of Perth will be difficult to fill, his place in the hearts of men will never be occupied by another, his smile, his friendship and his loyalty to his town and country will forever be missed.”

“His formal education took place in Perth and Toronto, and he practiced law in Perth from 1895 until his death. He had been President of the Henry K. Wampole Co. Ltd., the Andrew Jergens Company Ltd., and the Perth Shoe Company. Elected to the House of Commons in 1918, he served as Minister of Railways in the Meighen Cabinet.”

It was a sad day in 1956 when Perth citizens learned that Jessie Stewart had passed away at her home, known as Thuresson Place. She was in her eighty-eighth year. The house was originally constructed in 1878 by her father, Jesse T. Henderson, on Drummond Street West near Boulton Street, and is now known as the Perth Manor Boutique Hotel.

The Perth Courier of April 12, 1956, mourned the death with the headline: “Mrs. John A. Stewart Laid to Rest in Elmwood Cemetery.” The obituary notes some key facts that tell much about the generosity of Stewart: “In 1947 Mrs. Stewart gave to the Municipal Corporation of the Town of Perth, in memory of her late husband, John A. Stewart, Perth, Park lands comprising about ten acres in the centre of the Town, intercepted by the Tay Canal and the Tay River, and in 1948 gave to the Board of Education of the Town of Perth eleven acres of land for the erection of a new Public School which is known as The Stewart School.”

It is best to quote directly from the obituary, in the language of the time, to get a sense of the magnitude of Perth’s loss: “Jessie M. Stewart, O.B.E., … lived in Perth all her lifetime and while her chief devotion was to the Town and her Church, she found time to serve in the national field, having been an executive member of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, culminating as National President for a term of two years, member of the Canadian Council of Child and Family Welfare, and member of the Board of Shernfold School, Ottawa.”

Locally, Stewart was a Life Director of the Great War Memorial Hospital of Perth District, Honourary President of the Women’s Hospital Aid Association, Honourary President of the Perth Museum, and District Commissioner of the Girl Guides.

As you have probably noted, Stewart had been awarded the OBE (Officer – Order of the British Empire). The citation reads: “Mrs. Jessie Stewart on June 29, 1935, ‘For public service in Dominion of Canada.’” She was installed alongside such luminaries as author Lucy Maude M. MacDonald (Montgomery), and Wilfred Reid ‘Wop’ May, OBE DFC, who was a Canadian flying ace in the First World War and the last Allied pilot to be pursued by Baron Manfred von Richthofen.

And so, the remaining stump of Jessie the silver maple is destined to be removed within the next few weeks, and it is thought there may be left a small seat or table to signify the location. Perhaps an engraved plate as a fitting memorial to the tree and the person.

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This article was first published in the May 2018 issue of Hometown News. For more articles from our May 2018 issue, pick up a print copy at a local retailer (find a list of locations here) or read our digital version.