Every weekend I get an old-fashioned, actually made out of paper, newspaper delivered to my home. It’s a comfort thing, really, and I love to sit down with the Toronto Star (usually with a bowl of popcorn at hand) and sip tea while reading. Each Saturday I make sure to read the “Tree of the Week” column, about huge trees with interesting histories that grow in the Toronto area.
Several weeks ago I was reading the column when I had one of those ah-ha moments. “I know a tree!” I said to myself, “And it has a story to tell.” A quick phone call to my dad gave me the historical details, and a quick text with the sisters made sure I didn’t miss any stories. The writing came easily, and then it all went by email to the columnist. The rest, as folks are forever saying, is history.
Here’s the story.
Seven generations have lingered under the limbs of cherished walnut tree on family’s Scarborough farm.
Tree of the Week showcases some of the biggest and most beautiful trees in the GTA, as compiled by Megan Ogilvie. Here, Phyllis Diller Stewart tells us about an enormous black walnut tree that grows on her family’s farm in Scarborough and continues to be a gathering place for the annual family reunion. Stewart’s grandchildren are the family’s seventh generation to rest in the shade under its limbs.
As unbelievable as this statement sounds today, I grew up on a farm in Scarborough.
More unbelievable is the fact that the farm is still there, and so is the tree I love — a giant black walnut.
In 1882, my great-great grandparents, John and Susannah Diller, bought the farm on Beare Road, in the northeast corner of Scarborough.
As happened in those days, the purchase was made so their eldest son would have a farm of his own, and John and Susannah planned to move there as well in their retirement.
At that time there was a stone farmhouse on the property. Because Susannah declared that she would not live in a cold and damp stone house, a frame “doddy haus,” as the Mennonite term goes, was built onto the west side for them.
It’s doubtful that Susannah, or anyone else, took much notice of the black walnut sapling growing some 12 metres (40 feet) from the opposite side of the cold stone house. On the other hand, maybe someone did see it, protecting and nurturing that little tree with the hope of an abundant black walnut harvest someday.
By the time my dad was born in 1933, a wood-frame addition had been added to the other side of the stone house, and the tree was no longer alone.
Incorporated into the side yard now, everyone who went out of the house to use the “Lady Jones,” a tidy privy attached to a nearby garden shed, passed beneath its branches.
I didn’t come along until 1957, and by then that damp and old stone house was much more habitable. It was heated by two oil stoves on the main floor — no heat upstairs — and my parents raised me and my three sisters there. Our great aunt, who had a home seamstress business, lived in the doddy haus, and my grandparents lived in the addition closest to the tree.
By this time, the walnut tree was huge and my granny guarded the autumn crop of black walnuts with, of all things, a gun. She kept the rifle inside her back door and if she spotted a squirrel eyeing up the bounty, she would crack open the door and take aim. She seldom missed.
As luck would have it, the path we kids took to get from the driveway at the front of the house to our back door where coats, boots and school bags belonged, was under the walnut tree. Its branches now reached right to the house so there was no avoiding tent caterpillars that dropped from the branches one year, or the fallen walnuts that would turn your feet black, making a mucky mess in the house if you weren’t careful. They’d turn your hands black, too.
One of my sisters remembers helping to pick up bushels of walnuts, then peeling off the green outer husks, which turned our hands black. The nuts were spread onto newspapers to dry, and it would take a hammer blow to crack them open so the nutmeat could be pried out. As luck would have it for her, a kindergarten hand-hygiene check was scheduled for the following day. She stood in line, embarrassed by the black walnut stain still under her fingernails, but the teacher accepted her explanation and all was well.
Dad built a huge set of swings for us in that tree with chains so long we could swing up to the leaves. Also, a lawn mower once shot a walnut, bullet-fast, right through a car window. The car didn’t belong to us, but the repair bill did.
In the early 1970s, that tree, and the rest of the farm, was expropriated for the proposed Pickering airport, so my granddad had no choice but to sell.
In the mid-70s, our family moved away, but my dad’s sister rented the farm back from the government, and various members of the extended Diller family have lived there since.
We’ve been fortunate to return for annual family reunions, enjoying a catch-up around potluck tables always set up under the tree, and my grandchildren are part of the seventh generation to sit in its shade.
The black walnut is now nearly 4 metres (12 feet) around, and its canopy is so wide that it seems to cover even that large country yard.
The tree still appears strong and healthy, and all things being equal, will likely outlive me. The farm where it grows is now part of the Rouge National Urban Park, so I know it will have that chance. It’s only as I write these words that I realize how much I want that to happen.
Trees are a steady and dependable presence in this age of near-constant change, and even though I don’t live on the farm anymore, I know my tree will be there whenever I want to visit.