Manitoba’s historic Tree Planting Car gets new roots

A nearly 100-year-old train car with deep roots on the Prairies has made a historic journey.

It’s known as the Tree Planting Car and it served as a travelling classroom for around 50 years to encourage people to plant trees.

“As it travelled across the Prairies, the primary purpose was to educate young people about the importance of trees and to reach the adults, the farming communities,” said Dianne Beaven, whose father Alan Beaven worked on the Tree Planting Car for 20 years and was its longest-serving lecturer.

It’s been stationed at Sandilands Forest Discovery Centre in southeast Manitoba for nearly 50 years but on Tuesday it was moved to the Manitoba Agricultural Museum to carry on its mission.

“We jumped at the chance, built a 100-foot rail line there to set it on and the process was set in motion,” said Grant Cassils, vice president of the board of the Manitoba Agricultural Museum. “The whole unit weighs 166,000 pounds, 84 feet long, 16 ½ feet high so it’s a massive, very heavy structure.”

Built back in the 1920s in Winnipeg, the steel Tree Planting Car left its mark on the Prairie provinces.

Equipped with a theatre and living quarters it was pulled along the railway to towns across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba to promote the importance of trees and forests.

Over 50 years of journeys it’s estimated the car travelled more than 420,000 kilometres, hosted 1.5 million visitors and promoted the planting of half a billion trees on about 100,000 farms.

The car had been in the care of the Manitoba Forestry Association (MFA) but that organization, a casualty of funding cuts, is in the midst of shutting down.

“We’re so happy that the Manitoba Agricultural Museum was willing to take it on,” said Trevor Stanley, vice president of the MFA. “We’re donating it to their association. There’s a lot more public that comes through that facility out in Austin so it’s going to get a new life which I think is wonderful.”

Before the car could be moved it had to be lifted using two cranes and loaded onto a special flatbed semi-truck trailer.

It was a complicated and expensive process which could come in up to around $250,000, a cost the MFA is covering to help save the Tree Planting Car.

“We just didn’t want to lose that history,” Stanley said. “We thought that was a good use for the money before we shut down.”

Gordon Goldsborough, head researcher for the Manitoba Historical Society, said the agricultural museum is a natural fit.

“The reality was that if you were building a house, for example, or a farm you’d have to protect yourself against the notorious Prairie winds, what better way to do it than with a shelter belt of trees,” Goldsborough said. “The whole story of planting trees on the Prairies is part and parcel with the story of the agricultural development of the Prairies.”

With tree planting back in the spotlight Beaven, who retired as executive director of the MFA which her father was instrumental in establishing, hopes the train car’s legacy will continue to live on in its new location.

“To know that it’s on the highway on its way to Austin, it’s a win-win,” said Beaven. “I’m absolutely thrilled.”

The museum in Austin plans to redevelop it into an exhibit to highlight the history of tree planting on the Prairies.

Cassils said it will require some restoration but will be on display starting this coming summer.

The tree planting car arrived in Austin Tuesday afternoon following about a 10-hour journey. 

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