Charlie’s Tree: A Surrey pilot’s tribute to those lost in war

REMEMBRANCE DAY: There's an interesting story behind a flag-adorned Douglas Fir along Highway 1

Ever noticed this memorial while whizzing down Highway 1? There's an interesting story behind it.

Charlie Perkins was a teenager when he became interested in flying.

Back then – circa 1910 – the teen could not have known his legacy would live on in Surrey for decades to come in a rather interesting way – in a tree along Highway 1.

The Perkins family moved to the Fraser Valley from Vancouver around 1907, packing up their belongings on a sternwheeler and heading up the river to the area of Port Kells.

The family would pitch a tent in the bush before building their home.

“There was quite a flying enthusiasm in B.C. at the time,” said Charlie’s son, Larry Perkins.

“I don’t know where dad got an interest in flying but he joined up with a group of young fellows and they canvassed and borrowed and begged for money and formed the B.C. Aero Club.”

They brought a “rickety old plane” up from the states to practise and learn on. Later, in about 1915, they built their own plane that they flew out of what is now Pitt Meadows Airport.

Then the war came.

“Everybody joined up and because dad had a smatter of what it is to fly and the rudiments of flying, he was put into the Royal Flying Corp (as a flight instructor in Ontario) because there wasn’t a Canadian military flight. He learned all the tricks of flying planes and maneuvering and machine guns.”

He returned home from the First World War in 1919.

“But when he got back, there was this big tree. And that tree was on the property that grandpa bought,” recalled Larry.

A common misconception is that Charlie planted the tree. The family says it was actually about 300 years old. Charlie’s memorial was the ivy he planted.

“What he did was he cleared the area around the tree, planted the ivy on the tree and made a little bit of a park. It was a memento honouring those who flew or tried to fly. Those who came home and those that didn’t come home. And that was the significance of the tree in the family.”

When plans were announced for the Trans-Canada Highway (now Highway 1), Charlie learned it was set to run right through his property – and the area including the tree.

A fight began to save it.

“Dad started to get the community up and support him to save the tree,” said Larry.

“With a lot of letter-writing and support from friends and neighbours, he finally contacted ‘Flying’ Phil Gaglardi, head of the highways department. I recall being there when he came out. Dad and I and he walked down the skid road to the base of the tree and dad explained the whole story.

“He just took a look at the map they had and said, ‘Well, we’ll just go around it.’ And they did. And that was that.”

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Though the tale goes that Charlie sat in front of the tree with a shotgun in an attempt to save it, Larry says that’s not the case.

“There is absolutely no truth to the report that dad sat in the chair with a shotgun when the bulldozers came,” he insisted.

“He wasn’t that type of person. I remember him commenting to me that you can’t stand in the way of progress. And the highway was progress.”

Even before the highway was built, Charlie placed a wreath on the tree – a tradition that would continue for decades.

“Others then took over doing it,” explained Larry. “He did it right up until he was in his 80s.”

“I believe it was the Whalley Legion or a member of it that got things going also, and whether they’re the group that puts the wreaths there now or not, I don’t know. I never did,” Larry said.

“Dad took care of that.”

After the war, Charlie never flew again.

Larry believes he lost his love for flying during the war. It was as though the plane had become a killing machine to him.

“He said he just didn’t want to fly anymore. He said he could have, but he’d gone and done what needed to be done, saw things he didn’t need to see and survived crashes so it was time to come home and farm the place.”

Charlie later became a road former for Surrey, building many of the city’s main roads over the years.

He died at 92.

His grandson, Mike Perkins, who lives with his family in Cloverdale, drives by his tree on a regular basis.

The historic Douglas Fir can be seen on the south side of Highway 1 just west of 192nd Avenue, though it can be hard to catch when driving by.

In front of the tree, a white sign identifies it as “Charlie’s Tree.” The ivy that Charlie planted decades ago is now thick and has climbed up the tree.

On the tree is a Canadian flag, a cross and a plaque that reads “1919,” a wreath and other tokens. Though the family doesn’t know who puts wreaths there, a few always seem to pop up this time of year.

Over the years, vandals have set fire to the tree. And when it appeared the tree was dying, it was topped.

It stands at about 30 feet.

Mike said in addition to honour, a great lesson he learned from his grandfather was to respect nature.

“He was a naturalist long before the term really existed. There was a chunk of property on the farm that was fenced off, the cattle weren’t allowed to go in there, it was his park. There were trilliums and bleeding hearts, and we learned to leave thing like that alone,” said Mike.

“I just look at (Charlie’s Tree) and marvel at the fact that even my grandparents looked at it and didn’t see something that needed to be cut down,” he continued.

“They left it. That’s something I got from my grandfather, actually, that fact that you didn’t need to destroy everything, you could preserve some things. That’s what I see when I see that tree.”

amy.reid@thenowsnewspaper.com

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