The Crocus-Loving Consul
by Irene Craig
Manitoba Pageant, September 1961, Volume 7, Number 1
How many students of history, I wonder, have heard of the American, James Wickes Taylor, who earned the nickname "Saskatchewan" Taylor. According to the song, one "Yankee Doodle" stuck a feather in his hat and came to town riding on a pony. Well our prairie American, Taylor, also "went to town" right here in Winnipeg. Though you might say, instead of a feather, later he may have stuck a crocus in his hat - and instead of riding a pony, he actually came to town down the river on a stern-wheeler.
For an American to be called "Saskatchewan" may sound strange, especially way back in the 1860s, but no man in the United States was more of an authority on the Canadian West and no one talked and wrote more about it than James Wickes Taylor. He never let up on the subject ... hence the nick-name.
Taylor believed, unlike many in the 1860s, that Western Canada would be the future bread and meat supplier for the English market. He said so, and he kept on saying it, that wheat would be the leading and permanent staple of agriculture. He said also that here in Canada cattle would thrive.
All this doesn't sound strange to us today but in Washington, at the time, men shook their heads. "Another dreamer of dreams," they said. But Taylor kept right on and eventually he was sent to Winnipeg as the American Consul. He was no stranger to this part of the country having been here earlier during the years when he had lived in St. Paul.
Though a good Presbyterian, on his first Sunday here in 1870, Taylor attended St. Boniface Cathedral where he was struck by the attitude of reverence, and also, he said, "by the simplicity and grace of the costumes of the female worshippers."
On another Sunday, right on the site of Winnipeg, he watched five hundred Crees with their Medicine Man performing what he called "curious and barbarous incantations." Mr. Taylor loved it all, especially the free and easy way people did things on the prairie. It was, for him, a grand life in the days when Winnipeg numbered all of one hundred and fifty people. What if there were problems for the Consul? It was all part of the day's work, and he was a hustler. With so much on his mind you'd wonder how the man had time to look for a crocus - but he did.
Hanging in the City of Winnipeg Council Chamber there's a portrait of him, the only American Consul with one exception, who ever had his portrait hung in a foreign Council Chamber. In the picture beside him on a table are blossoms of the prairie crocus. For years, on the anniversary of his death in April, a bowlful of fresh crocus was placed beneath the painting. His love for the flowers had become a legend. Only a few years ago an elderly, woman put her bouquet of blossoms there, "for the man who was so kind to the children." She had been one of them, she said.
Round the market place everyone hobnobbed with the popular Consul. He often wore an old grey Hudson's Bay blanket like a parka, folding it cornerwise and holding it fast with the biggest brass safety pins anyone ever saw. He always needed a haircut but everyone recognized his friendliness and admitted his skilled diplomacy, for his alert mind certainly saved many a day. There was, for instance, the case of driving the last spike on the Pembina branch of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Who was to have the honour of driving this last spike? The committee couldn't decide and as the party neared its destination on a grandly decorated flat-car, everyone was in a dither. Then someone suggested a lady. Fine, but which lady? "Why, of course," said tactful "Saskatchewan" Taylor, "each lady." The big moment came but sad to relate the wobbly but important old spike didn't get very far into the railway tie. Each of the dear ladies was so flustered she couldn't handle the mallet. Finally the canny American called on Mary Sullivan, the section boss's daughter. One mighty blow and Mary drove it home! Once more the day was saved.
In Manitoba it didn't take Taylor very long to discover where the Spring crocus buds were to be found and when they were ready to open their furry bonnets. It was a long trek though, in those days of horse and buggy, way out to Dr. Bird's Hill - the best place to gather wildflowers - but right up to the age of seventy, Consul Taylor took the trip in his stride.
When the robins came he'd decide to go into action. Year after year, out to Bird's Hill he would go. "Why it's Spring," he would say, "the ladies are waiting. No time to be lost." Back home again to arrange the flowers just as he thought they should be, and then he would make his rounds presenting the smiling ladies with these cherished clusters of tiny crocus blossoms. Not in his blanket ... O dear no! All dressed up now as you see him in his picture.
Later, Manitoba school children also felt the Spring urge. They took a vote and thus decided they wanted the sturdy little crocus to be their own emblem to represent Manitoba in the language of flowers. And so the crocus became Manitoba's official floral emblem.
No one ever knew how busy Consul Taylor was each Spring. He never told. But among his papers was found a carefully guarded list of names. Taylor needed a list, for as the settlement grew many names had to be added - no one could be missed. Each lady was there - more than five hundred names - each the recipient of a bouquet of crocus blossoms picked by "Saskatchewan" Taylor.
He was with us until his death on April 30, 1893. He had been American Consul for twenty-three years. It is to be hoped that the city fathers will find a prominent place for the painting of the crocus-loving Consul in the new city hall.
Page revised: 1 July 2009