ESTEVAN, Sask. — What started out as a small request from one oil patch worker to another has turned into a $60,000 memorial project that has captured the imaginations of veterans and the public alike.
Estevan oilfield worker Lester Hinzman grew up hearing Second World War stories from his father, who landed in Normandy on D-Day and was fortunate enough to return home to tell the tales.
Hinzman was dropping off pipe at an oil rig in 2015 when he observed the impressive chainsaw work of Alberta directional driller Darren Jones. Hinzman told Jones about a 102-year-old cottonwood near the family farm and the idea he’d always had to have two soldiers carved into it.
The rest is history, as Jones got to work on the 5.5-metre diameter tree, bringing to life two soldiers in a matter of four days.
Hinzman then recruited retired Estevan soldier Robert Rooks to offer his military history expertise and farm neighbour Lane Hanson to help with funds.
With $4,000 committed by the men individually, work on the tree continued.
The group quickly realized the Estevan Legion needed to be involved. One meeting later and Legion members Jim “Frosty” Forrest and former military police officer Geoff Thiessen joined the ranks in charge of fundraising.
Thiessen said funds started to flow with little effort once the general public started hearing about the project and driving out to see the carvings coming to life in the tree.
“As we were fundraising, people would come up and share their stories of fathers or grandfathers or uncles who had served,” said Thiessen.
“One day we were walking around on a business blitz and someone just came up and gave us a $100 bill and said, ‘we’ve been waiting for you guys.’ ”
Within six months, the carving of one soldier helping another, an airman and his Spitfire plane, a female air force sergeant, a soldier resting on arms reversed and a sailor on the high seas began to take shape on the tree trunk and skyward-reaching spires of the massive cottonwood.
Added to that was the Queen’s Colour of the South Saskatchewan Regiment, sprays of poppies, a combat helmet on a cross and poetry by Hinzman.
It was then that the group, including committee member Marie Donais-Calder, realized that the astounding tree, now called the Soldier Tree, needed to occupy a place of prominence in Estevan.
The community came together again, ensuring that cranes were available, concrete was supplied and trucks were used to safely transfer the completed 7,600-pound tree to its new home beside Estevan’s court house.
On Sept. 10, a formal dedication ceremony for the tree was held in Estevan. By this time, the project had garnered so much attention that military personnel, a pipe band, cadets, a Guard of Honor from the 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, army vehicles and two flying Second World War planes — a Spitfire and a Harvard — were part of the dedication event.
Rook said the project took on a life of its own as it progressed because of its significance to so many.
“Everyone knows somebody who has served or is connected to someone with a military past in some way,” he said.
“The tree gives people a place to reflect about that.”