Arbor Day"Arbor Day is not like other holidays. Each of those reposes on the past, while Arbor Day proposes for the future." J. Sterling Morton, Arbor Day founder
When Julius Sterling Morton moved to Nebraska Territory in 1854 from Michigan, the young man and his wife, lovers of trees, missed the forests of their home state. As they established their home in the budding town of Nebraska City, they planted trees, orchards, shrubs and flowers to feel at home on the prairie.
Morton, who became editor of Nebraska's first newspaper and one of the best stump speakers among early politicians of the territory, proposed the idea of a special day dedicated to planting trees. He gave his "Fruit Address" in January 1872 to the state horticultural society and again to the State Board of Agriculture, touting the idea of the tree planting day.
The Board declared Apr. 10, 1872 as the first Arbor Day set aside to "plant trees, both forest and fruit". While the 800 trees Morton ordered to plant on the first Arbor Day didn't arrive in time keeping the author of the holiday from partaking in the plantings he proposed, over a million trees were planted in Nebraska on that first Arbor Day.
For many years, Arbor Day was celebrated on Morton's birthday, Apr. 22, but was later moved in Nebraska and South Dakota to the last Friday in April. Southern states celebrate earlier and northern states well into May.
Morton went on to serve as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the cabinet of President Grover Cleveland. A solid believer in the gold standard of currency, this fiscal conservative ran a tight ship of efficiency as head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cleveland later visited the Morton's at their mansion in Nebraska City, Arbor Lodge.
While Morton was in Washington, D.C. serving the cabinet and while he was away throughout his formative political years running for governor of the state or other political office, his wife Caroline and his children maintained tree plantings around Arbor Lodge with diligence.
Morton was known to be determined in his opinions, whether over Civil War politics or the planting of trees. When Nebraska Governor Robert Furnas, another tree planter, mentioned to Morton that Eastern White Pine trees wouldn't survive in Nebraska, Morton planted thousands of them to prove him wrong. Morton's pines did survive until many succumbed to drought during the 1930's. They were however replanted and visitors to Arbor Lodge can still enjoy white pines when they walk the tree trail around the mansion.
The Morton home, developed finally by the Morton children, and the farm around the home is now part of a State Historical Park operated by Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. The home is open to the public and features many elegant rooms that remain as they were when Morton lived there.
The Morton orchards are now part of Arbor Day Farm that includes the National Arbor Day Foundation headquarters at the Lied Conference Center. Now Arbor Day is celebrated in every state in the Union and hundreds of other countries in various fashions. As Morton put it, "The cultivation of flowers and trees is the cultivation of the good, the beautiful, and the ennobling in man."