My Own True Love and I spent last weekend at Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City. It was a reunion with cousins from several branches and generations of his family. There was lots of laughing, talking, card-playing, and trash-talking. We walked Tree Adventure–a wonderful facility designed to combine education and amusement for kids. We tasted heirloom apples,* heard their stories, and learned some apple cultivation trivia. And being history nerds to the core,** we were fascinated by the story of J. Sterling Morton and the beginning of Arbor Day.
In 1854, Morton settled with his brand-new wife in the brand-new town of Nebraska City, where he founded and edited the Nebraska City News. The Nebraska Territory was a treeless prairie. Ads that called for settlers described houses built of “Nebraska marble”–also known as sod.
Morton jumped into local politics almost immediately. He served two terms on the territorial legislature, was territorial secretary of state from 1858 to 1861 and acting territorial governor from 1858 to 1859.
Morton didn’t think the development of the Nebraska territory was a simple as “build it and they will come”.*** He felt strongly that planting trees was the answer to drawing settlers to Nebraska–and consequently selling more newspapers. Trees provided shade, wind breaks, fuel, building materials, and fruit and nuts. For years Morton urged Nebraska to set aside a day to encourage people to plant trees.
The first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska in April, 1872. Prizes were offered to the individuals and communities that planted the most trees that day. Altogether, Nebraskans planted more than one million trees that day. (Ironically, the trees for the Morton estate arrived several days late. The task of planting them fell to Mrs. Morton. Presumably not with her own two hands.) Morton summed up the spirit of the holiday in one sentence: “Other holidays repose upon the past; Arbor Day proposes for the future.”
Arbor Day never became an official national holiday, though several presidents proclaimed national celebrations.**** Most states now observe Arbor Day on the last Friday in April, but the date varies from state to state depending on best tree planting weather. (In a nice twist, Earth Day occurs on Morton’s birthday, April 22.)
The Morton home, Arbor Lodge, is now a state historical park, run by the Arbor Day Foundation.
As an addendum: Morton served as the US Secretary of Agriculture from 1893 to 1896. Evidently it’s Ag week here on the Margins.
*I strongly recommend the Edward VII and Calville Blanc D’hiver varieties and will be keeping an eye out for them.
**Pardon the apple pun. It wasn’t intentional, but I’m owning it.
***That’s an Iowa story.
****This means I don’t have to feel bad about not tying this post to the actual day.