Here’s the story of an original American holiday.
A TREE-MENDOUS PLAN
After graduating with an agriculture degree from the University of Michigan in 1854, Julius Sterling Morton moved to a small settlement called Nebraska City in what would a few months later be called the Nebraska Territory. Morton faced a problem shared by many settlers in the territory: It was a treeless plain. That meant no trees for building materials, to burn for fuel, or to use as shade for crops. But Morton was one of the New World’s first “tree huggers,” stating, “We ought to bequeath to posterity as many forests and orchards as we have exhausted and consumed.” So he started bequeathing trees, beginning with his own land. By 1860 Morton boasted a lush orchard of more than 300. A few years later, he had more than 1,000.
As the orchards grew, so did Morton’s influence in Nebraska, which became a state in 1867. Morton was the founder and editor of the Nebraska City News, the state’s first newspaper, in which he frequently wrote editorials about the benefits, practical and aesthetic, of tree planting. He also organized the Nebraska State Horticultural Society and served on the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture.
While serving on the Board, Morton came up with an idea to spread his belief in tree planting statewide (and eventually, worldwide). On January 4, 1872, Morton drafted a resolution that April 10th be “set apart and consecrated for the planting of trees in the State of Nebraska, and to urge upon the people of the State the vital importance of tree planting.” Morton called the special event Arbor Day (arbor is Latin for “tree”).
The state legislature agreed and on April 10, 1872, the first unofficial Arbor Day was celebrated throughout Nebraska. Prizes were awarded to counties, cities, and individuals who planted the largest number of trees. That day, an astounding one million trees took root in Nebraska—an average of more than six for every man, woman, and child in the state. Since 1885, Nebraska has planted more than 700,000 acres of trees, earning it the nickname “the Tree Planters State.”
Arbor Day became a legal, civic holiday in the state in 1885. It was held on April 22—Julius Morton’s birthday. In addition to a parade in Nebraska City, Morton introduced what has since become a long-standing Arbor Day tradition: Schoolchildren went outside and planted trees together. Morton left Nebraska in 1893 when he was appointed Secretary of Agriculture by President Grover Cleveland.
In 1970, nearly a century after Arbor Day was first celebrated, President Richard Nixon declared the last Friday of every April to be observed as National Arbor Day. The day often coincides nicely with Earth Day, which is held every April 22. All 50 states recognize the April observance, although many hold an additional state Arbor Day in a month more suited to local tree planting. For example, Florida and Louisiana have theirs in January, Hawaii’s is in November, and South Carolina’s is in December.
Morton nicely summed the unique nature of his creation: “Arbor Day is not like other holidays. Each of those reposes on the past, while Arbor Day proposes for the future.”
For more about the living world around us, check out Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader: Nature Calls.