Trees shelter us, shade us, and feed us. They are lovely to look at and also provide valuable resources. They stand tall through adversity and resiliently recover from natural disasters. Trees remind us of the past, and provide hope for our future. In recognition of the importance of trees, we celebrate Arbor Day.
Imagine a pioneer, viewing his intended homestead for the first time. A flat plain of dry grass greets him, creating an impression of a vast desert. Our pioneer intends to farm this land and raise a family. Contemplating this scenario, trees enter his thoughts as windbreaks for his fields and shade for his home, provisions for his family, and perhaps eventually, lumber for buildings. Our pioneer smiles with this vision of the future.
A scenario like this may have been in the mind of J. Sterling Morton, a respected agriculturalist who moved to the Nebraska Territory from Detroit in 1854. With his wife, also an avid lover of nature, their new home was quickly surrounded with all sorts of flowers, shrubs, and trees both ornamental and fruit-bearing. His fellow pioneers quickly followed suit as they found they needed the trees for so many reasons; windbreaks, fuel for winter fires and cooking, building materials, and for shade in the summer. Many pioneers missed the trees from their old homes, and so Morton's enthusiasm for trees quickly spread.
Morton shared his vision of the future Nebraska, and strongly advocated tree planting. As a journalist and editor of the Nebraska City News, he often wrote about agricultural subjects, including the importance of trees. He encouraged his neighbors, as well as civic organizations and other groups to plant trees, citing economic and landscaping benefits. As a successful farmer who was very active in politics, he helped organize the Nebraska State Horticultural Society in 1869.
In 1872, Morton became a member of the State Board of Agriculture, and proposed a tree-planting holiday, which he called "Arbor Day." This idea was approved, and the first Arbor Day was set for April 10, 1872. With prizes offered for the largest number of properly planted trees by counties or individuals, over one million trees were planted in Nebraska that day.
This first Arbor Day was accounted a great success, and throughout the 1870s other states also passed legislation to observe Arbor Day. Despite this, the next Arbor Day was not held in Nebraska until 1884. However, by 1885, Nebraska had 700,000 acres of trees, earning the nickname "The Tree Planters State." That year, Arbor Day was declared a legal holiday in Nebraska, to be observed each April 22 in honor of Morton's birthday.
Though eventually all of the states celebrated Arbor Day, it was not until 1970 that President Nixon proclaimed the last Friday in April to be National Arbor Day. Today, all states still celebrate Arbor Day, though many states have chosen to observe it on the date best suitable for tree-planting in their area, in keeping with J. Sterling Morton's vision of the importance of trees.