145 Years Later, Arbor Day Celebrates Nebraska Roots

April 28, 2017, 6:45 a.m. ·

Arbor Day Foundation leaders and Nebraska First Lady Susanne Shore plant a new tree. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

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145 years ago this month, a Nebraska City newspaper editor and politician made his love for trees official. He founded Arbor Day, a time to plant trees and recognize their importance. Today is National Arbor Day and it wouldn’t have happened without J. Sterling Morton’s vision for future generations.

On a windy afternoon just outside of Morton’s former home at Arbor Lodge State Historical Park in Nebraska City, the latest addition to the tree collection there has found a new home. It’s a Bur Oak, a direct decedent of the Morton Oak, which was planted by J. Sterling Morton himself in the early 1880’s. Nebraska’s First lady, Susanne Shore and Doug Farrar of the Arbor Day Foundation add mulch and water to the new tree.

The first Arbor Day was observed in Nebraska in April of 1872. It became a state holiday in 1885. Soon, other states declared their own Arbor Days. In 1970, President Richard Nixon proclaimed the last Friday in April as National Arbor Day. Now, the day is observed in all 50 states and in more than two dozen other countries.

“It was such an ambitious dream back in 1872 to start a holiday to celebrate trees and now that holiday is celebrated across the nation and across the globe,” Arbor Day Foundation president Dan Lambe said.

J. Sterling Morton's former home in Nebraska City, Nebraska. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Inside the historic Morton home, Lambe is surrounded by reminders of J. Sterling Morton’s vision. People forget the first Arbor Day wasn’t just about beauty. It was more of a pragmatic move for a state that had very few trees in the 1870’s.

“Nebraskans needed trees. Trees to build fence posts, to build homes, to have nuts and berries,” Lambe said. “It’s a natural resource that they were planting. Of course they appreciated the beauty and the shade from the trees as well, but it was about helping to create forestlands that provide benefits to the communities and to the citizens.”

In 1872, Nebraskans planted more than one million trees. It was a far cry from the rolling prairie Lewis and Clark came upon as they emerged from the bluffs along the Missouri River in the early 1800’s. J. Sterling Morton anticipated the need for trees for future generations.

“He was really a man ahead of his time, because as you really think about it, trees today are as important as they’ve ever been,” Arbor Day Foundation CEO Matt Harris said. “Trees help address some of the biggest issues facing our planet today. They clean our air, they purify our water, they sequester our carbon, they improve our health in many ways. Trees are as big a deal today as they were even in Morton’s day.”

A bust of Arbor Day founder J. Sterling Morton in his former home. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Nebraska’s First Lady, Susanne Shore, believes trees are unifiers and community builders, ingredients Nebraskans needed both then and now.

She says National Arbor Day is a source of pride for Nebraskans and a way for them to help ensure success for future generations.

“We were called the Great American Desert because there just weren’t the trees going through,” Shore said. “J. Sterling Morton had the vision that we needed and that has brought our state together. It’s built community and it’s built communities and it’s gotten us national fame for being the tree-planting state.”

J. Sterling Morton later served as President Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of Agriculture. He died in 1902. Dan Lambe thinks Morton would be proud that his legacy has continued and grown.

“The founding of Arbor Day, with sustainability and pragmatism and benefits tied to it, he’d be proud of how the Arbor Day Foundation and Arbor Day are helping to advance that spirit of not just tree planting for beauty, everybody loves a beautiful tree, but tree-planting for benefits,” Lambe said.

The non-profit Arbor Day Foundation plants and distributes more than 10 million trees each year and has nearly a million members.