April 23, 2018 /
Jona Elwell

History of Arbor Day

Happy Arbor Week! While we celebrate Arbor Day in a big way at Casey Trees (starting with the Canopy Awards Arbor Day Eve, continuing with Gallaudet’s inaugural Inventory, and capping off with a planting at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens) we realized we didn’t know how Arbor Day came to be. And we were quite surprised by its interesting origin story:

Young J. Sterling Morton and his bride, Carrie, circa 1854. Courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society.

1854: Julius Sterling Morton, a journalist originally from Michigan, and his wife Caroline, originally from New York, moved to the windswept plains of the Nebraska territory. They were shocked by the lack of trees to help build and heat their home and provide relief from the sun and wind, as well as the lack of fruit and ornamental trees that beautified and encapsulated their home states. Therefore, as the editor of the Nebraska City newspaper, Morton began writing editorials encouraging landowners to plant large shade trees and orchards.

1872: Morton proposed a resolution where the entire state would set aside one day in which they would plant trees, and the State Board of Agriculture accepted the resolution. The board declared April 10, 1872, to be the first Arbor Day. To aid in re-treeing Nebraska (and to publicize the new day) the State Board created a contest in which counties and individuals could win prizes for the most properly planted trees. Allegedly over one million trees were planted across the Nebraska that very first Arbor Day!

J. Sterling Morton Plants a Tree. Courtesy of the Arbor Day Foundation.

1885: Arbor Day was declared an official holiday in Nebraska. April 22 was initially chosen, because of its ideal weather for planting trees and in recognition of Morton’s birthday. During the festivities, which included a parade of school children, Morton declared “Arbor Day is not like other holidays. Each of those reposes on the past, while Arbor Day proposes for the future.” Morton knew saying the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now.

1870s-1880s: During the 1870s, as other states watched the successes of tree planting and student passed legislation to observe Arbor Day, and the tradition began in schools nationwide in 1882.

Secretary of Agriculture Edwin T. Meredith and the District Federation of Women’s Clubs plant a tree in honor of J. Sterling Morton in May 1920. Photo courtesy of The Library of Congress.

1920: At this point, more than 45 states and territorial possessions of the U.S.  were celebrating Arbor Day.

1970s: We have President Richard Nixon to thank for recognizing Arbor Day nationwide, as part of his other environmentally-friendly actions taken by Nixon in the 1970s, including the passing of the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Protection Act, along with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. With his declaration, Arbor Day is now nationally observed on the last Friday in April.

Find YOUR way to celebrate Arbor Day! From planting a tree in your yard, to helping your community or school add trees, to watering street trees through the summer, to pruning, advocating, and protecting our District’s trees, there are *so* many ways to get involved. And when you do, include your everyone. Just like Morton knew, the hope lies with the future. We need to “plant” it forward and teach others to “plant it forward.”