Long before we celebrated Arbor Day, before anyone came up
with the term ecology or the idea of an Earth Day, even before
most people would have guessed that we should pay attention to
the health of our environment...there was Julius Sterling Morton.
If you've ever doubted that one person can have a major positive
influence on the Earth, you should know the story of J. Sterling
Morton and how his belief in the beauty and necessity of trees
has literally changed the landscape for over 100 years.
The history of one man's environmental action begins in the
early 19th century. Julius Sterling Morton was born April 22,
1832, the same April day that would one day be honored officially
as Arbor Day. His father was a village merchant in Adams, New
York. In 1834 the family relocated near Detroit, Michigan. Sterling
developed an interest in writing and publishing while working
in his grandfather's newspaper office. His parents enrolled him
at Wesleyan Seminary, where the 14 year old Morton met his future
wife, Caroline Joy French, and discovered that they were both
nature lovers at heart. Their story might have disappeared into
history right there. They might easily have settled in Michigan,
in a home surrounded by the trees and gardens they took for granted,
except for one fateful move.
On October 30, 1854, Carrie and Sterling Morton left Detroit
on their wedding day to make their way to the great unsettled
plains of Nebraska. Sterling had a job waiting as a promising
journalist on the territory's first newspaper, the Nebraska City
News. He was soon named Editor of the paper. The young couple
was off to a promising start, but something was wrong. Their
new pioneering homestead was in the midst of a treeless prairie.
It just didn't feel right. As soon as the Mortons had built
their four-room home on the highest point of the 160 acre property
west of Nebraska City, they started planting. They added shade
trees, shrubs and flowers to beautify their environment. Within
a few years, they added an apple orchard of 300 trees. This was
followed by another orchard of 1,000 trees.
Sterling started writing articles in the Nebraska City News
promoting his views on agricultural advancement and the value
of planting trees. He ran his own experiments to find out which
trees were best suited to the climate of Nebraska and reported
the findings in his columns. It was welcome advice, as an increasing
number of settlers needed trees to act as wind breaks to keep
the soil in place, provide wood for their homes, fuel for their
stoves, shade, beauty and fruit.
J. Sterling Morton rose quickly in influence. At 23, he was
elected to the Nebraska Territory's 2nd Legislative Assembly.
The President, James Buchanan, even appointed him acting governor
of the territory from 1858 to 1861. But his lasting influence
came later. In 1867 Morton put his focus into agriculture and
conservation. He joined the State Board of Agriculture and the
State Horticultural Society. In 1872 he introduced a resolution
to the State Board of Agriculture that would become his lasting
legacy. It was the seemingly minor idea of having a day to celebrate
trees. He called it Arbor Day.
Arbor Day simply means "Tree Day." All Morton was
after was a proclamation to make April 10, 1872 a day to encourage
people in Nebraska to plant trees. To get the ball rolling, make
it a fun event and one that would motivate people, he suggested
offering prizes for organizations and communities that planted
the most trees.
Perhaps it was just a great idea for a growing population
at the point of desperately needing trees for their future. Perhaps
it was the charisma of J. Sterling Morton and the years he spent
building awareness. Perhaps it was the idea of a competition
with prizes. Whatever it was, Arbor Day was an incredible success.
Over 1,000,000 trees were planted in Nebraska on that single
Support for Arbor Day, originally proposed as a one-time event,
gained momentum. In 1874 it was held again on April 10 by proclamation
of Nebraska's Governor, Robert W. Furnas. The next year, it became
a legal holiday in the state. There was one small change made,
however. The date was changed from April 10 to April 22 to coincide
with the birthday of the man who had made it possible: J. Sterling
What became of Sterling and Carrie Morton? They stayed on
their original homestead, enlarging the house to accommodate
a growing family of 4 sons. Carrie designed the walks and gardens
and became an accomplished artist and musician. She passed away
on June 29, 1881. Sterling ventured back into politics, hoping
to become a governor or senator. Instead, President Grover Cleveland
appointed him U. S. Secretary of Agriculture in 1893. Four years
later he returned to Nebraska City to publish a new weekly journal,
"The Conservative." Sterling died on April 27, 1902
at the home of his son, Mark, in Lake Forest, IL. A special mourning
train bore his body back to Nebraska.
family's modest farm home had grown to become a stately mansion
of 52 rooms. It was named Arbor Lodge and finally completed in
1903 by the Morton's oldest son, Joy Morton, who also founded
the Morton Salt Company. By completion, the property included
a carriage house, Italian terraced garden and a pine grove that
Sterling planed in 1891 to prove to Governor Furnas that white
pines would grow in the Nebraska soil. In 1923, the Morton family
donated Arbor Lodge and the rest of the property to the State
of Nebraska. It is now a state historical park dedicated as a
monument to the founder of Arbor Day.
Arbor Day itself was an idea that expanded throughout the
United States and even around the world. Most states soon began
recognizing Arbor Day. Schools started picking up the tradition
in 1882. Some activities we've grown up with include planting
trees on school grounds, studying the benefits of trees, and
coloring pictures of favorite trees.
Arbor Day was first observed in Adelaide Australia on June
20, 1889 and expanded to include Victoria in 1909. It coincides
each year with the "Day of Trees" during Western Australia
Week. In Japan, they celebrate "Greening Week." In
Israel it is "The New Year's Days of Trees". India
has "The National Festival of Tree Planting." Other
countries have adopted the tradition either as their own version
of Arbor Day or a longer period of celebration.
In 1970, President Richard Nixon moved the United States national
observance of Arbor Day to the last Friday in April. Some states
also observe their own Arbor Day or Days when the time is best
to plant trees. It ranges from the last full week of February
in Alabama to the first Friday of November in Hawaii.
A statue of Julius Sterling Morton now stands in the National
Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C. It serves as a reminder that
leading by example, rallying others for support and promoting
good ideas with all your energy can lead to amazing things.
Books of Interest:
Champion of Arbor Day:J. Sterling Morton by
J. L. Wilkerson, Sandy Beaty
The Mortons of Arbor Lodge: Their Early Years in Nebraska
Territory by Bess Eileen Day
Copyright 2002 - 2015 by John E. Shepler. Linking to this article
is welcome, but no online republication is permitted. Print media
republication rights are available at reasonable rates. Contact
me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com