1st Arbor Day in Nebraska – a place badly needing trees!

April 10, 1872 

On this day, Nebraskan’s planted more than a million trees, the nation’s first horticultural observance known as Arbor Day.

That was just the beginning.  It’s an annual tradition today, held on various dates in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and nearly three dozen countries. And there was perhaps no better place to start than Nebraska’s treeless Great Plains.  Stretching west from the Missouri River, rolling prairie comprises more than 70 per cent of the state’s landscape.  

1872 Lincoln, Nebraska, the University of Nebraska upper left.

A day set aside for tree-planting was the acorn of an idea dreamed up by 39-year-old J. Sterling Morton (left) that would actually grow into mighty forests.  A newspaper editor turned politician, he was born in Jefferson County, New York.  He was raised  in Monroe, Michigan, where his family ran a general store.  While his father was a merchant, his grandfather was a newspaper publisher. Morton was a contemporary of one of the town’s other well-known citizens, George Armstrong Custer.  

He’d nearly reached the end of his senior year at the University of Michigan before being expelled for loudly protesting the firing of a popular faculty member.  Taking his academic dismissal in stride, he and his new bride, Caroline Joy French, (right) struck out for the brand new Nebraska Territory the day after their wedding.  Engaged as teenagers, the couple, married seven years later in 1854.

Bellevue, Nebraska in 1854

Landing in Bellevue, established as a fur trading post on the Missouri River, the intellectually and artistically gifted, Caroline “Carrie” Morton set up housekeeping in a log cabin.   “I am very much pleased with this country,” she cheerfully wrote her sister-in-law.  “The scenery is beautiful and as soon as I can I hope to have my easel, canvas and paints to make some sketches of the magnificent bluffs which surround us.”

Carrie Morton’s romantic painting of Missouri River bluffs

The next year, the Mortons relocated to Nebraska City, 35 miles south of Bellevue.  Morton bought 160 acres of land and together the couple built a modest four-room house.   But Morton’s knack for growing things, including a career in politics, became apparent.  After briefly editing the Territory’s first newspaper, the Nebraska City News, he went from Representative in the Territorial Legislature to Secretary of the Territory for President James Buchanan in three short years. 

As Morton’s political fortunes increased, the modest Nebraska City home increased, as well.  It steadily grew from four rooms to a 52-room neocolonial mansion set amid a park-like arboretum designed by famed landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted. (Right)  Morton had already served as Nebraska’s acting governor prior to statehood before being summoned to Washington in 1893 by President Grover Cleveland as the nation’s third Secretary of Agriculture. 

He excelled as an administrator and is credited with refocusing the department to provide services to farmers.  Not unexpectedly, he assisted President Cleveland (right) in establishing national forest reservations.  Also not surprising, he was ardently against the cutting of Christmas trees.

Recognized as a stellar conservationist and gifted horticulturist, Morton receives less favorable reviews for his spotty record on race relations.  He was not, however, wildly out of step with other conservative “bourbon” Democrats, a pejorative term for regressive, mostly Southern politicians of the day.  He’d favored the continuation of slavery prior to the Civil War as well as extending slavery to new states under the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

While his stance on Native Americans was marginally more enlightened, his department supported the Cleveland Administration’s “wards-of-the-state” policy.  In addition, he failed to oppose the Dawes Act which promoted assimilation and drastically reduced the amount of tribal lands to be held in trust.

Retiring from government and returning to Nebraska in 1897, he founded a weekly publication, The Conservative, and began work on a multi-volume history of the state.  He died just five years later on April 27, 1902, while seeking medical treatment in Lake Forest, Illinois.

Morton was laid to rest in Nebraska City’s Wyuka Cemetery beside Caroline, buried there more than 20 years earlier.  She had died at just 46 from an infection as a result of an injury to her knee.  

Entrepreneurs apparently ran in the family.  Eldest son, Joy, (right) founded the historic “When it Rains It Pours,” Morton Salt Company and his younger brother, Carl, was the founder of Argo Starch.

In 1885, April 22 was declared a legal holiday in Nebraska, commemorating Morton’s 48th birthday.  His mansion, donated to the state, is now a park surrounded 270 species of trees on 72 acres.  It is listed as a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places.  To date, the Arbor Day movement worldwide is estimated to have planted more than 250 million trees.

Arbor Lodge State Historical Park and Arboretum, 2611 Arbor Avenue, Nebraska City, encompasses the Morton mansion surrounded by acres of landscaped trees, manicured gardens and period buildings.  In addition to tours of the 52-room house, park attractions include everything from wine tastings to caramel apples and a free tree.  A unique three-acre “treetop village,”  the first of its kind in the nation, allows visitors to safely go from tree house to tree house without ever coming to earth. 

The grounds are open year-round with a park permit.  Arbor Lodge, the Apple House Market and the park’s Tree Adventure are open June 1 through mid-September, 9 to 5, Monday through Saturday and 11 to 5 on Sunday.  Hours vary for seasonal activities. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for children 3 to 12 and under 3 free.   For more information on dates and times, go to arbordayfarm.org, call 402-873-8717 or write 2611 Arbor Avenue, Nebraska City, NE 68410.

In accordance with CDC guidelines, the park is currently closed.              See the park’s website for updated  information. 

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.