Arbor Day - A Nebraska Tradition

Husker Home Place

With Arbor Day, Nebraska really started something special.

Published on: April 28, 2011

With Arbor Day, Nebraska really started something special.

When J. Sterling Morton and his wife Caroline moved their family from
Michigan to Nebraska, they found something missing. They loved the forests and orchards of their home state, so when they got to Nebraska, they missed the trees.

Of course, they came to our region in 1854, when the only trees in the territory were growing along rivers and streams and the majority of the region was tall grass prairie.

So the Mortons got busy, planting trees and orchards. Morton, who was active in early Nebraska politics and even served as Secretary of Agriculture in the cabinet of President Grover Cleveland, devoted much of his life to promoting tree planting. As the author of Arbor Day, and the person who suggested the idea to the State Board of Agriculture back in 1872, Morton is generally credited with founding a holiday that is now celebrated around the world.

Prairie purists suggest that we shouldn’t be messing with Mother Nature, planting trees in a region that has always been prairie. But when Dr. Michael Voorhies, the discoverer of Ashfall Fossil Beds near Royal, investigated the contents of the stomachs of ancient rhinos that once inhabited Nebraska millions of years ago, he found hackberry seeds.

I’m guessing if there were hackberry trees millions of years ago in Nebraska, that hackberry should probably be considered a native species.

Besides, once humans were introduced to the prairie, it was already altered. And now that we live across this fine land, can you imagine on a cold, windy winter day, what life would be like for humans, wildlife and livestock, without windbreaks and groves, forests and tree clusters? Trees make a shady picnic spot. They give us fruit and nuts. They provide cedar chests and oak desks. They protect us. They soothe us. They inspire us.

On the first Arbor Day, April 10, 1872, over one million trees were planted in Nebraska. Prizes were offered to counties and individuals for properly planting the largest number of trees on that day. Morton, who had planned on planting thousands of trees himself, was disappointed when the tree nursery didn’t ship his trees on time. He made up for it later on by planting hundreds of trees with his family, beginning a tradition that families and schoolchildren around the world continue today.

Morton was known for many profound thoughts about stewardship of this earth. “Each generation takes the earth as trustees,” he once said. For farmers, that is an important reminder for us as we begin to till the soil and plant our crops as true trustees of an earth we hope to be able to hand on to the next generations. On this Arbor Day in 2011, I tip my hat and my shovel to Mr. Morton, a Nebraska original, just like the holiday he authored. Happy Arbor Day everyone. Now get out there and plant some trees.