Nebraska Moments

By Donald R. Hickey; Susan A. Wunder et al. | Go to book overview

15. J. Sterling Morton and Arbor Day

Not many states can make a claim to have invented a holiday, but Nebraska is an exception. In 1885 the Nebraska state legislature designated Arbor Day as an official holiday, setting the date for its annual observation on April 22. Arbor Day, a time set aside for the planting of trees, originated in Nebraska. It was the brainchild of J. Sterling Morton, a prominent newspaper editor and Democratic politician who was the state’s leading conservationist in the late nineteenth century. And April 22nd happened to be the birthday of J. Sterling Morton.

The process of creating a holiday for trees took several decades. Morton jumpstarted the movement by offering the following proposal to the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture on January 4, 1872: “Resolved, that Wednesday the 10th of April, 1872, be, and the same is hereby, especially set apart and consecrated for tree planting in the state of Nebraska.” The idea behind the proposal, Morton later said, “was to concentrate all the thought of all the commonwealth on a single day, upon the very important topic of tree planting.” The board unanimously adopted Morton’s proposal. Although some members wanted to call the date “Sylvan Day,” Morton persuaded them to accept “Arbor Day” from the Latin word for “tree” because this term was more inclusive and embraced fruit trees as well as trees of the forest.

Morton’s resolution called for the board to give twenty-five dollars in books to the individual who planted the most trees on Arbor Day and one hundred dollars in cash to the agricultural society of the most active tree-planting county. Although the first Arbor Day was poorly publicized, more than a million trees were planted that day. J. D. Smith, a farmer who lived outside of Lincoln, won the individual prize by planting thirty-five thousand trees, or about sixty acres, on the desig-

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