With Its Roots In Nebraska, Arbor Day Spread to Every State
“Other holidays repose upon the past; Arbor Day proposes for the future.” – J. Sterling Morton
Among the pioneers moving into the Nebraska Territory in 1854 was J. Sterling Morton from Detroit. He and his wife were lovers of nature, and the home they established in Nebraska was quickly planted with trees shrubs and flowers. Morton was a journalist and soon became editor of Nebraska’s first newspaper.
He spread agricultural information and his enthusiasm for trees to an equally enthusiastic audience. His fellow pioneers missed their trees. But, more importantly, trees were needed as windbreaks to keep soil in place, for fuel and building materials, and for shade from the hot sun. Morton advocated tree planting by individuals in his articles and editorials, and encouraged civic organizations and groups to join in. His prominence in the area increased, and he became secretary of the Nebraska Territory, which provided another opportunity to stress the value of trees.
On January 4, 1872, Morton proposed a tree-planting holiday to be called “Arbor Day” at a meeting of the State Board of Agriculture. The date was set for April 10, 1872. Prizes were offered to counties and individuals for planting properly the largest number of trees on that day. It was estimated that more than one million trees were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day.
Arbor Day was officially proclaimed by the young state’s Gov. Robert W. Furnas on March 12, 1874, and the day itself was observed April 10, 1874. In 1885, Arbor Day was named a legal holiday in Nebraska and April 22, Morton’s birthday, was selected as the date for its permanent observance.
During the 1870’s other states passed legislation to observe Arbor Day. Today the most common date for the state observances is the last Friday in April, and several U.S. presidents have proclaimed a national Arbor Day on that date. But a number of state Arbor Days are at other times to coincide with the best tree planting weather, from January and February in the south, to May in the far north.
Roosevelt’s 1907 Arbor Day Proclamation
“When you help to preserve our forests or, to plant new ones you are acting the part of good citizens.” – Theodore Roosevelt
To the School Children of the United States:
Arbor Day (which means simply “Tree Day”) is now observed in every State in our Union and mainly in the schools. At various times from January to December, but chiefly in this month of. April, you give a day or part of a day to special exercises and perhaps to actual tree planting, in recognition of the importance of trees to us as a Nation, and of what they yield in adornment, comfort, and useful products to the communities in which you live.
It is well that you should celebrate your Arbor Day thoughtfully, for within your lifetime the Nation’s need of trees will become serious. We of an older generation can get along without what we have, though with growing hardship; but in your full manhood and womanhood you will want what nature once so bountifully supplied, and man so thoughtlessly destroyed; and because of that want you will reproach us, not for what we have used, but for what we have wasted.
For the nation as for the man or woman, and the boy or girl, the road to success is the right use of what we have and the improvement of present opportunity. If you neglect to prepare yourselves not for the duties and responsibilities which will fall upon you later, if you do not learn the things which you will need to know when your school days are over, you will, suffer the consequences. So any nation which in its youth lives only for the day, reaps without sowing, and consumes without husbanding, must expect the penalty of the prodigal, whose labor could with difficulty find him the bare means of life.
A people without children would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as hopeless; forests which are so used that they can not renew themselves will soon vanish, and with them all their benefits. A true forest is not merely a storehouse full of wood, but, as it. were, a factory of wood, and at the same time a reservoir of water. When you help to preserve our forests or, to plant new ones you are acting the part of good citizens. The value of forestry deserves, therefore, to be taught in the schools, which aim to make good citizens of you. If your Arbor Day exercises help you to realize what benefits each one of you receives from the forests, and how by your assistance these benefits may continue, they will serve a good end.