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History of the American Arbor Day

“The cultivation of flowers and trees is the cultivation of the good, the beautiful and the ennobling in man, and for one, I wish to see this culture become universal,” said J. Sterling Morton, the father of Arbor Day.

Morton was originally from New York, but moved to the Nebraska Territory in 1854 along with his wife, Caroline.

Both were lovers of nature and as they established their home in Nebraska, they planted trees, shrubs and flowers.   

Morton, a journalist who would later become the editor of Nebraska’s first newspaper, used his platform in the media to spread agricultural information and his enthusiasm for trees to his receptive audience.

The hot Nebraska prairie was bare and his fellow pioneers missed their trees and foliage from their previous homes, further, the pioneers needed trees for windbreaks, fuel, building materials and shade from the hot sun.   Today, a visit to Nebraska is far from the treeless plain it was in the past; the fervent planting and care of those early pioneers prompted the change in the landscape of their state.

It was in Nebraska, under Morton’s guidance, that the founding of the first Arbor Day came out in the 1800’s.

In 1872, the State Board of Agriculture accepted Morton’s resolution to “set aside one day to plant trees, both forest and fruit.”

The board declared April 10 to be Arbor Day and offered prizes to the counties and individuals who planted the largest number of trees within that day; as a result, more than one million trees were planted in Nebraska soil on the very first Arbor Day.

Morton’s tree-planting philosophy caught the attentions of other states and following the 1872 observance, others began to follow Nebraska’s lead. Each year, new Arbor Day ceremonies were held as various states joined the movement.

By 1920, more than 45 states and territories were holding their own Arbor Day celebrations.  Today, all 50 states celebrate Arbor Day and many foreign countries have similar observances.

In Israel, it is called the New Year’s Day of the Trees; in Korea, they call it Tree-Loving Week; Iceland celebrates Student’s Afforestation Day; Yugoslavia celebrates both Arbor Day in the springtime and an Afforestation Day in the fall and India holds a National Festival of Tree Planting.

“Each generation takes the earth as trustees,” said Morton. “We ought to bequeath to posterity as many forests and orchards as we have exhausted and consumed.”

While many holidays celebrate things that have happened in the past, Arbor Day celebrates something that is to happen in the future as well as the concerns for the care and the upkeep of the Earth.

The United States Arbor Day is held on Friday, April 29.

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