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Plant a Tree, The History of Arbor Day

By Paul Rodman (paulgrowMarch 4, 2008

“Other holidays repose in the past; Arbor Day proposes for the future” These words were spoken by J. Sterling Morton 136 years ago and still hold true today to reflect the necessity of planting trees. Mr. Morton was responsible for the founding of Arbor Day in Nebraska, other states followed his lead and soon all of the United States was celebrating this holiday.

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In 1854 a journalist from Detroit headed west in search of a new home. He settled in Nebraska Territory where he and his wife established a homestead. Mr. and Mrs. Morton both had a love for nature and loved the lush prairie. The one thing that did bother them was the lack of trees and soon they set about planting trees and shrubs on their new property.

The journalist from Michigan was soon named editor of Nebraska’s first newspaper. Using this forum he began to spread agricultural information to his readers. He also expressed his love for trees to his readers who were soon caught up in the yearning for trees.The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

All of the settlers from the east missed their trees that they were used to. They were needed for building materials, fuel, shade from the hot prairie sun and most importantly as wind breaks to keep the newly tilled soil from blowing away.

Mr. Morton advocated the planting of trees not only by individuals but also civic groups, church and school groups. By virtue of his newspaper columns his prominence increased greatly and soon he was named secretary of Nebraska Territory. This position gave him another forum from which to preach the value of trees.The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

On April 10, 1872 the first Arbor Day was officially observed by an act of the Nebraska legislature. Arbor Day was officially a holiday. The day was marked by a parade, speeches, and various games. At a specified hour every school child in the state met at their classrooms. Each grade was given the task of planting a tree near the school grounds. Each tree was to be labeled with the planting date, grade and time planted. Each student pledged to care for the tree until it became established. It’s estimated that over 1 million trees were planted in the state of Nebraska that first Arbor Day.

Dr Birdsey Northup, of the State Board of Education in Connecticut heard about Mr. Morton’s tree planting holiday in Nebraska. As a devout environmentalist Mr. Northup decided that this day should be celebrated across this great country. He set about traveling state to state, school to school speaking for no charge extolling the virtues and benefits of planting trees.

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Soon state by state began to adopt its own Arbor Day holiday.

In 1936 Edward Scanlon who was then editor of Trees magazine conceived the idea of a National Arbor Day, this idea was soon adopted by the U.S. Congress.The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

For the past 5-6 years I’ve been conducting Arbor Day tree plantings at schools in my area.

I approach local nurseries to donate trees for the project. I’ve rarely been refused, when they hear it’s for a school group they usually donate a tree or two graciously.

Contact a school or church in your hometown to conduct a tree planting on Arbor Day. Ask your local nurseries for a tree donation.  If you can’t get them donated contact the PTA or a church group for a cash donation from which to purchase one.

If we all do our part Mr. Morton’s and Mr. Northrop’s vision will continue as new trees are planted coast to coast and border to border.

Happy Arbor Day!

Arbor Days are celebrated on different dates in each state. To view your states date check this link.


  About Paul Rodman  
Paul RodmanPaul Rodman has been gardening for over 45 years. He is an Advanced Master Gardener, and American Rose Society Consulting Rosarian. He is President Emertius of the Western Wayne County Master Gardener Association in Wayne County, Michigan. He currently serves as the greenhouse chairman of this group. Rodman has amassed over 5500 volunteer hours in the Master Gardener program. Rodman is the garden columnist for The News Herald newspaper, in Southgate, Michigan. He has also written for the Organic web site. He is a certified Master Canner and has taught classes on Home Food Preserving for 7 years. He has lectured on various gardening topics throughout southeastern Michigan. His favorite pastime is teaching children about gardening. For the past several years he has conducted classes for second grade students teaching them about subjects ranging from vermi-composting to propagation.

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