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The celebration of Arbor Day was a springtime event regularly held at one-room country schools in the early part of the 1900s. The highlight of the special day, devoted to public tree planting, often involved a student program and setting out at least one young tree on the rural school grounds. The word arbor comes from Latin for tree.

First held on April 10, 1872, the occasion was the idea of Julius Sterling Morton, a Nebraska journalist, conservationist and politician. Morton remembered the abundant trees of his former Michigan home and was convinced that the windswept plains and its people would greatly benefit from the planting of trees. He had come west when Nebraska was still a territory and enthusiastically began planting trees and shrubs on his own land.

    Hedgerows of trees were important to farmers as livestock fencing. Planted windbreaks protected farmhouses, barns and land from the force of prevailing winds and winter blizzards. Renewable plantings of trees could provide fuel for heating and cooking, as well as for lumber. Fruit trees supplemented family food supplies and shade trees provided comfort to people, as well as to livestock.

    That first Arbor Day in Nebraska (1872) was held just five years after the territory had become a state (1867). With widespread publicity and the enthusiastic support of residents and organizations, over a million trees were reportedly planted on that day. By 1885, the celebration was an established Nebraska holiday and April 22, Morton’s birthday, the official day.

The popularity of an annual occasion, honoring the planting of trees, grew to neighboring states and then throughout the country. Schools held student programs in honor of the day and participated in tree planting ceremonies. People across the nation promoted the activity for public benefit, forestry and landscape beauty.

By the turn of the century, the special day had become a regular community celebration of tree planting and the care of trees. Arbor Day is now nationally observed in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Traditionally held on the last Friday of April, various states celebrate their own Arbor Days according to the best times to plant trees in different geographic areas.

    In 1937, a bronze statue of Morton was given by Nebraska to the National Statuary Hall Collection in the United States Capitol, Washington, D.C. He served as secretary of agriculture (1893-1897) in the second term of President Grover Cleveland and was involved in promoting modern techniques of farming and forestry. Morton’s home in Nebraska City, Nebraska, is now Arbor Lodge State Historical Park.

    Arbor Day and similar tree planting occasions are annually celebrated in numerous countries around the world.


Arbor Day