J. STERLING MORTON
The founder of Arbor Day started by planting orchards on treeless plains.
Like many people involved in the foundation of territorial Nebraska, J. Sterling Morton had interests in several areas. He was a newspaper editor, politician, horticulturist and author.
In 1854, two months after settling in Nebraska Territory, the 22-year-old Morton became involved in a political dispute. He challenged then-acting Territorial Governor Thomas Cumming on the legality of designating Omaha the territorial capitol, when in fact two-thirds of the population lived south of the Platte River. At times, the territorial legislature had fistfights and gun battles over this dispute. Morton and the rest of the South Platte constituency tried unsuccessfully to secede the South Platte region to Kansas Territory.
In 1867, having already been appointed territorial governor of Nebraska and serving within the legislature, Morton entered the race to become the state of Nebraska's first governor. He was narrowly defeated by David Butler in an election that many think may have been corrupt.
Morton was named the first presidential cabinet member from west of the Missouri River when, in 1893, he was appointed U.S. secretary of agriculture by President Grover Cleveland.
However, J. Sterling Morton is best known as the founder of Arbor Day. It was his resolution before the State Board of Agriculture that began Arbor Day in 1872. A prize was designated for the person who "properly planted the most trees." On the first Arbor Day, more than a million trees were planted. Morton said, "Other holidays repose upon the past; Arbor Day proposes for the future."
In 1874, Governor Robert Furnas issued a proclamation asking Nebraskans to observe Arbor Day. In 1885, Arbor Day was changed from April 10 to April 22 in honor of Morton's birthday. Today, Arbor Day is designated as the last Friday in April and is observed in many parts of the world.
Arbor Lodge, Morton's home in Nebraska City, grew from a four-room farmhouse into a 52-room mansion. A 65-acre arboretum with more than 250 species of trees and shrubs provides the setting for the house. Morton himself planted most of them, including a rare type of mature American chestnut. In 1923, the Morton family donated the house and grounds to the state as a monument to Morton. Today, Arbor Lodge is a state historical park.