J. STERLING MORTON
The father of Arbor Day started by planting abundant orchards on treeless plains.
Like many of the brilliant 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, just two months after settling in Nebraska Territory, the 22-year-old Morton made a bold move. 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. So bitter was this dispute that, at times, the territorial legislature exploded into fistfights and gun battles. Morton and the rest of the South Platte constituency endeavored in vain 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 contend was determined more by who counted the votes, rather than by those who cast them!
Morton had the honor of being 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 remembered as the founder of Arbor Day. It washis momentous 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 proclaimed, "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 celebrated across the globe.
Arbor Lodge, Morton's home in Nebraska City, grew from a four-room farmhouse into a splendid 52-room mansion. All around it, a 65-acre arboretum with more than 250 species of trees and shrubs provides a gorgeous 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 J. Sterling Morton. Today, Arbor Lodge is a state historical park, and no monument could be more appropriate!