Before there was the celebration of Lenin's Birthday known as Earth Day, there was a holiday that actually helped improve the planet, called Arbor Day. It was the brainchild of newspaperman J. Sterling Morton, a resident of Nebraska, the third-least forested state. Only North Dakota and Nevada are less forested.
Julius Sterling Morton was born in Adams, New York, on April 22, 1832, but raised in Detroit. In 1854, he married, and he and his wife, the former Caroline Joy French, moved to Nebraska City, where he became the editor of the Nebraska City News, which is still published in that town of 7,255 people.
President James Buchanan appointed Morton secretary of the Nebraska Territory in 1858, and from December 5, 1858, to May 2, 1859, Morton served as acting governor. After the Civil War , while he continued to write editorials, his heart turned from politics to trees. Living in West Virginia, which is the third most forested state in the union -- a virtual petting zoo for a million deer -- it is difficult to comprehend life in a state like Nebraska, which is less than 2% forest. The fruited plains would drive me fruity. But Morton kept his head and planted trees, becoming quite an agriculturist.
"He experimented with various types of trees, both forest and fruit, and attempted to find varieties that would do best in the soil and the climate of Nebraska. Though not a working farmer, agriculture was an important part of both his personal and political life. For many years he was president of the State Board of Agriculture. More than this direct involvement in agriculture was the zeal with which Morton spread agricultural information and promoted agricultural advancement. As editor, he constantly advocated for improved agriculture, and was most enthusiastic in his praise of tree planting," according to historian Byron Anderson.
In 1805, Villanueva de la Sierra, a village in Spain, held the world's first Arbor Day.
"While Napoleon was ravaging Europe with his ambition in this village in the Sierra de Gata lived a priest, don Ramón Vacas Roxo, which, according to the chronicles, 'convinced of the importance of trees for health, hygiene, decoration, nature, environment and customs, decides to plant trees and give a festive air'," according to historian Miguel Herrero Uceda.
Joyce Kilmer would approve that message. Morton pushed to hold the first Arbor Day in the United States on April 10, 1872, when people planted 1 million trees in Nebraska City and throughout the state. Some suggested calling it Sylvan Day, in honor of wooded areas, but Morton said Arbor Day would also cover fruit trees.
"Arbor Day was influential in inducing Congress to pass the Timber Culture Act of 1873. The law offered free land to settlers who would plant trees on the claims. The Act helped stimulate tree planting, but was generally not successful, and was repealed in 1891," according to historian Byron Anderson.
Eventually Arbor Day became a state holiday in Nebraska with April 22, 1885, being the first official Arbor Day. That happened to be Morton's 53rd birthday. Within 20 years, all the states except Delaware had an Arbor Day, and eventually Delaware would join the party.
In Grover Cleveland's second presidency, he appointed Morton as the first secretary of agriculture from west of the Missouri, on March 7, 1893. As secretary, he set up national forest reservations.
Morton's oldest son, Joy Morton, meanwhile suffered spinal meningitis when he turned 18, but this did not slow down the ambitious man who had begun his business career as an errand boy Merchants' National Bank in Nebraska City at 16. By the time he was 21, he was on the bank's board of directors.
But the town was too small for his ambitions. He headed to Omaha and became a clerk in the treasurer's office of the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad Company at 22. Then he became a supply agent for the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad Company in Aurora, Illinois.
In 1880, at age 25, Joy Morton purchased a small interest in E. I. Wheeler and Company, a Chicago firm that acted as agent for the Michigan Salt Association. Five years later, after Wheeler's death, Morton bought the rest of the company, and changed its name to Joy Morton and Company, or more commonly, Morton Salt.
After his father's death in 1902, Joy Morton continued his father's work with trees, refurbishing his father's estate in Nebraska City, which is now the Arbor Lodge State Historical Park and Arboretum.
In 1922, Joy Morton also added The Morton Arboretum on 178 acres next to his estate in Lisle, Illinois. It now covers 1,700 acres and has 16 miles of hiking trails, and 9 miles of biking trails. The arboretum is a restored prairie that has 4,100 different species of trees, shrubs and woodsy plants from around the world. The facility also has a library of 27,000 books and periodicals on trees.
In her song, "Big Yellow Taxi," Joni Mitchell sings about taking all the trees and putting them in a tree museum and charging people a dollar and a half just to see em: "Don't it always seem to go/ That you don't know what you've got/ Till it's gone?"
J. Sterling Morton knew what he had in woodsy Michigan when he arrived in treeless Nebraska -- and decided to do something about it.