In 1854, J. Sterling Morton and his wife moved from Detroit to the Nebraska Territory, a treeless plain at the time. As a journalist and politician, Morton spread his enthusiasm for trees and agriculture, encouraging his fellow pioneers to plant trees not only for their beauty, but also as windbreaks to help keep soil in place, for their shade, and for much-needed fuel and building supplies.
After he was appointed secretary of the Nebraska Territory, Morton proposed a tree-planting holiday to be called “Arbor Day.” The first was to be held on April 10, 1872, and prizes were offered to those who properly planted the largest number of trees that day. On that first Arbor Day, an estimated 1 million trees were planted in Nebraska.
In the following years, Morton’s idea spread and all 50 states began to celebrate Arbor Day. Then, in 1970, President Richard Nixon proclaimed the last Friday in April as National Arbor Day. The idea is now celebrated around the world, including Arbor Day in Australia, “The Students’ Afforestation Day” of Iceland, “The National Festival of Tree Planting” in India, “The New Year’s Days of Trees” in Israel, “Greening Week” in Japan, “The Tree-loving Week” of Korea, and “Reforestation Week” in Yugoslavia.
J. Sterling Morton’s legacy continues not only through Arbor Day, but also through The Morton Arboretum, founded by his son Joy Morton. Naturally, Arbor Day became the Arboretum’s signature holiday.