The Morton Arboretum logo

VISIT & explore

Mission and history

The stark landscape in the early 1920s

The mission of The Morton Arboretum is to collect and study trees, shrubs, and other plants from around the world. The Arboretum maintains living collections on display across naturally beautiful landscapes for people to study and enjoy, and to learn how to grow them in ways that enhance the environment.

The Morton Arboretum was founded in 1922 by Joy Morton (1855-1934).  The inspiration for the Arboretum had its origins in Mr. Morton’s own family tree. His father, J. Sterling Morton (1832–1902), was the founder of the original Arbor Day. Over the decades, the Arboretum has continued to evolve, while staying true to the Morton family motto, to “Plant Trees.”

Joy Morton

Joy Morton founded the Morton Salt Company in Chicago in 1885, and, later The Morton Arboretum in 1922.  LEARN MORE  

Arbor Day

The founder of The Morton Arboretum, Joy Morton, was the eldest of four sons. His father, Julius Sterling Morton (1832–1902), was the Secretary of Agriculture to President Cleveland and founder of the original Arbor Day. “Plant Trees” was the Morton's family motto. LEARN MORE  

Logo Story

Created by a former employee of The Morton Arboretum, the logo is symbolic and nostalgic to the Morton family emblem. Learn more  

Four Columns

Inspiration and mystery surrounds the four columns that were installed in 1960 in honor of Suzette Morton Davidson, granddaughter of the Arboretum’s founder, Joy Morton. Learn more  

Morton Family Cemetery

This one-acre parcel was set aside as a family burial grounds by Joy Morton in 1925, and remains a site honoring the founders of the Arboretum. Learn more  

Thornhill Education Center

Set on the site of the former Morton family mansion, the Thornhill Education Center is a mixture of modern education facilities and historical architecture.  The original Morton family library remains a part of the structure, which contains a unique bay of stained glass windows dedicated to the trees through history. Learn more  

Research Center

The Research Center, which is also home to administrative offices, is a combination of old and new. Dedicated in 1935, the building has a modern entrance that was added in 2000. Learn more  

Historical Timeline 

1922    The Morton Arboretum was founded in 1922 by Joy Morton (1855-1934). At that time, three focus areas were put into place – the living collections, a research library and a herbarium. 

1940    The Education Program at the Arboretum was added. 

1963    The Sterling Morton Library was built and a formal Research program was established.

1872    J. Sterling Morton (1832-1902), Joy Morton’s father, founded the original Arbor Day. He also served as Secretary of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland.

1934    Joy Morton passed. His daughter, Jean (Mrs. Joseph M. Cudahy, 1883-1953), became trustee chair and served in that capacity for nineteen years. Under her leadership, the Arboretum developed a national reputation. In memory of her father, she built the Administration Building, which provided a reception area for visitors, staff offices and space for the herbarium and library. 

1939    Clarence Godshalk (1897-1988) was named director. He had previously worked at the Arboretum since 1921. Trained as a landscape architect in the naturalistic style of O.C. Simonds and others, he further developed the Arboretum’s distinctive landscapes. 

1937    Mrs. Cudahy commissioned a custom-designed open air bus to better accommodate visitors. 

1940     Mrs. Cudahy started the Arboretum’s renowned education program by inviting the gifted naturalist and ecologist May Theilgaard Watts (1890-1975) to teach.

1942    Thornhill Building, a new educational facility, opened on the site of the razed Morton mansion. Mrs. Watts developed an innovative public education program, the first such program among U.S. arboretums. Mrs. Watts was also known for her Tree Finder and Flower Finder identification books’ her book Reading the Landscape (1957, revised in 1975 and 1999); and for originating the Illinois Prairie Path in 1963, the first rails-to-trails project in the U.S. 

1953    Sterling Morton (1885-1961) became trustee chair after Jean’s death, serving for eight years. Achievements during his tenure included a new research wing and auditorium onto the Administration Building in memory of his sister; initiating a practical research program; increasing the size of the professional staff; and adding considerable acreage. 

1961    Suzette Morton Davidson (1911-1996) became chairman after Sterling’s death, serving for sixteen years.  She built the Sterling Morton Library in memory of her father and the first Visitor Center in memory of her mother. In the ensuing years, she greatly expanded the rare botanical book and art collection. 

1966    After nearly 45 years at the Arboretum, Clarence Godshalk retired. The trustees, in selecting a new Director, wanted to bring research up to a level of excellence comparable to the existing programs in collections and education. They selected Dr. Marion Trufant Hall (1920– ), a scientist of broad interests and experience, as Director. Over the next 24 years he transformed the Arboretum into a major scientific and cultural institution.

1972    The Arboretum celebrated its 50th anniversary. A general master plan was developed; the Visitor Center was built in memory of Suzette's mother; a membership program was inaugurated; the first catalog of the plant collections was published; and an exhibition of the Arboretum's rare books was held at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

1977    Suzette retired as the last Morton family chairman, and personally selected her successor, Charles C. Haffner III. She returned for the dedication of the new Research Center in 1982, which began a period of expansion in staff and research initiatives within the Research Program.

1982    Suzette returned for the dedication of the new Research Center, this began a period of expansion in staff and research initiatives within the Research Program.

1990    In 1990, Gerard T. Donnelly, a research scientist with experience in teaching and administration was hired as Executive Director. Donnelly and Trustees launched a series of studies that revealed that in order to retain its reputation, the Arboretum would need to expand and improve its programs, facilities, and grounds. New gardens and visitor facilities were planned, a capital campaign held, and today, the Arboretum enjoys greatly expanded visitor programming and increasing levels of membership.

2000    In 2000, W. Robert Reum became Board Chairman, and with Dr. Gerard T. Donnelly, President and Chief Executive Officer, the Arboretum is recognized around the world for its magnificent collection of plants, and as a leader in research and education.

For an overview of the Arboretum's history, read:

A Great Outdoor Museum: The Story of The Morton Arboretum by James Ballowe (2003). This paperbound booklet traces the history of The Morton Arboretum from 1922 to the present, focusing on how it achieved the vision of its founder, Joy Morton. It includes 36 historic photos and is 28 pages long.

A Great Outdoor Museum is available for sale at The Arboretum Store.