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, to display them across naturally beautiful landscapes for people to study and enjoy, and to learn how to grow them in ways that enhance our environment. Our goal is to encourage the planting and conservation of trees and other plants for a greener, healthier, and more beautiful world.

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 Arbor Day. Over the decades, the Arboretum has continued to evolve, while staying true to the Morton family motto, “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, J. Sterling Morton (1832–1902), was the Secretary of Agriculture to President Cleveland and founder of Arbor Day. “Plant Trees” was the Morton family motto. LEARN MORE  
 

Logo Story

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

Four Columns

Inspiration and intrigue surrounds the four columns that were installed in 1960 at the direction 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 ground by Joy Morton in 1925, and is the final resting place for the founder of the Arboretum and members of his family. 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 

1872    J. Sterling Morton (1832-1902), father of Arboretum founder Joy Morton, established Arbor Day in Nebraska. (He later served as Secretary of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland.)

1922    The Morton Arboretum was founded in 1922 by Joy Morton (1855-1934) with a focus on living collections, a research library, and a herbarium. 

1934    Joy Morton died. His daughter, Jean (Mrs. Joseph M. Cudahy, 1883-1953), became Chairman of the Board of Trustees and served in that capacity for 19 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.

1937    Mrs. Cudahy commissioned a custom-designed open air bus to provide tours of the grounds for visitors; it was inspired by vehicles used at the World's Fair ("A Century of Progress") in Chicago in 1933-1934. 

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

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, and her book Reading the Landscape (1957, revised in 1975 and 1999).  She originated the Illinois Prairie Path in 1963, the first rails-to-trails project in the U.S. 

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

1961    Suzette Morton Davidson (1911-1996) became Chairman of the Board after her father Sterling’s death, serving for 16 years.  

1963    The Sterling Morton Library was built , and Suzette greatly expanded the rare botanical book and art collection. A formal scientific Research program was established. 

1966    After 45 years at the Arboretum, Clarence Godshalk retired and was succeeded as director by Dr. Marion Trufant Hall (1920– ), a scientist of broad interests and experience. Over the next 24 years he led the Arboretum's growth as 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 and selected her successor, Charles C. Haffner III, as the first person outside the Morton family to serve as Chairman of the Board.

1982    The new Research Center was dedicated.

1990    Dr. Gerard T. Donnelly, a botanist with background in forest ecology and experience in teaching and garden administration was hired as Executive Director.

2000    W. Robert Reum became Chairman of the Board.

2004    The Branching Out! strategic initiatives and first-ever capital campaign resulted in new programs, services, and facilities, along with expanded outreach to the public. Projects coming to fruition this year included a visible and welcoming entrance to the Arboretum, an environmentally-sound main parking lot, a new Visitor Center, a Maze Garden, and a restored Meadow Lake.

2005    As part of the Branching Out! site redevelopment, the four-acre Children's Garden opened.

2013    The Arboretum introduced a major wintertime exhibition, "Illumination:  Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum."

2014    Darrell B. Jackson became Chairman of the Board.

2015    For the first time, the Arboretum served its 1,000,000th annual visitor.

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.