In the 1850s, unscrupulous promoters lured settlers to the Nebraska Territory with ads promising free land where they could build homes of Nebraska marble. When the settlers found the marble was really sod, they were forced to build with it anyway, as there was scarcely a tree in sight.
So how did once treeless Nebraska City become the home of Arbor Day, the national tree-planting holiday? The answer is J. Sterling Morton, a visionary and conservationist who planted the seeds of the tradition 145 years ago.
“He knew that settlers needed trees for building, for fuel, and for shade against the hot prairie sun,” says Susie Wirth, education coordinator for the National Arbor Day Foundation in Nebraska City.
Morton might be amazed to see Nebraska City today. Every home and parkway boasts trees of many varieties. Businesses cooperate with public entities to beautify their own property and adjacent public spaces. Volunteers created a tree inventory, which guides pruning, replacement, and planting in community parks and along curbs.
Adorning the high school parking lot is an arboretum, built by students, teachers and others. Commercial apple orchards (people scoffed when Morton introduced fruit trees to Nebraska) have become famous for miles around. And, the entire community rallies for the spring Arbor Day celebration and fall Applejack Festival.
When Morton and his bride, Caroline, arrived in Nebraska from Michigan in 1855, they were aghast at the almost treeless landscape. They bought a 160-acre plot and built a four-room house on the highest point. They began adding trees (from seeds and grafting) and gardens, and later built a Victorian mansion. Called Arbor Lodge, it’s now a popular tourist attraction.
“The physical work of planting was done by Caroline and their four sons,” says Randy Fox, superintendent of Arbor Lodge State Historical Park. “He did the paper-and-pen thing, promoting tree planting by writing articles.”
At Morton’s urging, Nebraskans planted a million trees to commemorate the first Arbor Day, April 10, 1872. Morton enjoyed experimenting with species that people thought wouldn’t grow in Nebraska. Today, pines are among 270 tree varieties surrounding the Morton mansion.
“‘About 100 of those, such as magnolias and dogwood, shouldn’t grow in Nebraska,” Fox says, explaining that these species are common to warmer climes.
Morton believed action, awareness, and education were key to wise stewardship. The National Arbor Day Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 1972 by John Rosenow, carries on his legacy from its headquarters in Lincoln, Neb.
In 1999, the foundation distributed 8 million trees to its members, which include individuals, towns, and organizations (new members receive 10 trees for their $10 dues). It also planted 450,000 trees to replenish national forests and recognized 2,559 Tree City USA communities for developing urban forests.
The foundation’s centerpiece is Arbor Day Farm and Lied Conference Center, located on 260 acres of Morton’s former agricultural estate in Nebraska City. The farm features demonstration projects that include a fuel-wood plantation, living snow fences, and a hazelnut research field. School children come from a 200-mile radius for tours and classes. Summer camps teach conservation and field test curriculum materials, which the foundation provides to schools.
The conference center hosts events sponsored by the foundation and other conservation groups. The structure features a magnificent lobby with columns of giant Douglas fir timbers cut down in a thinning operation. The building is heated and cooled with wood chips from the farm’s fuel-wood plantation and from scrap that a pallet manufacturer would otherwise haul to a landfill.
Nebraska City takes pride in a rich history that inspires thinking about the future as much as the past. A 10-year plan, led by a civic group called Trees America, will create a model urban forest. The goal is to raise $10 million to plant 10,000 trees community-wide—more trees than there are people. The money will cover the trees’ cost as well as their maintenance, an education program, and endowment fund.
In the spirit of Arbor Day, it’s the latest of many community endeavors whose benefits will be felt for generations to come. As Morton once declared: “Other holidays repose on the past, while Arbor Day proposes for the future.”
And, as a result, Nebraska has plenty of trees.