The idea for Arbor Day originally came from the state of Nebraska. A visit to Nebraska today wouldn’t disclose that the state was once a treeless plain. Yet it was the lack of trees there that led to the founding of Arbor Day in the 1800’s.
J. Sterling Morton, from Detroit, Mich., was among the pioneers moving into the Nebraska Territory in 1854. He and his wife were lovers of nature, and the home they established in Nebraska was quickly planted with trees, shrubs and flowers.
Morton was a journalist and soon became the editor of Nebraska’s first newspaper. Given that forum, he spread agricultural information and his enthusiasm for trees to an equally enthusiastic audience. His fellow pioneers missed their trees. More importantly, Nebraska needed trees for windbreaks to keep soil from blowing away, for fuel, building materials, as well as shade from the hot sun.
Morton not only advocated tree planting by individuals in his articles and editorials, but he also encouraged civic organization and groups of every kind to join in. His prominence in the area increased, and when he became secretary of the Nebraska Territory, that provided him another opportunity to stress the value of trees.
On January 4, 1872, Morton first proposed a tree-planting holiday to be called “Arbor Day” at a meeting of the State Board of Agriculture. The date was set for April 10, 1872. Prizes were offered to counties and individuals for planting properly the largest number of trees on that day. It is estimated that more than 1 million trees were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day.
Arbor Day was officially proclaimed by the young state’s Gov. Robert W. Furnas on March 12, 1874, and the day itself was observed April 8, 1874. Arbor Day was named a legal holiday in Nebraska, and April 22, Morton’s birthday, was selected as the date for its permanent observance. Arbor Day is now observed in every state across the nation and in many foreign countries as well.
J. Sterling Morton was proud of the success of Arbor Day and noted, “Other holidays repose upon the past. Arbor Day proposed for the future.” He thought trees much superior to cold marble as a memorial to persons or events. “How much more enduring are the animate trees of our own planting,” he said.
In 1978, Maine first celebrated Arbor Week during the third full week of May. Previously, Arbor Day in Maine had been observed in late April, a time of the year when much of our state experiences cold, winter weather. Thwarted by snow and frozen ground in their efforts to observe Arbor Day, a group of students and their teacher from Dover-Foxcroft requested that the Maine Legislature to establish Arbor week in May. The Legislature was impressed by the arguments of the sixth graders who came to Augusta as a class to speak for their bill and agreed to make the change.
Arbor Week in Maine continues to be celebrated during the third full week in May.