The story behind Arbor Day

By Shelburne Tree Advisory Committee

On Friday, May 5, Vermonters celebrated Arbor Day. Since its inception in 1872 by Nebraskan J. Sterling Morton, it has been a day set aside for the celebration of trees and their benefits. The following is an excerpt from an article written by the National Arbor Day Foundation about the very first Arbor Day and its founder:

Among the pioneers moving in to the Nebraska Territory in 1854 was J. Sterling Morton from Detroit. 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 editor of Nebraska’s finest newspaper. Given that forum, he spread agricultural information and his enthusiasm for trees to an equally enthusiastic audience.

His fellow pioneers missed their trees, but more importantly, trees were needed as wind breaks to keep soil in place, for fuel and building materials, and for shade from the hot sun. Morton not only advocated tree planting by individuals in his articles and editorials, but he also encouraged civic organizations to join in. His prominence in the area increased and he became secretary of the Nebraska Territory, which provided another opportunity to stress the value of trees.

On Jan. 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 was estimated that more than one million trees were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day.

Arbor Day was officially proclaimed by the young state’s Governor Robert W. Furnas on March 12, 1874, and the day itself was observed April 10, 1874. In 1885, Arbor Day was named a legal holiday in Nebraska and April 22, Morton’s birthday, was selected as the date for its permanent observance.

According to accounts from the Nebraska City News, April 1885, the city celebrated Arbor Day with a grand parade and a speech by J. Sterling Morton. Students of different grades met at their respective school rooms in the morning for the purpose of planting at least one tree. Each tree that was planted was labeled with the grade and the time planted, and was to be specially cared for by that grade.

When the plantings were completed, 1,000 students formed a line to begin the parade from the various schools to Nebraska City’s opera house. In the parade, each class carried colorful banners made of satin with silk lining and trimmed with gold fringe. By the time the parade reached the opera house, the throng numbered well over 1,000 as townspeople joined the march. Every available foot of space in the opera house was occupied, the students having the front seats and gallery, while the older persons stood.

At 11am, the throng of celebrants, addressed by J. Sterling Morton, listened with much attention, and loudly applauded at the close of his address. At the conclusion of the ceremonies the students sang “America” and the large audience was dismissed.

Today, the most common date for the state observance is the last Friday in April, and many U.S. presidents have proclaimed a national Arbor Day on that date. However, many states celebrate Arbor Day at other times to coincide with the best tree planting weather, from January and February in the south to May in the north.

If you are interested in planting a tree, or trees, to honor this historic tradition, you might consider consulting with your local grower, or go to Vermont Urban and Community Forestry’s website,, and click on Resources and Vermont Tree Selection Guide. Take time to observe the proper planting instructions to insure the best result and enjoy watching your young tree grow for years to come.

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