Arbor Day History

Julius Sterling Morton, the father of Arbor Day, said, "Other holidays repose upon the past; Arbor Day proposes for the future." These words, said 121 years ago, reflect the necessity of tree planting today.

The first Arbor Day took place on April 10, 1872, in the neighboring state of Nebraska. J. S. Morton, an early conservationist, believed trees could serve as windbreaks, hold moisture in the soil, and provide lumber for this prairie state.

He began planting trees and urged others to do so as well. After Morton joined the state board of agriculture, he used the opportunity to propose a specific day to be set aside for tree planting. The idea took off and on that day in Nebraska 1 million trees were planted. Just two years later it was made an annual event and in 1885 the Nebraska state legislature passed an act specifying April 22 (Morton's birthday) as the legal holiday Arbor Day. In the first 16 years, 350 million trees were planted in Nebraska.

Another contributor to tree planting was Birdsley Grant Northrup. He organized village improvement associations and advocated landscape beautification through tree planting. Towns in Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts owe their beauty to the efforts of this man.

In April 1882, the American Forestry Congress and the American Forestry Association met in Cincinnati, Ohio. The superintendent of Cincinnati schools and Arbor Day supporter, John B. Peaslee closed the schools for the occasion and had the children participate in the state's first Arbor Day. In 1883 the American Forestry Congress adopted a resolution calling for the annual observance of Arbor Day in all schools throughout the country. Two years later a similar resolution was adopted by the National Education Association. In the early years state and federal governments offered incentives such as free seeds and plants or cash for tree planting. This practice was considered unfair to the nursery industry and was abandoned although many nurseries still provide free trees.

The most widespread observance of Arbor Day is in the public schools where trees are planted and pageants are held, as well as other events. Students are introduced to the beauty of trees and taught of their importance for shade and as wildlife sanctuaries. They are taught the various uses of lumber for construction, paper, and other vital products. Other individuals and groups, state and local governments, and civic organizations support Arbor Day. Although it is celebrated in all 50 states, it has never been made a federal holiday. Each state designates its own date for the celebration. Attempts to set a uniform date of observance have failed mainly due to differing climatic conditions. However, April 23 has been designated as National Arbor Day. Many states have designated the last Friday in April as Arbor Day and legislative efforts to designate this as National Arbor Day continue.

In Iowa, the first Arbor Day was held on April 20, 1874; sponsored by the Iowa State Horticultural Society. A committee consisting of Judge C. E. Whiting, D. W. Adams, and Prof. H. H. McAfee put together a list of premium trees and set the date of April 20, 1874, as the date the trees had to be planted to be eligible for the prizes awarded for those entering the tree planting contest. Many people planned to plant trees that day. However, Mother Nature had her own ideas and decided to cover the state with snow and rain. The rules of the contest were amended and the trees were planted before the end of April. The tree planting contest continued for 23 years. The Iowa legislature set the last Friday in April as Arbor Day in Iowa. The Iowa Horticultural Society, Plant Iowa, and many other groups continue to promote Arbor Day. The Iowa State Horticultural Society, the Department of Agriculture, and the Nurserymen's Association have set a fall planting day in Iowa of September 24, 1993.

The artist Grant Wood captured the true spirit of Arbor Day in his canvas "Arbor Day" where teacher and children labor to beautify an Iowa country schoolyard. Martin Luther declared, "If I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my tree." Walter Irving expressed a similar feeling when he wrote: "He who plants a tree connot expect to sit in its shade, or enjoy its shelter; but he exults in the idea that the acorn shall grow to benefit mankind long after he is gone." With these closing words, enjoy Iowa's Arbor Day on Friday, April 30, and the fall planting day in September.

This article originally appeared in the April 28, 1993 issue, pp. , 1993 issue, pp. 57-58.

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