April 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 2
On April 10 the residents of Nebraska observed America’s first Arbor Day. Homesteaders across the state marked the occasion by breaking up the dreary plains with an assortment of fruit and forest trees. In establishing a day “especially set apart and consecrated for tree planting,” the state legislature had offered a hundred dollars to the county planting the most trees and twenty-five dollars’ worth of agricultural books to the most prolific individual. Whether motivated by profit or love of nature, the state’s two hundred thousand citizens planted a million trees before the day was over.
Arbor Day was the idea of Julius Sterling Morton, a pioneer settler, editor, and politician who since the mid-1850s had been offering his fellow Nebraskans advice on agriculture and numerous other subjects. There were many practical arguments in favor of tree planting: It held the soil in place, provided windbreaks, and furnished fruit and lumber. But equally important was its mitigating effect on Nebraska’s tedious scenery. In 1865 a railroad surveyor had described the area north of the Platte River as “a terrible country, the stillness, wildness & desolation of which is awful. Not a tree to be seen, nothing but a succession of hill & valley.” Two years later an Army doctor found “not a tree, bush, not even a stick of wood.” The isolation and monotony drove many early settlers insane.
Morton thought orchards could act as “missionaries of culture and refinement,” creating “a better and more thoughtful people.” He wrote: “If every farmer in Nebraska will plant out and cultivate an orchard and a flower garden, together with a few forest trees, this will become mentally and morally the best agricultural State, the grandest community of producers in the American Union. Children reared among trees and flowers growing up with them will be better in mind and in heart, than children reared among hogs and cattle.” Morton’s compatriots took his words to heart, and Nebraska was soon nicknamed the Tree-Planting State, with its farmers persisting in the practice through drought, economic depression, and infestations of grasshoppers. Within two decades they had planted almost four hundred million trees and seen Arbor Day adopted throughout the country. Today the state that pioneers found barren and treeless is home to two national forests, both planted entirely by human hands.