J. Sterling Morton loved trees. In 1854, when he and his wife moved to the newly established Nebraska Territory, they began planting trees and encouraged others to do the same. Morton imported trees from around the world; he experimented with them at his Nebraska City home; he gave away trees, many to pioneers headed west.
At the time, Nebraska was a vast prairie lacking windbreaks, lumber and shade. As a newspaper publisher, territorial governor and secretary of agriculture under President Grover Cleveland, Morton promoted trees to enhance the frontier.
Today, Nebraska boasts the largest hand-planted forest in the nation and is promoting a new planting program. These trees all work to cut energy costs, beautify the landscape and improve the environment.
Morton initiated Arbor Day in 1872 as a day to plant and celebrate trees, and, for 137 years, his hometown has been keeping that legacy alive. Last year, the American Bus Association named Nebraska City’s Arbor Day celebration one of the top 100 events in the nation.
The three-day festival, which begins on the last Friday of April, includes free trees, plant sales, an array of children’s activities, tours, commemorative tree plantings, athletic events, barbecues, pancakes, wine tasting, live music, tree climbing and a cross-cut saw competition.
Oh, and a parade featuring bands, politicians and trees, trees, trees. Last year, Blue Star Mothers (moms with children in the military) floated beneath white blossoms with a sign asking everyone to “Plant a Tree for Freedom”; other groups handed out candy and trees.
At the helm of one float rode J. Sterling Morton himself. Well, really Darrel Draper, a historical storyteller from Omaha dressed to resemble the Nebraska icon.
“I grew up 10 miles north of here and am a fifth-generation descendant of Nebraska pioneers. My ancestors were enamored of J. Sterling Morton,” Draper says. So playing this early environmentalist comes to him naturally.
After the parade, he scoots off to Arbor Day Farm to mingle with the crowd.
Draper, as Morton, notes that “children who are raised among trees and flowers will be better in mind and spirit than children raised solely among hogs and cattle.” Not just forest trees, he adds, but fruit trees and ornamentals.
Arbor Day Farm provides an ideal place to soak in the possibilities. On its 260 acres, visitors can hike a winding forest trail; cross streams; listen to birds and frogs; and smell pine trees, lilac and fresh air. They can appreciate the artistic arch of wild sumac and play in a canopy tree house.
On festival day, youngsters can even climb giant oaks. Belted for safety, Bryce Schreiner, 12, of Gretna, swings up with ease. “I love it!” he says. The son of a certified tree climber, he’s been climbing since age 4.
Jake and Joey Wohlers, ages 9 and 6, from Beebeetown, Iowa, take it a little slower. Their mom, Amy Wohlers, says it’s a great experience. “We like to get outside to do things, to learn about nature and taking care of our Earth.”
Steeped in history, South Table Creek, which snakes through Arbor Day Farm, beckoned Lewis and Clark, notes Bev Nolte, director of activities at Tree Adventure. “Lots of the trees J. Sterling Morton planted came from this creek and, as pioneers came by, he would send saplings west with them.”
It’s a great place for bird watching, too. Located in an oak savannah between the Missouri River and a sprawling meadow, the farm showcases both grassland and river birds.
Everything here revolves around trees. A tasting event features apple and cherry wines. In a nearby greenhouse, the aroma of evergreen fills the air as workers bundle blue spruce saplings and lilac for mailing. (The center sends 1.5 million plants per year to Arbor Day Foundation members around the world.) Nearby, a discovery ride with a giant oak leaf canopy stands ready to carry visitors through a rare Preservation Orchard and deep into the nearby forest.
Next to the farm sits Arbor Lodge State Historical Park and Arboretum featuring Morton’s mansion, a carriage house, and 72 acres filled with every tree imaginable. Even so, new species are added each year. During last year’s event, the foundation planted two Tartarian maples: One honors local Girl Scouts both for preserving a grove of burr oaks and for reintroducing other native trees to their Camp Catron retreat; the other salutes volunteer firefighters.
All 50 states now celebrate some form of Arbor Day, Draper as Morton tells a group of children. “Some people thought Arbor Day was such a great day they changed it to Earth Day. And they picked April 22 to celebrate it, my birthday.”
A day of fun firmly rooted in conservation.
Trees absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen, provide energy saving, shade homes, and cut erosion while providing a renewable source of food, raw materials and beauty. They sustain human life, Draper notes.
“When I am portraying J. Sterling Morton, the audience reacts with a sense of reverence toward a man who was instrumental in turning prairies into landscapes dotted with trees and cities into tree-lined boulevards filled with shaded neighborhoods and abundant green playgrounds and parks.”
As planting continues, the Morton legacy lives on.
Writer Carol Crupper grew up near Nebraska City and caught Morton’s environmental spirit. On her return from Arbor Day, she planted four new trees and 53 shrubs at her home in Lawrence, Kansas.