There is something pleasing about Nebraska City’s addiction to history. The Nebraska town is where J. Sterling Morton and his wife Caroline made their home, where Lewis and Clark’s legendary expedition passed, where riverboats docked with supplies and pioneers, and where Russell, Majors and Waddell based their freighting company.
Everyone knows that, in some cases, love inspires and motivates men to great heights. So it was with J. Sterling and Caroline Morton. His love for his wife and concern for the lack of trees inspired this man to promote an idea that changed Midwestern landscapes forever.
In 1855, the Mortons first settled in a cabin on a treeless prairie. Through the years that four-room L- shaped frame dwelling grew into a 52- room mansion complete with Victorian and Empire furnishings. Today, 65 wooded acres of the Mortons’ claim have been designated as Arbor Lodge State Park. South of the mansion and carriage house is an Italian rose garden designed by Rudolph Evans. North and east is the arboretum consisting of more than 230 species of trees, shrubs and native woodland and prairie plants.
Morton’s legacy created the tree planting day known as Arbor Day. Morton once observed, “Love of home is primary patriotism. Other holidays repose upon the past, Arbor Day proposes for the future.”
Across the road west of the lodge is Arbor Day Farm. Here, visitors experience the sights and sounds of a big forest. In fact, Arbor Day Tree Adventure offers many experiences, such as hiking over trails through orchards, woods and fields, interacting in an outdoor classroom, selecting a seedling tree from the Lied Greenhouse, visiting the Woodland Pavilion to view Trees in the Movies, and glimpsing the ghostly image of J. Sterling while listening to his discussion on the benefits of trees.
Each year during the last week in April, Arbor Day celebrations are held in Nebraska City. These events include activities centering on tree planting, education and enjoyment. Parades, craft and bake sales, environmental programs, flea markets, antique shows and other activities are just a few of the offerings.
Much of Nebraska City’s heritage is evident in the homes and buildings remaining from settlement days. Wildwood House, a gracious 1869 10-room Victorian home, features two parlors, a full kitchen and upstairs bedrooms. A nearby “art” barn features regional artists’ creations.
Nebraska City’s courthouse, the oldest public building in Nebraska, is a two-story red brick Georgian structure that once overlooked traffic on the Overland Trail. The spacious castle-like Farmers Bank & Trust, originally a settlement post office, has been restored to feature decorative columns, marble floors and hand-carved woodwork.
Wildlife enthusiasts can view more than 400 Nebraska birds, including a rare Peregrine falcon, mammals, fish, amphibians and reptiles in the River Country Nature Center. Dioramas depict the ecological systems and the Missouri River.
The history of early freighting and the Pony Express is detailed in the Old Freighter’s Museum. The two-story house was once headquarters for the U.S. military. Later, it housed the Russell, Majors and Waddell Freighting Co. that, according to reports, once owned 75,000 oxen and employed 6,000 men.
Another recent addition to Nebraska City’s attractions focuses on Lewis and Clark’s exploration of the Louisiana Territory. The Missouri River Basin Lewis & Clark Interpretative Center features more than 300 flora and fauna discovered during Lewis and Clark’s expedition of 1803-06. A replica of their keelboat, as well as prairie dog, American bison and grizzly bear exhibits, bring to mind the story of the expedition.
The Grand Army of the Republic Hall, a gathering place following the end of the Civil War, now serves as a Civil War research library and houses artifacts.
The most recent historical addition is a fire-fighting museum detailing the equipment and historical significance of local fire departments.
Rich in history, Nebraska City is where pioneers disembarked for the westward journey, where riverboats unloaded supplies and soldiers, where freight wagons began trips west, where the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed and where runaway slaves were aided. Arbor Day celebrations and various attractions promise visitors that Nebraska City is definitely the state’s “first city” of history.