History lesson: Arbor Day founder has north country roots

Arbor Day founder has north country roots
Published: Apr. 28, 2023 at 6:32 AM EDT
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ADAMS, New York (WWNY) - We know Arbor Day as the last Friday in April, a time to plant and appreciate trees. But when did it start?

The story starts in Adams in 1832, when J. Sterling Morton was born.

His parents ran a general store in Adams and raised a son who loved nature.

It didn’t take long for Morton to get married and move away, settling in Nebraska, where he picked up politics and newspaper editing.

Morton was Nebraska’s Territorial Secretary of State and acting governor for a brief time. All the while, he was planting trees.

Many people at the time saw Nebraska as a desert land. But Morton knew its potential. He served on the state Board of Agriculture and convinced the board to adopt his idea of an Arbor Day.

in 1872, the board did, and offered prizes for people who could plant the most trees. It’s estimated that more than a million were planted on that first Arbor Day.

Morton brought all kinds of varieties of trees to the state, including varieties from his home state of New York.

President Grover Cleveland was so impressed by his work, he appointed him U.S. Secretary of Agriculture from 1893 to 1897.

Morton built a huge estate with many trees and a mansion that replicated the White House. Those grounds now serve as a state park.

The Adams native died in 1902, but his family name lived on. One son became the Secretary of the Navy under President Teddy Roosevelt, and another son founded the Morton Salt Company.

But even longer than his family name lives on, the tradition of Arbor Day lives on. Every year, as thousands and thousands of saplings take root, his legacy grows.