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Saturday, April 9, 2022

April 9-10, 2022: Arbor Day Activists

[This month we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Arbor Day, so this week I’veAmericanStudied a handful of tree-tastic stories. Leading up to this special weekend post on the holiday’s histories!]

On three historical figures who together helped create and codify the tree-tastic holiday.

1)      J. Sterling Morton: Morton (1832-1902) was a prominent figure in both Nebraskan and American history across the second half of the 19th century: he served as Nebraska’s territorial Secretary of State and then Governor in the 1850s; and as President Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of Agriculture (in Cleveland’s 2nd term) from 1893-1897. But interestingly, his most lasting legacy comes from the period in between those roles (roughly 1867-1882), when he had largely retired from politics to serve on the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture and its Horticultural Society. It was in that capacity in 1872 that he proposed Arbor Day, a day when trees would be planted across the state; over a million were planted on the first such Arbor Day, April 10th, 1872, and the rest is history.

2)      Birdsey Northrop: But not just like that, of course. Morton’s holiday was a relatively local one, and it was up to others, like the Connecticut farmer, minister, educator, and diplomat Birdsey Grant Northrop (1817-1898), to extend and amplify the idea. In his 50s Northrop became dedicated to the idea of reviving Connecticut’s primordial forests, and, inspired in part at least by Morton’s holiday, in 1876 he proposed an Arbor Day for that state, encouraging every resident to plant a tree so that “its fruits may survive 1976.” Nearly two decades later, when the 78 year old Northrop finally realized a lifelong dream of traveling to Japan, he focused most of  the 38 lectures he delivered there on making the case for a Japanese Arbor Day, which has indeed been celebrated (as Greenery Day) in that nation ever since.

3)      Major Israel McCreight: As with many conservationist efforts, Arbor Day really took off in the United States during the Teddy Roosevelt administration. That was due in part to Roosevelt’s Chief of the Forestry Service, Gifford Pinchot; but also and especially to Major (his first name, not a rank) Israel McCreight (1865-1958), a lifelong advocate for conservation (as well as Native American rights) who in 1906 argued to Pinchot and Roosevelt that the president’s current conservation efforts were too focused on the business sector. Convinced by McCreight and Pinchot’s joint efforts, on April 15th, 1907 Roosevelt issued his “Arbor Day Proclamation to the School Children of the United States,” a vital step in establishing the holiday as a truly national one that would carry forward for the next 115 years (and hopefully beyond!).

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Other tree texts or contexts you’d share?

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