"History and Stories of Nebraska"
by Addison Erwin Sheldon

Produced by Connie Snyder


Nebraska has given many good ideas to the world, but none better than the idea of Arbor Day. The early settlers of Nebraska looked out from the little fringe of woods along the streams upon a treeless prairie. Natural prairie groves like those of Iowa and Illinois were lacking. The far-sighted fathers of this state studied and thought much upon this question. All the early speeches and the early newspapers are filled with the thought that the prairie must be plowed and trees must be planted and made to grow before the people would have homes where they would like to live and bring up their children. Out of these plans and thinking came the idea of Arbor Day. The first record of this idea is so interesting and important that it is here given in full:

                Lincoln, Nebr., January 4, 1872,
                8½ o'clock A. M.
State Board of Agriculture met.

J. Sterling Morton offered the following resolution, which was unanimously adopted:

Resolved, That, Wednesday, the 10th day of April, 1872, be and the same is hereby especially set apart and consecrated for tree planting in the State of Nebraska, and the State Board of Agriculture hereby name it "Arbor Day," and to urge upon the people of the State, the vital importance of tree planting, hereby offer a special premium of one hundred dollars to the county agricultural society of that county in Nebraska, which shall upon that day, plant properly, the largest number of trees; and a farm library of twenty-five dollars' worth of books to that person who, on that day, shall plant properly, in Nebraska the greatest number of trees.

First Arbor Day Proclamation.
(Photo from Original in Statehouse.)

Upon this first Arbor Day millions of trees were planted in Nebraska. Nature had kindly provided the young trees by sowing the seed of the Nebraska trees, especially the cottonwood, soft maple, box elder, ash and elm upon the sandbars and along the edges of the belt of timber which bordered the rivers. In the morning a multitude of the early settlers left their work and gathered thousands of young trees to plant in groves along the fire guards about their claims. The young cottonwood was the most plentiful and easily obtained. Every strip of sandbar along the streams was a dense nursery for this tree whose seeds had drifted there upon the high water and had been covered with a thin layer of mud and sand. One could gather them as fast as he could pull them up and tie them into bundles. This is one reason why the older groves of trees upon Nebraska prairies were mostly cottonwood.

The early fathers of Nebraska were not content with the great success of the first Arbor Day. They saw in the future long lines of immigrants coming here to make their homes. Before there could be homes with gardens and orchards there must be windbreaks. To secure these they planned that every farm should have a forest and every year in Nebraska annals an Arbor Day. The record of that plan in the reports of the state board of agriculture reads thus:

              January 8, 1874, 9 A. M.

C. H. Walker offered the following resolution, which was, on motion, unanimously adopted:

Resolved, That, the Second Wednesday of April of each year be, and the same is hereby designated, dedicated, and set apart as Arbor Day, for the State of Nebraska, and that the Agriculturists of Nebraska, be requested to petition the Legislature to make said "Arbor Day" a legal holiday; that until so made a holiday, the Governor be requested to call attention to said "Arbor Day" by proclamation, and request the people of the State to observe it by planting Forest, Fruit, and Ornamental Trees.

Robert W. Furnas of Brownville was governor of Nebraska in this year. The first Arbor Day proclamation was made by him. You may see on page 207 a picture of it as it appears in the old records of the governor's office in Lincoln. After this first Arbor Day proclamation other governors of Nebraska made similar proclamations, and the planting of trees and the observance of Arbor Day went on from year to year. In 1885 the Nebraska legislature fixed April 22d, the birthday of J. Sterling Morton, as the date for Arbor Day and made it a legal holiday.

J. Sterling Morton and Robert W. Furnas.
(From photograph collection of A. E. Sheldon.)

Another inducement for the early settlers to plant trees was an act of the Nebraska legislature in 1869 under which for every acre of forest trees planted by a settler $100 worth of his property was exempt from taxation. Money was very scarce in those days. Here was a chance for the settlers to pay their taxes by planting trees on their own claims. As a result of this law nearly all the claims soon had enough trees growing on them to exempt the settlers from paying any taxes. Consequently so little money came into the state treasury that there was not enough to pay expenses and the state was compelled to borrow. The law was repealed in 1877, but thousands of groves on the prairies of eastern Nebraska stand to-day as witnesses to its benefits.

Since our first Arbor Day all the other states except three and many foreign countries have followed the good example of Nebraska by establishing Arbor Days.

In 1895 the people of Nebraska were so much in love with the Arbor Day idea that both houses of the legislature passed a joint resolution, which was signed on April 4th by Governor Holcomb, as follows:

Whereas, the state of Nebraska has heretofore, in a popular sense, been designated by names not in harmony with its history, industry, or ambition; and

Whereas, the state is pre-eminently a tree-planting state; and "whereas, numerous and honorable state organizations have by resolution, designated Nebraska as the 'Tree Planter's State;" therefore be it resolved, by the legislature of the State of Nebraska, that Nebraska shall hereafter in a popular sense, be known and referred to as the 'Tree Planter's State."

A Nebraska Tree.
(From photograph by A. E. Sheldon.)

Hence it is that children born in Nebraska are no longer called "bugeaters," but "tree planters."

It has well been said that all other holidays look backward to some great event in human history. Arbor Day alone looks forward. It looks forward to a future when all the desert places of the earth shall be made glad with shade of trees, the songs of birds, the laughter of children and the happiness of homes surrounded by groves and gardens planted and cared for by the hand of man.

Other lands have given to the world ideas, and days to be kept in memory. Arbor Day is Nebraska's gift to the world, destined through all ages and in all lands to grow in meaning and always to be kept by the planting of trees.


  1. Why did the world wait so long for the idea of Arbor I)ay?
  2. What have trees done for Nebraska?
  3. Why have other states and countries adopted the Nebraska idea of Arbor Day?
  4. Have you planted a tree? Tell about it.

End of Part I.