The idea for Arbor Day originally came from Nebraska. A visit to Nebraska today wouldn't disclose that the state was once a treeless plain. Yet it was the lack of trees there that led to the founding of Arbor Day in the 1800s.
Among pioneers moving into the Nebraska Territory in 1854 was J. Sterling Morton from Detroit. He and his wife were nature lovers, and the home they established in Nebraska was quickly planted with trees, shrubs and flowers.
Morton was a journalist and soon became editor of Nebraska's first newspaper. Given that forum, he spread agricultural information and his enthusiasm for trees to an equaly enthusiastic audience. All of the pioneers missed the trees of their homelands. But more importantly, trees were needed as windbreads to keep soil from blowing and for fuel and building materials, as well as shade from the hot sun.
Morton not only advocated tree planting by individuals in his articles and editorials, but he also encouraged civic organizations and groups of every kind to join in. His prominence in the area increasesd, and he became secretary of the Nebraska Territory, which provided another opportunity to stress the value of trees.
On January 4, 1872, Morton first proposed a tree-planting holiday to be called "Arbor Day" at a meeting of the State Board of Agriculture. The date was set for April 10, 1872. Prizes were offered to counties and individuals for planting properly the largest number of trees on that day. It was estimated that more than one million trees were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day.
Arbor Day was officially proclaimed by the young state's Gov. Robert W. Furnas on March 12, 1874, and the day itself was observed April 8, 1874. In 1885, Arbor Day was named a legal holiday in Nebraska and April 22, Morton's birthday, was selected as the date for its permanent observance.
During the 1870s, other states passed legislation to observe Arbor day, and the tradition began in schools in 1882.
Today the most common date for the state observances is the last Friday in April, and several U.S. presidents have proclaimed a national Arbor Day on that date. But a number of state Arbor Days are at other times to coincide with the best tree-planting weather, from January and February in the south to May in the far north.
Arbor Day has now spread beyond the United States and is observed in many countries of the world. In some it is the king or queen who leads the national celebration, and in many countries exotic trees not suited to North America are planted in commemoration of the day.
J. Sterling Morton was proud of the success of Arbor Day and noted, "Other holidays repose upon the past. Arbor Day proposes for the future." He thought trees much superior to cold marble as a memorial to persons or events. "How much more enduring are the animate trees of our own planting," he said.
Although celebrated for many years prior, legislation passed in 1953 established the official observance of Arbor Day in Ohio as the last Friday in April.