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Arbor Day Turns 150! – Podcast #171

Note: This story was first published in my second book Lindbergh’s Artificial Heart and is reprinted below. Listen to the podcast to hear my updated comments on the story.

When I first started teaching at my current school district, all I kept hearing from everyone was that the kids shut down after Arbor Day.  My first reaction was “Arbor What???”  Maybe your reaction is the same.  So, if you happen to be in the same boat as I once was, I will explain a little bit about Arbor Day and why it signals the end of our school year.

Arbor Day was the brainchild of a guy named J. Sterling Morton.  The J stood for Julius, but he was always known as Sterling.  You may not have ever heard of him, but you have surely heard of the company that one of his sons owned called Morton Salt, which many years later became Morton Thiokol and took most of the blame for the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.  Born in Adams, New York on April 22, 1832, and raised in Monroe, Michigan, J. Sterling Morton headed west in 1854 to the largely unsettled Nebraska Territory.  Within a year of his arrival, he assumed the role of editor of the Nebraska City News and built a large home on a 160-acre piece of land.  His house was considered a mansion in its day but lacked one important detail: trees and green plants.  Yes, it was 160 acres of basically nothing.

Julius Sterling Morton.
Julius Sterling Morton. Wikipedia image.

It was widely assumed at the time that the land was not well suited for farming or for growing trees, but that didn’t stop Morton and his wife.  Trees, shrubs, and flowers were planted all around the property, and they quickly grew.  Using his mighty pen, Morton spread his word of planting trees to his readers.  He encouraged others to do the same.  Not only did the trees offer beauty, but they also were an excellent way to block the high winds across the plains, provided wood for fuel and construction, and blocked out the intense rays of that mighty yellow thing in the sky.

Morton entered the world of politics and was eventually appointed by President Buchanan as the secretary and acting governor of the Nebraska Territory.   He later lost a bid to be elected the state’s first governor, so he turned his head toward his true passion of promoting agriculture.  One of Morton’s major goals was the establishment of a statewide day set aside each year for the planting of trees. 

The new holiday, which was first celebrated on April 10, 1872, was called…drum roll, please… Arbor Day.  Now, if you are a complete dodo like me, you are probably wondering who Arbor was and why anyone would name a tree-planting holiday after him.  Joseph P. Arbor was…  No, not really.  As I soon learned, Arbor was not a person, but a word derived from the Latin term for “tree”.  Duh!  I should have known.  Arbor Day basically means Tree Day.  It couldn’t get any simpler than that.

Today, we seem to have holidays for just about everything.  Secretary’s Day, Grandparent’s Day, Eat Toxic Lead Paint Day…………… Hey, there is even serious consideration of making my birthday into a national holiday.  (Serious consideration by me.)  So, one would think that Arbor Day would have just been another reason for Hallmark to sell cards.  To my amazement, when the first Arbor Day was celebrated on that April day, over one million trees were planted in the state of Nebraska.  Within sixteen years, a total of 350 million trees had been planted.  While well populated today, just how many people could there have been living in Nebraska way back then?  I was thinking something like four people.  (It was really a little less than 500,000 people.)  They had to do some serious planting to stick all of those trees into the ground.

Of course, the politicians quickly smelled something good to latch on to and in 1885, Arbor Day was signed into law in Nebraska.  The date was changed to April 22nd, in honor of J. Sterling Morton’s birthday. 

Yet, with all of this success, Morton never pushed for Arbor Day beyond his own state.  That took the work of a conservationist named Birdsey Norton.  He decided to spread the gospel of Arbor Day and encouraged that it become part of every child’s education.  Within ten years of the first Arbor Day, schools all around the United States were celebrating this day with parades, music, recitations, tree dedications, and, of course, tree plantings.

Which leads us back to Chatham, New York and the school where I teach.  Right after Governor David B. Hill signed it into law, Arbor Day celebrations were held all over our state in 1889.  Our school was no exception.  That very year, the community planted its very first tree and dedicated it to the one and only Steve Silverman.  Oops, I mean George Washington.  George’s tree no longer stands, so one can only assume that it suffered a fate similar to that of the famous cherry tree.  There are only so many Washingtons, so in 1900 the decision was made to dedicate future trees each year to the person that has had a major impact on education in our community.  Today, Chatham has the oldest Arbor Day tree in New York State.  It’s an oak tree that was dedicated by the class of 1902 to Miss Harriet Seymour.  Not that anyone recalls who she actually was. 

In case you haven’t noticed, Arbor Day basically disappeared from the American holiday landscape.  The holiday had been so successful initially that most of the country’s depleted forests had been replenished.  With the growing use of cars in the early twentieth century, the US government started promoting something called “Good Roads Arbor Day”, which basically had the unwritten goal of paving over the American landscape.  (Hidden meaning:  Chop down ten thousand trees for this new road and plant one new one over there.)  This and many other factors led to the demise of Arbor Day. 

Even in Chatham, where Arbor Day is still celebrated each year, the day has been watered down to basically nothing.  Different district administrators have tried unsuccessfully to get the day wiped off the calendar.  What was once an entire week of activities, contests, and celebration has now been reduced to one twenty-four-hour period at the end of May.  Our Arbor Day Celebration is broken down into four basic segments:

  1. Arbor Day Banquet – A free meal hosted by the junior class.  (Free??? Did someone say free???  You can be sure that I’m there.) 
  2. Senior Prank – Students sneak into the school overnight and leave something original to remember them by.   The best one I have ever witnessed was when the students removed the giant C, T, and M from the first word of the school sign outside.  Instead of reading CHATHAM HIGH SCHOOL, it now read HA HA HIGH SCHOOL.  That’s originality, if you ask me.
  3. Tree Planting Ceremony – Forty-five minutes of typical boring speeches, dedications, acceptances, and other blah blah.  Then, all seniors and teachers are given a small shovel to scoop dirt into the hole that the new tree will be planted in.
  4. Arbor Day Games – Pack four hundred screaming kids into a small gym and you will know what the meaning of loud really is. 
"Ha Ha High School" at Chatham High School in Chatham, NY.
“Ha Ha High School” at Chatham High School in Chatham, NY. (Photoshopped image!)

And then our Arbor Day celebration is over.  The kids decide that they are done for the year.  All learning comes to an abrupt halt, even though a month still remains of school.

So, if you are one of those people looking to restore some tradition to America’s schools, why don’t you propose that they celebrate Arbor Day?  My wisecracks aside, it really is a wonderful day to celebrate.  Start out small and let the celebration grow over the years, just like the trees.  And let’s face it, there’s nothing wrong with planting a few trees and having a good time. 

Useless?  Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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