By Ron Lora
Yesterday (April 30) was Arbor Day (celebrated in Ohio on the last Friday in April) and several members of the Swiss Community Historical Society planted Beech, Red Oak, Elm and Sugar Maple trees at the Swiss Homestead northwest of Bluffton. Our mission was to put in trees that were common in the community when Christian and Barbara Schumacher built what was then (1843) the second frame house between Bluffton and Pandora.
In town, a week earlier, the Bluffton Tree Commission planted several small trees and shrubs at the Eugene and Evelyn Benroth Memorial Bridge to celebrate Arbor Day and to honor the parents of Beverly Benroth Amstutz and Janette Benroth Reinecke, who joined with other planters.
Low-key events to be sure, befitting an important though quiet tradition, but it provides an opportunity to examine the life and thought of the holiday~Ac^a'not^a"cs founder. Much is known about J. Sterling Morton, though he is seldom mentioned in public discourse. For several decades Morton was a distinguished Nebraska statesman who served the territory (later the state) as conservationist, newspaper editor and booster, and the nation as U.S. secretary of agriculture.
Born in New York in 1832 and raised in Michigan, Sterling Morton on the October day of his wedding in 1854 set out with his bride to make his fortune in the Nebraska Territory. Shortly after arriving, he bought a quarter section of land west of Nebraska City for $200 from the man who had preempted it from the government.
Living in a small log house, he supervised the construction of a four-room frame house. Several remodelings through the decades produced Arbor Lodge, the stately mansion that today stands on the same parcel of land on the subhumid prairie, a monument to one of our most devoted conservationists. For those who believe vacations can also be educational, it is worth a traveler~Ac^a'not^a"cs visit to Arbor Lodge.
Morton~Ac^a'not^a"cs work in agriculture, arboriculture, and horticulture made him a worthy candidate to head the young U.S. Department of Agriculture. He served at President Grover Cleveland~Ac^a'not^a"cs request from 1893 to 1897, the first person from west of the Missouri River to hold a cabinet position.
Among the creative achievements for which Morton is best known was his crusade to plant trees. There is a quiet drama in seeing the conservative young man take a grand risk, leaving settled society for a largely treeless section of the old Louisiana Purchase with few signs of successful settlement, preparing to improve the environment for future generations.
Having played in the Michigan woods as a child, the pioneer settler stood aghast at the barrenness of the prairies. Although he came to love the expanse of the western horizon, there were moments in the early years when it was touch-and-go whether the psychological and aesthetic losses occasioned by the windswept landscape would drive him to heed his father~Ac^a'not^a"cs advice and return home.
Other settlers in the prairie states cared deeply about trees and forests, and territorial legislatures added their encouragement, but it was Morton~Ac^a'not^a"cs resolution in 1872 that established Arbor Day in Nebraska. Later, when the holiday was recognized throughout the country, his birthday (April 22) would become the official date of recognition, the special day each year devoted to planting trees. (Today we celebrate Earth Day on the old Arbor Day date.)
On the first Arbor Day ~Ac^a'not^aEURoe a splendid moment in American conservation history ~Ac^a'not^aEURoe Nebraskans planted a million trees. To settle it in our collective memory, Morton wrote: ~Ac^a'notA"Trees grow in time~Ac^a'not^A|.The rain and sunshine and seasons will be his partners, just as genially and gently as they will be those of any millionaire, and will make the trees planted by the poor man grow just as grandly and beautifully as those planted by the opulent~Ac^a'not^A|.There is a true triumph in the unswerving integrity and genuine democracy of trees, for they refuse to be influenced by money or social position and thus tower morally, as well as physically, high above Congressmen and many other patriots of this dollaring age.~Ac^a'not^A