Arbor Day founder’s roots trace back to Monroe, Michigan

by Ronda Stiffler

The county of Monroe is known for its water – the monochrome blue view seen from the shoreline of Lake Erie, the serene beauty of the River Raisin – but it was the stately trees that inspired one former resident to launch what was to become an international holiday, Arbor Day.

As we go about our daily business in Monroe, our trees are uncomplainingly clearing the air of carbon dioxide, releasing oxygen, and providing shelter and shade while standing sentry along our city streets. It is interesting to note that some of these same trees stood when the man responsible for the annual planting of millions of trees across the world was a boy growing up in Monroe.

morton home 2J. Sterling Morton was born on April 22, 1832, and moved to Monroe in 1834. He lived with his parents, Julius D. and Emeline Sterling Morton, in a brick home at the corner of East Fifth and Washington Streets, surrounded by trees that can still be seen in the neighborhood today.

The Morton family brought a printing press and newspaper outfit to Monroe from New York. As a young man, J. Sterling spent much time in the office of the Monroe Advocate, the local newspaper of which his uncle was the editor.

Morton lived in Monroe until he was twenty-two years old, at which time he moved his young wife to the Nebraska Territory. Following in his uncle’s footsteps, he first became a journalist for and then editor of The Nebraska City News.

Once settled in the Territory, the couple, doubtlessly recalling the beauty of Monroe’s majestic trees, set about planting as many as possible around the home they had built on the outskirts of Nebraska City. J. Sterling wrote editorials encouraging his readers to do the same. So passionate about this cause was he that he took the time to conduct experiments to find trees best suited to Nebraska and then published the results in his newspaper column.

After J. Sterling was elected to the Territory’s 2nd Legislative Assembly and had served as acting governor, he turned his attention to agriculture and conservation, joining the State Board of Agriculture and the State Horticultural Society in 1867. It was in 1872 that he introduced a resolution to the State Board of Agriculture suggesting that April 10th be set aside that year to encourage Nebraskans to plant trees.

Over 1,000,000 trees were planted on the first Arbor Day. Within two years, the day had become a state-wide annual holiday, and was moved to April 22 in honor of the man whose love of nature had traveled with him from Monroe to the Nebraska Territory.

In 1893, President Cleveland appointed J. Sterling U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. He lived to see Arbor Day catch on throughout the nation, dying five days after Arbor Day, 1902.

It is fitting that Monroe’s historical marker commemorating J. Sterling Morton at the corner of Fifth and Washington Streets stands among the trees that he loved.

The Arbor Day Foundation, still located in Nebraska, carries on J. Sterling Morton’s mission of planting trees. For more information on how you can get involved with the Arbor Day Foundation, click here.

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One response »

  1. [...] from the University of Michigan. He actually grew up in Monroe, and you can read his story from Hometown History Tours (a very cool site [...]

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