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History of Arbor Day

Takeoff Monkey illustration of monkey holding a plant

Arbor Day is an annual holiday that celebrates the importance of trees and promotes tree planting and care. Its often celebrated by dedicating a tree to a loved one or pruning trees in parks or one's yard. The holiday was born in Nebraska in 1872 and has since been celebrated around the world. The history of Arbor Day dates back to the 19th century and the efforts of a man named J. Sterling Morton.


“Other holidays repose upon the past; Arbor Day proposes for the future.”
- Julius Sterling Morton


J. Sterling Morton was a journalist and politician who moved to Nebraska in 1854. At the time, the area was largely treeless, and Morton noticed that the lack of trees was causing problems such as soil erosion, a lack of shade, and a decrease in wildlife habitat. He planted trees on his 160 acre ranch and soon started advocating for others to do the same.

In 1872, Morton proposed that a special day be set aside each year for the planting of trees. On April 10 of that year, the first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska. More than one million trees were planted in the state that day, and the holiday quickly spread to other states across the country.


Additional Career Highlights from J. S. Morton 
  • Served on the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture and the State Horticultural Society.

  • Became the secretary and acting governor of the Nebraska Territory from 1858-1861.

  • President Grover Cleveland named Morton U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, 1893.


The holiday became a global phenomenon thanks to agriculturalist Birdsey Northrop. In 1883, Northrop introduced the concept of Arbor Day to Japan. He later influenced Arbor Days across the world in Europe, Canada and Australia. It wasn’t until 1970, however, that Arbor Day became recognized nationwide in America thanks to the efforts of President Richard Nixon.


US President Hoover planting a tree in celebration of Arbor Day
President Hoover planting a tree in celebration of Arbor Day. Photo credit to Spirit of Nebraska.


Arbor Day is celebrated on the last Friday in April, though some states observe the holiday on dates that better align with the local planting times. For example, Hawaii celebrates Arbor Day on the first Friday of November. Arbor Day is recognized around the world and is an important reminder of the role that trees play in our lives and in the health of the Earth.


Kent Historical Society