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April 5: Celebrating Trees

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As they moved out onto the Great Plains, pioneers were struck by the lack of trees. Trees were taken for granted east of the Mississippi. Trees provided building materials, wind breaks, and fuel.

Among those who missed trees was Nebraska newspaper editor J. Sterling Morton. He became a strong advocate for tree planting. He used his newspaper to encourage individuals and civic organizations to plant trees. On January 4th, 1872, he gave a talk to the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture. He proposed a holiday he called Arbor Day to make people aware of the importance of trees. He called it a “tree planting holiday.”

The first Arbor Day was scheduled for April 10, 1872. Prizes were offered to counties and individuals for planting the most trees on Arbor Day. It was estimated that more than one million trees were planted in Nebraska on one day. Two years later Nebraska’s Governor officially declared that Arbor Day would be observed on April 10th. In 1885, Nebraska made Arbor Day a state holiday.

Arbor Day caught on in other states. On this date in 1905, North Dakota Governor E.Y. Sarles designated April 21 as the state’s Arbor Day. He urged North Dakotans to “unite in the adornment of their homes, schools and public places by planting those trees and shrubs that shall return Nature’s blessings of beauty, symmetry and comfort to this and coming generations.”

The Governor asked schools to focus lessons on the wisdom of planting and caring for trees. He asked public institutions to plant trees on their grounds. He closed his declaration by saying, “Let our people unite in an observance of this day that shall earn the grateful praise of coming generations.”

According to the Arbor Day Foundation, all fifty states celebrate Arbor Day. The most common date for the observance is the last day in April. But each state chooses the date based on the best weather for planting. Southern states may be planting trees in February, while northern states may wait until May. The practice has spread, and today fifty countries around the world set a day aside to honor trees.

In 1945, North Dakota officially designated the first Friday in May as Arbor Day. The entire month of May is Arbor Month. But you can celebrate trees every day of the year!

Dakota Datebook by Carole Butcher


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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