J. Sterling Morton (1832-1903) Nebraska City, Nebraska
Like many people involved in the foundation and promotion of territorial Nebraska, J. Sterling Morton had interests in many areas. He was a newspaperman, politician, horticulturist and author.
In 1854, barely two months after settling in Nebraska Territory, Morton challenged then acting Territorial Governor Thomas Cumming as to the legality of designating Omaha the territorial capitol, when in fact two-thirds of the population lived south of the Platte River. So bitter was this dispute that, at times, the territorial legislature exploded into fist fights and gun battles. Morton and the rest of the South Platte constituency tried in vain to secede the South Platte region to Kansas Territory. Morton was then just twenty-two years of age.
In 1867, having already been appointed Territorial Governor of Nebraska and serving within the Legislature, Mr. Morton entered the race to become Nebraska's first Governor as a state of the Union. He was narrowly defeated by David Butler in an election that many contend was determined more by who counted the votes, rather than by those who cast them.
J. Sterling Morton is best remembered as the founder of Arbor Day. It was his resolution before the State Board of Agriculture which began Arbor Day in the year 1872. A prize was designated to be given to the person who "properly planted the most trees."
In 1874, Governor Robert Furnas issued a proclamation asking Nebraskans to observe Arbor Day. In 1885, Arbor Day was changed from April 10 to April 22 in honor of Mr. Morton's birthday. Today, Arbor Day is designated as the last Friday in April and is observed throughout the nation.
Arbor Lodge, Mr. Morton's home in Nebraska City, grew from a four-room farmhouse into a fifty-two room mansion, surrounded by a large grove of trees, most of which were planted by Mr. Morton and his wife. In 1923, the Morton family donated the house and grounds to the State of Nebraska as a monument to J. Sterling Morton. Today, Arbor Lodge is a state historical park.