Arbor Lodge: Witness to the Birth of Conservation
When President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to deliver a message to the people, he knew how to first get the attention of the press. So it was in April of 1907 that he chose to plant a tree and use Arbor Day as a rallying cry for forest conservation. “A people without children would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as hopeless,” he told his audience. He was appalled by the wasteful destruction of the nation’s forests and he clearly recognized their importance for sustainable use and multiple benefits. He said, “A true forest is not merely a storehouse full of wood, but, as it were, a factory of wood, and at the same time a reservoir of water.” Roosevelt found a way to add action to his words and eventually set aside 148 million acres of land in 37 new national forests.
Witness, proponent and pioneer of the golden era of conservation was the founder of Arbor Day, J. Sterling Morton. In 1872, the same year he successfully proposed the first Arbor Day, Congress set aside Yellowstone as our first national park. Three years later the American Forestry Association was founded to fight the depletion of the nation’s natural resources. It was our first national nonprofit conservation organization and Morton became its president in 1892. He became President Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of Agriculture in 1893, the first cabinet member west of the Missouri, and was part of that administration when Cleveland added 7 million acres to the nation’s first forest preserves (later to become national forests).
In those early years, political debate and controversy swirled around the withdrawal of public lands for parks and forests, and their actual management was yet to be determined. But Morton and his visionary colleagues “made good things happen,” says John Rosenow, founder of the Arbor Day Foundation.
Standing as a reminder of those crucial years in conservation history is J. Sterling Morton’s home, Arbor Lodge. This magnificent structure grew gradually from the humble frame house Morton built for his bride, Caroline, in 1855. There they raised their four sons, including Joy, founder of the Morton Arboretum in Chicago, and a principal in the salt company that bears his name and remains an American icon. On the first Arbor Day, the family ordered 800 trees to be planted but unfortunately they did not arrive until several days after the official April 10 holiday. With Sterling and one of the boys away, Caroline watched with approval as her other three sons planted and watered the trees. On the barn, still seen today, is the farm’s logo with the words: Plant Trees.
Arbor Lodge and its grounds are a national treasure. They were a crucible of conservation and also stand as a lasting memorial to the kind of strong family life that gave rise to successful farms, orchards and woodlands in Nebraska and throughout the nation. Beginning this year, the 52-room neoclassical mansion and the 72-acre state historical park are now under the management of the Arbor Day Foundation. These properties adjoin the Foundation’s 260-acre Arbor Day Farm, once the orchards of J. Sterling Morton, and lie within a pleasant walking distance from Lied Lodge & Conference Center.
You are invited to visit Arbor Lodge and experience the spirit of Arbor Day. You can stroll the grounds where J. Sterling Morton received his inspiration for the tree planting holiday, a shady expanse that today serves appropriately as an outstanding arboretum. You can tour the house where he and his beloved wife entertained local native Americans, aspiring politicians, leading agriculturists and a host of state and national dignitaries. You can explore the carriage house and enjoy the Lilac Walk with its more than 200 varieties or rest on the Whispering Bench. You can even make this historic place part of a wedding, reunion, or corporate meeting.
Arbor Lodge is a tribute to the vision that became the conservation movement. It is deserving of the best preservation methods and the kind of careful management that will be provided by those who already manage Arbor Day Farm and serve as hosts at Lied Lodge & Conference Center. Importantly, Arbor Lodge and its fascinating grounds are yours to enjoy, find inspiration, and participate in its continuing legacy. For more information, please visit arbordayfarm.org/arborlodge.