Nebraska’s Garden of Eden
In 1855, Nebraska was still a territory, and Nebraska City had just been incorporated as a township. The city was an important key to the West because of its proximity to commerce on the west banks of the Missouri River. With the arrival of J. Sterling Morton the same year, Nebraska City became destined to be the “Home of Arbor Day” and several big tree champions.
J. Sterling Morton moved to Nebraska City with his wife Caroline to become editor of The Nebraska City News. They purchased 160 acres of land and built a four-room structure, which is now known as Arbor Lodge. As a nature lover from Michigan with a passion for horticulture, Morton was appalled by the lack of trees in Nebraska. He went to the banks of the Missouri River and brought back oaks, maples, chestnuts, elms and cottonwoods to plant on his treeless property. It was his hope that people would see the trees that he planted and be inspired to do the same. Eventually, he would travel around the country and bring back various plant species and plant them in the park area.
While Morton was appointed secretary of Nebraska Territory by President James Buchanan, served as acting governor of Nebraska and was the secretary of agriculture under President Grover Cleveland, for tree lovers, he is best known for establishing Arbor Day, the annual holiday dedicated to planting and caring for trees. The first Arbor Day was celebrated April 10, 1872, when an estimated one million trees were planted.
When Morton passed away in 1902, his son Joy Morton — founder of Morton Salt Company — inherited the property. Joy expanded the structure into the 52-room, neocolonial mansion it is today and used it as his family’s summer home. After he began his own famous arboretum, the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., in 1922, Joy decided to give the estate to the state of Nebraska as a monument to his father. Now, the 72-acre Arbor Lodge State Historical Park and Arboretum has more than 230 varieties of trees and shrubs, with 200 varieties of lilacs, two tree trails and an apple orchard on the south side of the mansion.
Arbor Lodge is also home to six state champion trees: a Douglas-fir, red maple, Japanese pagoda tree, sweetgum, tuliptree yellow-poplar and black walnut. Having once hosted at least 10 state champions on the property, there’s a strong possibility more champion trees will be discovered in the park. Fingers crossed, a new discovery may be a national champion to add to Nebraska’s count of three: a scotch pine and co-champion dwarf chinkapin oaks.
Randy Fox is the superintendent of the estate and has been the caretaker of all its facilities for more than 35 years. He even gets to live in the back of the mansion with his family. Arbor Lodge hosts living history demonstrations, where the staff dresses up in historical costumes for Civil War reenactments, sausage making, cider pressing and other old-time crafts. Arbor Lodge State Historical Park and Arboretum is open from mid-April to the end of October.
Some of the oldest and finest specimens in the arboretum were planted by J. Sterling Morton and the Morton family. Fox says, “Nebraska City has lots of generous people” that care about trees. Arbor Lodge plants a few hundred trees each year on the estate with school children for Arbor Day, which could be more champion trees in the making.