Nebraska’s Semicentennial Arbor Day

Arbor Day parade float at Nebraska City in 1917. The bust at the front of the float depicts J. Sterling Morton, founder of Arbor Day. NSHS RG2991-2-3

Nebraskans celebrated the semicentennial of the state’s admission into the Union in 1917 on several dates, including March 1, Statehood Day; February 12, Lincoln’s birthday; and in churches, February 25, the Sunday nearest Washington’s birthday. The citizens of Nebraska City, the home of Arbor Day founder J. Sterling Morton, waited until Arbor Day in April to celebrate the semicentennial to “bring the two celebrations together,” said the Nebraska City News on April 24, 1917, “and make it possible to do justice to the occasion.” 

The highlight of the celebration was “one of the biggest and grandest parades ever undertaken” in Nebraska City. The favorable weather and good condition of the roads enabled large crowds to drive into town for the parade. Members of the board of governors of Ak-Sar-Ben acted as judges of the many floats. The entry of L. Gugenheim received first prize, with a car “trimmed entirely in white, with roses and two young ladies attired in white.”  

Chancellor Samuel Avery planting a tree on Arbor Day at Nebraska City in 1917. NSHS RG2991-2-4

The celebration also included outdoor ceremonies with band music; singing by Nebraska City schoolchildren and a men’s chorus; and a speech by University of Nebraska chancellor Samuel Avery. Avery, identified by the News on April 27 as “an Otoe County ‘boy,’ delivered the address taking as his subject the planting of trees. He told of his early days in this county, when trees were almost a curiosity, especially north of Unadilla, where his parents lived.  . . . He told of the civilizing influence of trees, the benefits they brought to humanity, and how they were a good financial investment. His remarks were interspersed with appropriate illustrations and he kept the audience in good humor. At the conclusion of his address he planted a tree near the one planted by ex-President Grover Cleveland at the unveiling of the Morton monument in October 1905.”

The Morton monument referred to by the News, was a statue of Morton commissioned by a memorial association after his death in 1902. Created by sculptor Rudulph Evans, the statue was unveiled at Nebraska City on October 28, 1905. More than 5,000 people attended the ceremony, including ex-President Grover Cleveland, under whom Morton had served as secretary of agriculture from 1893 to1897. – Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

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