Arbor Day has a long, interesting history

Jerry Apps
Teacher at Apps' one-room school made Arbor Day a rich, memorable experience.

April is the month for Arbor Day.  What I remember about Arbor Day was how special the day was at the Chain O’ Lake one-room country school that I attended for eight years.  Arbor Day, originally devoted to tree planting, meant outdoor clean up day at our school. 

On a day in late April, we raked the lawn, picked up the downed tree branches and generally cleaned up the about an acre of land that was our schoolyard.

When the raking was finished, with our teacher, we walked the half mile or so to the lake after which our school was named. We walked all the way around the lake, looking for frogs, wild ducks, maybe a Canada goose, but mostly enjoying walking by the lake with all of its special smells and sights. It was a memorable introduction to spring.

When we got back to the school, the teacher started a bonfire with the dead leaves we had raked, and we roasted marshmallows. What a wonderful afternoon it was.

Arbor Day has an interesting history, tracing back to Nebraska in 1872.  At the time there were few trees in Nebraska and settlers arriving from the East and Midwest longed for trees. A newspaper editor, J. Sterling Morton was a advocate for tree planting. He became secretary for the Nebraska Territory and proposed a tree planting day he called Arbor Day for April 10, 1874.  Arbor Day, tree planting, became a prominent tradition for schools.

Today, Arbor Day is celebrated in all 50 states—the actual date depending on the best tree planting weather.  The last Friday in April became the common date. Nebraska City, Nebraska is the official birthplace of Arbor Day.

We didn’t plant any trees at our school on Arbor Day, but we were reminded of the importance of the day with our special celebration.

THE OLD TIMER SAYS: Remember Arbor Day. Plant a tree.

Jerry Apps

Jerry Apps, born and raised on a Wisconsin farm, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of more than 35 books, many of them on rural history and country life. For further information about Jerry's writing and TV work, go to