The Mortons: The Arbor of Arbor Day

                                      . . . And the Arboretum




By Megan McKinney


The post-Civil War expansion of the Chicago meatpacking industry greatly increased the need for salt, required for packing and preserving excess meat, a development noted by 24-year-old Joy Morton. He traveled to Chicago from his Nebraska home in 1879 to become a partner in the salt marketing firm E. I. Wheeler & Co. By 1885, he owned the company, and, after the 1895 death of Wheeler, the name became Joy Morton & Co. 

His was not a Horatio Alger story. Joy’s father, Hon. Julius Sterling Morton, was a celebrated figure in late 19th century Nebraska, where he was a journalist and active in the state’s political history as a member of the territorial legislature. 

J. Sterling Morton.

The senior Morton had served as Nebraska’s acting governor and was Secretary of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland. However, J. Sterling Morton is best known as the father of Arbor Day.

Sterling and his wife, Caroline Joy French, were both college educated. It was the University of Michigan for Sterling, and, for Caroline, Misses Kelly’s School in Utica, New York, a college level finishing school. They had fallen in love as teenagers and reached a marriageable age at the time of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, legislation which made Nebraska a hospitable political environment for Sterling, an ambitious newspaperman with Democratic leanings. Thus, not because of need, religious persecution or any of the usual reasons—but, rather in a spirit of adventure and possible career edge—Sterling and his bride left their Detroit homes for the state of Nebraska on the afternoon of their wedding day, October 30, 1854.  

The Joy in Caroline’s name was not a girl’s middle name. Her birth parents were Hiram and Caroline Joy. The harness maker and his wife had left Hallowell, Maine, for Michigan with their infant daughter in 1834, seeking business opportunities in the mushrooming town of Detroit.

The population of Detroit was exploding in 1834, as was a cholera epidemic.

However, after only a few months in their new home, the young mother became so seriously ill that she called upon new—but already close—friends, for an immense favor. Sensing she was dying and that her husband would be unable to cope with a new business and a child, she asked Cynthia French, a 48-year-old childless neighbor, and her husband, David, to take the baby into their household. Thus, little Caroline Joy became Caroline Joy French, and Hiram Joy, a loving neighbor.

Caroline and Sterling Morton, at the time of their marriage.

Soon after their arrival in the new territory, the young Mortons selected a 160-acre piece of property two miles from Nebraska City. Dipping into Caroline’s dowry–they purchased the land and named it Morton Ranch. Dipping further, they built a house they would name Arbor Lodge—two bedrooms, a parlor and a large kitchen with a fireplace in each room.

 Arbor Lodge after additions had begun.

If the names sound pretentious, it should be noted that Arbor Lodge was the first frame house with shingles between the Missouri River and California—and four rooms, each with fireplace, was merely the beginning, as evidenced in the photographs above and below.

Arbor Lodge in 1865.

Sterling and Caroline kept attaching rooms, wings and further add-ons to Arbor Lodge, and when they stopped, their son Joy would continue, until four rooms today number 52, and Arbor Lodge closely resembles the new Trump residence in Washington, D.C. Furthermore, the 160-acre Morton Ranch, with its surrounding Morton-owned property, would eventually total 1,250 acres.

Arbor Lodge in 1880.

The livestock the Mortons acquired included Suffolk hogs, Durham cattle and sheep. Potatoes and other vegetables were planted, and, in 1858, more land was purchased for orchards with trees bearing apples, peaches, pears and plums.

In addition, the Mortons planted shade trees. The plains were barren and easily parched, prompting Caroline, from the very beginning, to insist upon extensive planting of trees around the house and throughout Morton Ranch. Sterling agreed. They would continue to plant quantities of trees every year for the beauty, tranquility and civility they brought to the frontier, but also for food, fuel and shade.

Sterling had quickly gone from journalist for the Nebraska City News to journalist-farmer, and he soon added sometime-politician to his identities. However, although he became the most influential Democrat in Nebraska, he never held elective office.

The campaign leading toward establishment of a holiday devoted to trees began in 1857, when the journalist and quasi-politician in Sterling led him to wage a crusade urging everyone in the territory to plant trees. The project spread throughout the region and then across the nation until, from 1872, we have had the moveable feast of Arbor Day, which in 2017 falls on April 28.

While setting out trees and expanding property, the Mortons also began producing sons. First, there was Joy in 1855, then Paul in 1857, with Mark a year later, and finally Carl in 1865. All with one-syllable names, at Caroline’s insistence, to discourage nicknames. As with nearly everything the Mortons touched, each of the boys would become successful.

Joy was the star, but Mark became associated with him in the Morton Salt Company and they worked together in developing the Morton Arboretum, which Joy would found in 1922. Paul was president of the Equitable Life Assurance Society of New York and served as Secretary of the Navy in President Theodore Roosevelt’s cabinet. Carl headed Argo Starch Works, but, in 1901 at age 36, he died of double pneumonia, almost a half century before penicillin would make it anything but a deadly disease.   

The Mortons were an extraordinarily close family, despite Sterling’s incessant travel—to Detroit, to Chicago, to Washington—he was always on the move, never seeming to be at home. Furthermore, he and Caroline each had a well-developed sense of self—in Sterling’s case, a sizable ego.

He was headstrong, often to the point of counterproductivity. For example, despite sufficient credits, a “fearless mischievous nature” prevented his 1854 graduation from Michigan and led to the beginning of his journalistic career as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press. During his brief tenure with the Free Press, he became a protégé of its editor, Wilbur F. Storey, who would later be the controversial anti-Lincoln editor of the Times in Chicago.

It would be difficult to find a more divisive newspaperman in the North of Abraham Lincoln than Wilbur F. Storey.

Sterling’s own politics, Democratic and anti-Lincoln—unpopular even in Nebraska—thwarted any hope of election to political office. And yet, in both the Mortons, there was a strong talent for what would now be considered public relations that made it all work.  

The very action of two young people of relatively substantial circumstances heading out to Nebraska territory from settled Detroit appears calculated to gain attention, to set themselves apart from their contemporaries in either location—which effectively it did.

And the trees. Who else would manage to become a historic figure by insisting that other people plant trees? 

”Trees are much superior to cold marble as memorials to persons or events. Other holidays repose upon the past. Arbor Day proposes for the future.” – J. Sterling Morton

Or the naming of a four-room cabin Arbor Lodge and a 160-acre Midwestern farm Morton Ranch? Yet Sterling and Caroline followed with the relentless enlarging of both house and land, until both equaled their names.

Arbor Lodge today: Somewhere inside this gargantuan structure is the first frame house with shingles between the Missouri River and California.

The Morton’s eldest son, Joy, inherited Sterling and Caroline’s knack for promotion. During his continued enlargement of Arbor Lodge, resulting in its current astonishing presence, the mansion was the Joy Morton family summer home.

In 1923, Joy donated the structure and 65 surrounding acres to the state of Nebraska as a monument to his father—forever venerating both Sterling and his holiday.

Joy also reinforced the family’s Arbor Day tradition with the creation of the spectacular Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, west of Chicago. And he commemorated a 17th century maternal ancestor by commissioning a replica of a historic Boston structure created by Thomas Joy in 1658 as a conspicuously located office building in Chicago.

Coming up: Megan McKinney’s Classic Chicago series, The Mortons, will continue next week with When It Rains It Pours.

Photo Credit:

Select images courtesy of the Sterling Morton Library

The Morton Arboretum.

Author Photo:

Robert F. Carl