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Indiana Department of Natural Resources

Forestry > Programs > Education > Learn more about Indiana Arbor Day Learn more about Indiana Arbor Day

The last Friday in April--
a day to put down roots!

Information about Indiana Arbor Day

  • Video: How to Plant a Tree
  • Videos: tree seedling production at Vallonia State Tree Nursery
  • Free Tree Seedlings for Indiana Third Graders
  • Tree Planting Instructions
  • Planning an Arbor Day Ceremony
  • Arbor Day Teacher's Guide
  • Teacher Resources at The Woodland Steward Web site
  • Smokey Bear's Web site
  • National Arbor Day Foundation

Trees have always played an important role in human religious and mythological history. Ancient times in various parts of the world saw many superstitions and religious beliefs regarding the supernatural powers of trees and the spirits which were believed to dwell in them.

Archaeologists found through the study of paintings and carvings in Aztec ruins that the Aztec associated the life of a newborn child with that of a newly planted tree. This belief is still carried out by modern mankind of all nations.

It was not uncommon for marriages and betrothals to be celebrated by planting a new tree. Historians have discovered records that tell of a tree that was planted when a new king ascended his throne. These records indicate that the career of the king depended upon the survival of that particular tree!

A celebration similar to our modern Arbor Day has been observed in the Swiss town of Brugg since the fifth century. On a given day, the entire community goes into the nearby woods, digs up trees and transplants them on the common. Each of the children who participates in the planting is presented with a wheaton roll. Later in the evening, the adults gather in the town hall for a feast and further celebration.

Recorded observances of tree planting celebrations do not occur in this country until the 1800s. One of the earliest tree planters was George Publins Marsh from Vermont. Mr. Marsh, in his many visits to Europe as a representative of the United States, saw the importance the Europeans placed on trees. Mr. Marsh found the governments of these countries made active endeavors at great expense to renew their forests, which had been greatly depleted. Forests were the most cherished possession of these people, and were regarded as the most valuable colleges established to train men in forest management.

About this time, a practical movement was inaugurated by J. Sterling Morton that was to become known around the world as Arbor Day. Mr. Morton, in the fall of 1871, made a resolution to the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture to set aside April 10, 1872 as a day for tree planting in the state. To encourage people to plant trees, Mr. Morton's resolution offered $100 to the county agricultural society that properly planted the largest number of trees. In addition, the individual who planted the largest number of trees was to receive $25 worth of books on the subject of agriculture.

Arbor Day was not the only program being developed to encourage the planting of trees on the timberless prairies of Nebraska. The State Board of Agriculture had offered $50 for the best and largest grove of timber planted in 1870 and $25 for the second largest. Also, $15 was offered as a prize for the best orchard and row of hedges planted during the year. The State Horticultural Society was organized to further the cause of tree planting in Nebraska. During 1872, the State Boards of Horticulture and Agriculture appointed two members each to work together to prepare and present an address to the National Agricultural Convention asking for government aid to encourage tree planting on the western prairies.

On the very first Arbor Day, Mr. Morton was denied a part in the celebration. Many preparations had been made for the day, but the 800 trees Mr. Morton ordered for the event failed to arrive in time for planting. Even though Mr. Morton was unable to plant his trees, records indicate over 1 million trees were planted on the first Arbor Day.

The Arbor Day idea spread quickly to surrounding states. Within 20 years, practically all the states celebrated Arbor Day by planting trees with appropriate ceremonies. Indiana began celebrating Arbor Day in April 1884, although the day did not become an annual celebration in Indiana until 1896. Today, all the states, U.S. possessions and many European countries celebrate Arbor Day.

The "Indiana School Journal" was the first voice in Indiana that called for a tree planting program in Indiana schools. In 1870, the journal brought attention to the need for planting trees and shrubbery on the school grounds scattered across the state. It considered the problem so bad that it stated many of the grounds were "as barren of trees as the Sahara." The journal continued to advocate the importance of a school tree planting program, but it was not until the term of John W. Holcombe, State Superintendent of Schools, that observance of Arbor Day began in Indiana schools.

The first Arbor Day in Indiana was observed on April 11, 1884. Between 1884 and 1912, Arbor Day was observed on various dates at the discretion of the governor. The most common date was the last Friday of October. It is not known why a fall date was chosen over a spring day. On March 10, 1913, the Indiana legislature passed a bill setting the third Friday of April as Arbor Day. In 1929, an amendment was passed in the legislature changing the date to the second Friday in April. Due to frequent conflicts with school spring vacations and the fact that Arbor Day occasionally fell on Good Friday, the date was again changed in 1991 to the last Friday of April, corresponding to the official date of the National Arbor Day.

Nebraska went through a similar process of changing dates. The original date was April 10, 1872, a Wednesday. In 1875, Nebraska began observing Arbor Day on the third Wednesday of April. The date again changed in 1885 when the 22nd of April, the birthday of Mr. Morton, was designated as Arbor Day and made a legal state holiday.