Trees are essential to all life on planet Earth. They produce oxygen, store carbon, stabilize the soil, and offer food and homes for wildlife. Trees provide people with things to eat, materials for tools, compounds for medicine, and wood for shelter. They inspire poets, artists, and musicians and have featured prominently in the stories of humankind since time immemorial. As the longest living species on earth, trees link us to the past, present, and future. 

In 19th century America, our relationship to trees experienced a rapid transformation that was unique in human history. Michigan, in particular, was the heart of a great lumbering era when rapid technological progress allowed men to cut, transport, and process vast old-growth forests into lumber at an ever-increasing pace. The biggest pines they cut were 200 feet tall and had lived for 400 hundred years. Eastern White Pine and Red Pine were the favored species, offering mammoth trunks reaching to the sky.

In the mid-1800s, Michigan’s vast pine forests drew thousands of people to our state. Surveyors, shanty boys, lumber barons, and sawmill operators are just a few of the many jobs created in this era. Virtually every aspect of the economy was linked to this industry, with our state leading the nation during the last quarter of the 19th century. By the time this great boom came to a close, Michigan’s lumber outvalued the wealth generated by California’s gold rush by over a billion dollars. The effects on our population, economy and prosperity cannot be overstated. In the midst of this rush to wealth, a select few issued warnings that went unheeded, resulting in the collapse of an industry and severe impacts to the environment which are still visible today.

Julius Sterling Morton Creates Arbor Day

A graduate of the University of Michigan, J. Sterling Morton lived in this state for more than 20 years before moving to Nebraska Territory in 1854. Soon after his arrival, he became editor of the Nebraska City News and an active politician. As a lover of trees living in a vast tallgrass prairie, Morton missed the forests of Michigan and was alarmed at the wanton destruction he witnessed from afar, a pattern being repeated throughout the country.

Writing for his newspaper, Morton promoted the value of trees, specifically urging students to plant trees for shade, to help block the wind, for firewood, and building material. He even took his ideas to the state legislature, advocating for a special tree-planting holiday known as “Arbor Day.” His ideas were wildly successful as Nebraskans planted an estimated one million trees on the first Arbor Day, held April 12, 1872. Nebraska eventually honored Morton by declaring his birthday, April 22, as the permanent date for Arbor Day in that state.

Michigan became the third state in the nation to celebrate Arbor Day on April 28, 1881. Governor David H. Jerome declared “the importance of planting trees for ornament, protection and shade by naming a day upon which this work shall be given special prominence, to be known and designated as Arbor day.”

Reforesting Michigan

The first efforts to begin a statewide reforestation program occurred in 1887. Despite the passage of a Michigan Forestry Commission Act that year, most still discounted reforestation as a possibility. Due to industry pressure, the act was repealed and official efforts to replant Michigan’s forests were postponed for another decade.

In spite of this early setback, Arbor Day became increasingly popular in our state, a movement largely led by teachers and students. In 1892, sixth grade pupils in Miss Belle Wallace’s room, in Midland, debated and voted for “Our State Tree” and “Our State Flower” resulting in the maple tree being their favorite.

On a grander scale, the State of Michigan established a new State Forestry Commission in 1899. In the next few years, they created two forest reserves and the Higgins Lake State Nursery, which eventually became the largest pine nursery in the nation.

In 1913, the nursery at Higgins Lake shipped 76,400 young trees for statewide planting, with an additional 32,000 provided to Scout groups, public schools, and other organizations. Inventories at the nursery totaled nearly 3 million trees that year. In 1914, Michigan Governor Woodbridge Nathan Harris expanded the annual tree-planting holiday, declaring “Arbor and Bird Day” for planting trees and preserving bird life.

A Lasting Legacy

The devastation created during Michigan’s 19th century lumbering era was eventually healed by decades of conservation efforts which continue to this day. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, young men of the Civilian Conservation Corps planted millions of trees throughout the state, resulting in new pine forests planted in neat rows, many which still stand today.

As the White Pine played such an important part in our history, it was officially named Michigan’s State Tree in 1955.

While it no longer receives equal publicity to Earth Day, Arbor Day is still celebrated throughout the United States and beyond, traditionally on the last Friday in April. Established in 1972, the Arbor Day Foundation is the largest nonprofit conservation and education organization devoted to tree planting. Among their many programs is Tree City USA, advocating the importance of an urban tree canopy and recognizing cities who plant and care for trees. The City of Midland became the recipient of this honor in 1995.

In 2015, the Arboriculture Society of Michigan awarded Dow Gardens and City of Midland the Gold Leaf Award for helping Eastlawn Elementary students plant trees in Central Park on Arbor Day. A similar partnership continues today, showing Midland’s primary school children the value of trees, planting a large tree at each elementary school, and distributing white pine seedlings for kids to take home. Perhaps some of these tiny saplings will become future Michigan giants, providing food, shade, beauty and oxygen for generations.


Created with an image by Spencer Watson - "Above the trees"