J. Sterling Morton may have been a Santa Claus of tree planters, but he was a Grinch when it came to Christmas trees.
Morton, as any Nebraska fourth-grader should know, was a promoter of planting trees on the 19th century frontier prairie and was the father of Arbor Day, now a national tree-planting holiday.
He also wasn't shy about expressing his views.
On Nov. 23, 1899, Morton used his Nebraska City newspaper to attack the custom of cutting down healthy trees for use as holiday decorations. He wrote:
“Millions upon millions of the straightest, most symmetrical and vigorous hemlocks, spruces, pines and balsams, will soon be aboard freight cars and going towards cities to be put into homes for Christmas trees, which shall bear tin bells, dolls, bon bons, glass bulbs and all sorts of jimcracks for the amusement of children. The generations following will want for lumber which these Christmas trees would have made.”
The 67-year-old Morton's broadside against a holiday tradition brought to America by German immigrants in the early 1800s was published in the weekly newspaper he edited and published, The Conservative.
Morton established the magazine-format newspaper in 1898 to further his economic and political views and to promote agriculture and tree planting, said Pat Gaster of the Nebraska State Historical Society.
“He surely would have applauded the modern advent of the artificial Christmas tree,” Gaster said. “Oh, and trivial decorations: He thought it was almost a degrading thing to do to a tree.''
Reaction in other Nebraska newspapers to Morton's criticism of Christmas trees was mixed.
The Courier in Lincoln on Dec. 9, 1899, agreed with Morton, writing, “The fragrant fir hung with presents, glittering with lights, and surrounded by the beautiful, happy faces of children is a pleasant sight. But it costs the life of a tree and we cannot afford it.”
The Kearney Daily Hub said on Dec. 13: “There are a great many of us ... who have not stopped to think about it at all ... and it seems now that attention has been called to the wanton destruction aforesaid, that it ought to be stopped. But he (Morton) shouldn't deprive us of our Christmas trees without offering us something else.”
There actually was another option. Sears, Roebuck & Co. began offering artificial Christmas trees around 1883. Trees with 33 limbs cost 50 cents; with 55 limbs, $1.
But Morton's mansion in Nebraska City also provided an alternative. Morton put cut, unwanted cedar trees in the house for Christmas, said Randy Fox, superintendent of Arbor Lodge State Historic Park. The park preserves Morton's mansion and grounds.
“The cedar was considered a weed tree,'' Fox said. “He used a lot of cedars. That's all they had. There weren't a lot of pine trees out here at that time.''
Fox faithfully followed Morton's use of cedars when decorating the mansion for Christmas when the park offered holiday tours in past years. But the natural trees had a natural drawback.
“Coyotes tend to use cedar trees to mark their territory, so you want to be careful,” Fox said. “We've brought cedars in, and all of a sudden they're in a warm place, and you smell coyote urine. That's not good.''
Fox said Morton's anti-Christmas tree campaign was ingrained in his nature.
“He was a true conservationist,'' Fox said. “He didn't want to cut down trees at all. Period.''
But the old tree-planter's appeal didn't put down roots.
Christmas trees have become a major commercial industry. The National Christmas Tree Association estimates that nearly 25 million to 30 million cut trees are sold every year. The Wall Street Journal once estimated that consumers spend about $1 billion on artificial trees that primarily come from overseas.
Real Christmas trees, in comparison, are grown at tree farms in all 50 states, contributing to local economies and helping keep family farms from being converted to other uses, the association says.
At Nebraska City's Lied Lodge & Conference Center, a 17-foot white fir Christmas tree dominates the lobby. The Arbor Day Foundation's landmark structure of timbers and stone celebrates trees. Smaller cut trees decorate six conference rooms.
Amy Stouffer, the lodge's marketing coordinator, said tree-hugging Morton couldn't have imagined modern timber stewardship from his vantage point at the dawn of the 20th century.
“We're all about planting trees,'' she said.
The towering fir in the lodge lobby was specifically grown for the lodge in a Christmas tree plot on the nearby 260-acre Arbor Day Farm. Most trees on the site are never harvested, but arborists identify a few early as potential lobby centerpieces.
Stouffer said she thinks Morton would be pleased.
“He would love it that we plant millions of new trees every year,'' she said.
Back at Morton's Arbor Lodge, Fox's residence in the rear of the mansion is decorated for the holiday.
The Christmas tree is artificial.
J. Sterling Morton's newspaper printed a series of exhortations against cutting trees for Christmas decorating in 1899. On Dec. 14, three weeks after Morton's lament about freight cars full of trees bound for city homes, Morton published a poem by Walt Mason titled “Vandals.''
Here is the third stanza of Mason's poem:
A tree of beauty that sways and sighs,
And talks in whispers to winter skies.
On a landscape brown it is green and bright,
A token of summer, in winter's blight.
And the old man sees it, and says, “Fair tree,
When I have crossed over the silent sea,
My children may rest in your grateful shade,
Their children may sport in this cheerful glade.
O, long may you breathe, if a tree has breath,
Fair emblem of life, in a world of death!”
But a vandal came (and an ax had he)
And he chopped it down for a Christmas tree!
Mason was a native Canadian who traveled from job to job across the Midwest in the late 19th century. He and Morton became friends, said Pat Gaster of the Nebraska State Historical Society.
Mason eventually landed at the Emporia (Kan.) Gazette and worked for legendary editor William Allen White.
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