A legacy planted in rich soil

Boy Scouts from Adams plant a tree outside the Adams Fire Hall to celebrate Arbor Day in 2017. Watertown Daily Times

WATERTOWN — No one should be at all surprised by this fact, but there are many things that I simply don’t know.

I never knew there was any connection between a prominent food seasoning brand based in Chicago and a major tourist attraction in the city’s western suburbs. And until a few years ago, I had no idea that a popular event held each year across the country had a link to Northern New York.

The common denominator all these factors share is the name Morton. The legacy of environmental conservation that two members of the Morton family left is extraordinary.

J. Sterling Morton was born in Adams on April 22, 1832. He left New York in his late teens to attend college in Michigan and settled in the Nebraska Territory in his early 20s.

Throughout his life, Morton vigorously promoted nature and agriculture. According to the website for the Old Farmer’s Almanac, he began his family’s practice of planting trees shortly after he was married.

“After he and his bride, Caroline Joy French, were married in Detroit, they headed west for adventure in the wilds of Nebraska Territory. The couple settled on 160 treeless acres (the key word here is treeless),” the website reports. “Despite having a busy career and four sons, Morton planted thousands of trees on the homestead he called the Morton ‘ranche.’ He planted an apple orchard as well as peach, plum and pear trees, plus cottonwoods, evergreens, beeches and more.”

Morton held several public offices during his time in Nebraska. He briefly served in the U.S. House of Representatives as well as acting governor of the territory. He also was appointed secretary of Nebraska by President James Buchanan and later on served under President Grover Cleveland as U.S. secretary of agriculture.

In 1872, Morton persuaded the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture to designate the last Friday in April as Arbor Day. Nebraskans planted more than 1 million trees during the inaugural event.

“If I had the power, I would compel every man in the state who had a home of his own to plant out and cultivate fruit trees,” he said at the time.

Aside from his government posts, Morton worked as a journalist. His uncle and grandfather operated a newspaper in Michigan when he was young. After moving to the Nebraska Territory, he served as editor of the Nebraska City News.

“After serving four years as secretary of agriculture, Morton returned to Nebraska City where he published a weekly journal, The Conservative,” according to information from the website for Nebraska Newspapers. “He also wrote for Chicago newspapers, served as a Washington representative for the Burlington railroad and helped to establish the Nebraska State Historical Society.”

The Morton family name resonates with me because it has links to my hometown. Morton’s son, Joy, incorporated the Morton Salt Co. in Chicago in 1910. The Morton Salt name and the firm’s iconic graphic of a girl holding an umbrella — along with its corporate tagline, “When it Rains it Pours” — are clearly visible on the roof of a huge company warehouse while driving on the Kennedy Expressway north of downtown Chicago.

Joy Morton carried on his father’s love of nature with a monumental contribution to the Chicago area. He founded one of the most exquisite sites in the western suburbs — one of my favorite spots to visit.

“When Joy Morton established the Morton Arboretum in 1922, he envisioned a ‘great outdoor museum’ of trees. Today, our living collections inspire visitors to appreciate, learn about, plant and protect trees,” the Morton Arboretum’s website says. “The Arboretum champions the world’s trees through plant collections, science and conservation, education, and outreach. The Morton Arboretum’s 1,700 acres hold more than 222,000 live plants, representing nearly 4,300 taxa from around the world.”

Visiting the Morton Arboretum is an absolute treat! Taking in its wonders while strolling along its paths calms the mind and renews the heart. It brings to life what conservationist John Muir said appreciating the outdoors: “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.”

I reflected on these wondrous connections when reading a news item published a few days ago on the NNY360.com website:

“The Thousand Islands Land Trust is hosting its eighth annual For the Trees Arbor Day celebration. Through TILT and the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District, participants can register to receive a free sapling, T-shirt and planting and care instructions. The saplings will be available for pickup at the TILT office during business hours between April 26 and April 30. A limited number of trees are available. Participants are encouraged to take photos of planted trees and post on social media with the hashtag -TreesForTILT. A TILT Arbor Day video will be posted to Facebook and YouTube on May 1. Reserve a sapling by emailing volunteer@tilandtrust.org, by calling the TILT office at 315-686-5345 or by signing up on the TILT website.”

Arbor Day 2021 will be celebrated Friday. Let’s honor the Morton family’s tradition of preserving the environment by planting some trees this week.

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to jmoore@wdt.net. They also may follow him on Twitter: @WDT_OpEd.

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