Arbor Day: The Rest of the Story

The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois celebrates Arbor Day year-round

Johnny Cash used to sing about “A Boy Named Sue,” but one of Chicagoland’s most celebrated citizens was a boy named Joy. But who would name their son Joy? A man named Julius. A pioneer in the world of nature conservation, Julius established Arbor Day 150 years ago this month.

Julius, a young newspaper reporter in Michigan, followed opportunity’s call and became Nebraska’s territorial governor more than a century ago. When he and his wife, Carrie, settled in Nebraska City, they were dismayed by the treeless prairie. He’d grown up near trees and forests, and his merchant father had fostered an appreciation for God’s creation.

When the couple built a four-room home on their 160 acres, they started planting trees like they’d had in Michigan. They added shade trees, shrubs and flowers. Within a few years, they added an apple orchard of 300 trees, then another orchard of 1,000. Julius wasn’t content to keep this love of trees to himself. In 1872, he suggested Nebraskans set aside a day to honor the earth and plant a tree. More than a million trees were planted in the windswept prairie that April day. Within a decade, the day became a national observance known as Arbor Day. The April date was chosen to honor Julius’ birthday.

Now for the rest of the story…

Julius, whose middle name was Sterling, had a last name, too – Morton. Besides originating Arbor Day, he became President Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of agriculture. He was an original environmental advocate. It stands to reason his family motto was “Plant trees!” When Carrie presented Julius with his first son, he named the boy Joy. Though it was an unusual name, it was a way of honoring his wife. Joy was Carrie’s middle name. I’m inclined to think there was more to it. What better name might a man give the new growth of his family tree?

Unashamed of his name, Joy Morton grew up and moved near Chicago. There, he proved he was worth his salt. Literally! He became a successful and well-seasoned businessman. Joy Morton, you see, was the founder of the Morton Salt Company. He eventually made millions. But establishing a nature conservatory on his suburban Chicago estate (in Lisle) allowed him to leave his legacy. Creating the Morton Arboretum in 1922, Joy found a tangible way to perpetuate the family motto his father had instilled. It’s one of our most valued treasures and one of DuPage county’s most visited tourist spots.

Nearly 500,000 visitors explore the arboretum each year. That’s a lot of nature lovers, but  having lived in DuPage County for more than a decade before moving to Mercer Island, I think I know why they visit. The Morton Arboretum (like the arboretums in Greater Seattle) is the mortar of the community where busy lives and families find a common bond of peace every season.

In a frantic age, it’s a summer sanctuary of serenity where time ticks at a slower, saner pace. It’s a place of grace, where towering trees acknowledge their Creator as they bend and bow in the breeze and bid us to follow their lead. It’s a fall paradise of kaleidoscopic color where parking lots are limited so dying leaves can be given their much-due respect. It’s a winter wonderland of light where frozen trees spread naked limbs against a cloudless sky and dance before a setting sun in silhouetted majesty. It’s a spring garden of flowering shrubs that blush with beauty as nature lovers admire what they see and watch the Easter miracle re-enacted as death gives way to life.

The Morton Arboretum is an Eden-like setting in a less-than- perfect world where, amid the sorrow and heartache of life, Joy will always live on. Underlying the story of our arboretum’s ancestry is a simple, but profound, reminder.

Joy Morton’s expansive garden of trees, at Route 53 and the Interstate 88, bears witness that the core values that parents embrace need not die with them. The natural and supernatural realities we cherish can be passed to our children. Love for God and what He has created can be instilled in those who grow in our shade. The arboretum is a memorial to the joy of Mother Nature that Joy Morton’s father bequeathed him. It will silently preach “sermons” extolling the good earth for a good long time to come.

Next time you’re in the Windy City, why not plan a day trip a half hour west of Lake Michigan to explore the legacy of Julius and his son Joy?

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Sheltering Grace
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