By Michelle Giddens

In the push west, pioneers moving into the Nebraska Territory discovered something amazing – the lack of trees! The grassland that covered the prairie raised bountiful crops, but the continual wind across the Plains didn’t have trees to act as windbreaks to keep soil in place. There were not nearly enough trees for fuel and building materials, nor shade from the hot sun.  

Nebraska newspaper editor – and resident of Nebraska City – J. Sterling Morton had an enthusiasm for trees and advocated strongly for individuals and civic groups to plant them. Once Mr. Morton became Secretary of the Nebraska Territory, he further spread his message. On January 4, 1872, Morton proposed a tree planning holiday to be called Arbor Day at a meeting of the State Board of Agriculture. The celebration was set for April 10, 1872, with prizes offered to counties and individuals for the largest number of trees planted properly on that day. It has been estimated that more than one million trees were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day. By 1885 Arbor Day was nameda legal state holiday and April 22nd was the permanent date for observance. 

By 1920 more than 45 states and territories were celebrating Arbor Day with a tree planting tradition becoming prominent. Schoolchildren began learning about the importance of trees. Today, Arbor Day is celebrated on different days in different states, so that the celebration coincides with the best tree planting weather. In Alabama, Arbor Day is celebrated the last full week of February. Many countries around the world celebrate Arbor Day, again during the time that best suits tree planting.  

Brent Elementary 3rd grade teacher Petra Hunter was looking for Arbor Day events in Bibb County and contacted Michelle Giddens, with Bibb County Extension. Giddens couldn’t find an Arbor Day event in Bibb County but offered to come to the school and do an Arbor Day Program with the entire Brent Elementary 3rd grade. “We had to move quickly, says Giddens, but because Extension and 4-H has a strong forestry program, we were able to put together 4 different activities the kids could do in about an hour.”   

“We pulled in a couple of our volunteers, Pam Cottingham and Scott Giddens, who came on short notice and helped us with the activities,” says Giddens. “Volunteers are so important to what we do and we’re grateful for those folks.” 

Simon Carbone, Bibb 4-H Agent, came up with the ideas: making a Tree Cookie, Leaf and Tree ID, Using Pacing to Measure Trees, and Animal Catcher game. Carbone says, “a tree cookie, is a 4 to 6 inch in diameter cross section of tree trunks that can be used to illustrate how trees grow. Cookies reveal the different layers that make up the tree. Each layer can tell us something about the tree’s life, for instance holes in the center could be an insect bore into the tree or a fungus. We take the cookie, drill a hole and thread it with twine, and let the kids decorate the cookie.”  

“Extension and 4-H did a wonderful job! The kids had a fun time, learning about trees and the history of Arbor Day,” says Hunter. “I was looking for events to refer families to, and Bibb Extension brought it to us!”