MONROE - When the city of Monroe celebrated its annual Arbor Day festival last week, few in the audience realized that the event's founder lived in Monroe for 12 years as a young man.
J. Sterling Morton created Arbor Day in 1885 while living in Nebraska.
While not as universally celebrated today as it was years ago, the day remains an important celebration of nature in many communities around the country. Monroe, where the event is in its 15th year, counts itself among that group.
City Forester John Giarmo said the event began by planting a single tree. Since then it has evolved into a tree planting bonanza and an education workshop for 4th and 5th-grade students.
This year, the city has budgeted $137,000 for tree plantings, including 100 to 150 during the Arbor Day celebration period. As a result of this effort, Monroe is one of 3,000 municipalities across the country designated Tree City USA by the National Arbor Day Foundation, an organization inspired by the work of Mr. Morton.
"The city always has had a strong commitment to forestry; it's been pro-active with trees," said Ryan Solomon, a city spokesman.
Meanwhile, last week, about 100 students turned up at St. Mary's Park for a series of workshops and games related to Arbor Day. Among the activities over three hours were talks on conservation, wood carving, and electrical safety; a performance by a magician; and tree plantings. Some of the students will return in the next few weeks to help landscape a section of the park, Mr. Giarmo said.
"It's wonderful event," said Ed Ready, a 5th-grade teacher at Hollywood school.
He said his class just completed a three-day nature retreat at Camp Howell and that the Arbor Day event fits well with his science and nature teachings.
"You can talk about books, but when the kids actually see things for real, [it's better]," he said.
The city provides each student with a tree to plant at home. Mr. Ready, who has attended every Arbor Day event, says former students have turned up at Arbor Day festivities and tell him about the size of the trees they planted years ago.
Mr. Morton lived in Monroe as a youth beginning in the 1830s. He graduated from the University of Michigan and moved to Nebraska City, Neb. There, he and his wife bought a 160-acre property and built a home, but the land was notable because it was barren of trees. Recalling the forests of Michigan, the Mortons planted hundreds of trees on their property and Mr. Morton, editor of the Nebraska City News, promoted the activity among his readers to help, among other things, fight soil erosion.
The first Arbor Day was held in Nebraska on April 10, 1872, during which one million trees were planted across the state. The day was moved to April 22 - Mr. Morton's birthday - 13 years later. In its first 16 years, 350 million trees were planted across the state.
Other states eventually picked up on the idea, with most of them designating the last Friday of April - tomorrow - as Arbor Day. Over the years the day's notoriety has waned because of a declining lack of interest. Earth Day, on April 22, has become a more widely celebrated event..
But in Monroe, Arbor [tree in Latin] Day continues to have a special significance - especially among the students.
"It's great for the kids," Mr. Giarmo said. "It gives them a sense of accomplishment."
Contact George Tanber