Even before the emergence of Arbor Day, Nebraska tree enthusiasts would get together. In October 1872, J. Sterling Morton and 100 of his friends went on a huge Nebraska orchard tour.
Well before the emergence of Arbor Day as a state holiday dedicated to tree planting, southeast Nebraska had a number of thriving orchards. The Nebraska State Horticultural Society sponsored an 1872 summer tour of some of the most outstanding in Otoe County. Organized on September 29, 1869, the organization included such early agricultural notables as J. Sterling Morton, upon whose initiative the State Board of Agriculture set aside April 10, 1872, for tree planting, and Robert W. Furnas, who while serving as governor, issued the first proclamation designating Arbor Day in 1874. The day became a legal holiday in 1885 when the Legislature set aside April 22, Morton’s birthday, as Arbor Day.
In October 1872, The Cultivator, published in Omaha, described the Nebraska orchard tour by more than one hundred members of the Horticultural Society and their guests. The group visited the orchards of W. J. Armstrong, Robert Hawke, and John W. Pearman before arriving at J. Sterling Morton’s farm. “[O]ur party were soon scattered through his orchard of four hundred bearing trees planted in 1858, and his young orchard of one thousand trees, planted two years ago.
“We never saw such sights before in the way of apples. His trees are bending to the ground with fruit; and, as he wandered about from tree to tree, tasting of this and that variety, Morton’s musical voice could be heard: ‘Oh no! can’t raise fruit in Nebraska! How’s that for high?’ pointing to his famous Darwins, which trees contained at least twenty bushels each. Mr. Morton takes great pains with his orchard, and is now enjoying the fruits of his labor.
“The next place we arrived at was that of the Hon. Wm. Payne, on Kearney Heights, the most lovely among them all. Here our party made a raid on his orchard, from different directions, in true bushwhacker style, where we examined and tasted of as fine fruits as could be grown anywhere. Even old Missouri could not beat it. . . . Adjoining Mr. Payne’s orchard are those of Mr. Boyer, Mr. Munce, John Reed and Mrs. Tait, all loaded with fine healthy fruit.”
A highlight of the first day’s tour was the visit with Joseph Sands. “After perambulating for a while over his orchard, examining the different varieties, we wended our way to a beautiful grove near the house, where we partook of some few dozen bottles of Nebraska Concord wine, made by Mr. S. from grapes grown on his own grounds.”
The second day included another round of orchard tours, highlighted by the hospitality of O. Harmon, who served the visitors cake and ice cream, the latter a rare treat in 1872. Fatigue and heat prompted society members to postpone the rest of the tour until cooler weather in the fall.