HOW THE FOUNDER OF ARBOR DAY CREATED THE MOST FAMOUS WESTERN ESTATE
BY PAUL MORTON
"The memories that live and bloom in trees, that whisper of the loved and lost in summer leaves, are as imperishable as the seasons of the year - immoral as the love of a mother." - J. STERLING MORTON.
I suppose the story of a successful pioneer will always interest and encourage people. The narrative of a strong, far-sighted man who makes something out of nothing seems to put heart into the average worker. That is why I am telling the story of how my father, J. Sterling Morton, and his young wife, set their faces toward the West, one October day in 1854, and built them a home on the prairies.
Arbor Lodge as it stands today, with its classic porticoes, its gardens, and its arboretum, the present country home of my brother, Mr. Joy Morton, is not the home that I remember as a boy. That was a much more modest edifice. Yet even that house was a palace compared with the first one, which was a little log-cabin standing on the lonely prairie, exposed to blizzards and Indians and with scarcely a tree in sight.
My father was a young newspaper man in Detroit, only recently out of college, when he took his bride, two years his junior, out to the little-known frontier. Attracted by the information about the new country brought out by Douglas and others in the Kansas-Nebraska debates in congress, he conceived and acted on the idea that here were fortunes to be made. Taking such household goods as they could, they traveled to the new land, making the last stage up the Missouri river by boat.
Nebraska at that time was the Indian's own country. There were not over 1,500 white people in the entire state. All the country west of the Missouri was called in the geographies the Great American Desert, and it took a good deal of faith to believe that anything could be made to grow where annual fires destroyed even the prairie grass and the fringes of cottonwoods235
NEBRASKA PIONEER REMINISCENCES
and scrub-oaks along the rivers. Today this section, within a radius of some two hundred miles, includes perhaps the most fertile soil in the world and has become a center of industry, agriculture, and horticulture for the middle west. There was then no political organization, no laws; men went about fully armed. There were no roads and no bridges to speak of in the entire state; it was "waste land."
This was part of the land of the Louisiana Purchase, and my father bought a quarter section (160 acres) from the man who preëmpted it from the government. The price paid was $1.25 an acre. Today the estate comprises about 1,000 acres, and the land is readily saleable at a hundred times this price.
On the spot where Arbor Lodge now stands, my father built his first log-cabin. This was soon replaced by a modest frame house; there was not then another frame house between it and the Rocky Mountains, six hundred miles away. On the same place two succeeding houses were built by my father, the present, and fifth, Arbor Lodge having been built by his sons after his death. My father called these first four houses, "seed, bud, blossom, and fruit."
The first winter was a mild one, fortunately, but there were plenty of hardships for the young people. There were no very near neighbors, the village of Kearny Heights, now Nebraska City, being then over two miles away. The Indians formed the greatest danger. I can remember a day in my boyhood when we had everything packed up, ready to flee across the Missouri to Iowa from the murderous Pawnees and Cheyennes, who, fortunately, did not come that time. A part of that first winter my father and mother spent in Bellevue.
When spring came they set about building their home. Later on they had young trees sent to them from the East, including some excellent varieties of apples, peaches, cherries, pears, etc. Things grew fast; it was only the prairie fires that had kept the land a desert so long, and year by year these fires had enriched the soil.
The farm was located on the Overland trail, the favorite route to Pike's Peak and the El Dorado. Many of the Mormon emigrants crossed the river at that place. I can remember the big trains of ox and mule teams passing the house.
MOST FAMOUS WESTERN ESTATE
My father's interests were always inseparably joined with those of the community; he was in public life from the start, and Nebraska's fortunes were his. His neighbors all had the same experiences, and many a farmer who started with nothing is now wealthy. The farmers had to bring in from Missouri and Iowa all the food for themselves and their horses and cattle the first year. They were living on faith. During the first spring and summer the anxiety was great, but they were rewarded by a good harvest in the fall. The success of that harvest settled the Nebraska question forever. It was a land that could support its inhabitants.
But the end was not yet. The "get-rich-quick" fever struck the community. Immigration was over-stimulated, and town lots were manufactured at a great rate. In a few months they increased in price from $300 to $3,000 apiece. Banks were created and money was made plenty by legislation. My father never caught this fever, being always a sound-money man and believing in wealth based on the soil.
At the end of the second summer the crop of town lots and Nebraska bank-notes was greater than the crop of corn. But the lesson was not learned until the panic of 1857 drove out the speculators and left the farmers in possession of the territory. With the spring of 1858 sanity came to rule once more, and there was less bank making and more prairie breaking. The citizens had learned that agriculture was to be the salvation of the new country. In 1857, two dollars a bushel had been paid for imported corn, but in 1859 the same steamers that had brought it in bore thousands of bushels south at forty cents a bushel, bringing more money into the territory than all the sales of town lots for a year.
The first territorial fair was held in Nebraska City in 1859, and on that occasion my father made a speech in which he reviewed the history of the new territory up to that time. I speak of these things because my father was always a man of public interests, and his fortunes were wrapped up in those of the territory. His hardships came when the community went crazy, and his fortune grew when sanity was once more restored.
I know of nothing that better illustrates my father's private character than an editorial which he wrote and published in
NEBRASKA PIONEER REMINISCENCES
The Conservative a short time before the untimely death of my brother Carl. The fact that both the author and the two loved ones of whom he so tenderly wrote have passed to the Great Beyond, imparts to this beautiful passage a most exquisite pathos:
"It was a bright, balmy morning in April more than a quarter of a century ago. The sun was nursing the young grass into verdure, and the prairie was just beginning to put off its winter coat of somber colorings. Tranquil skies and morning mists were redolent at Arbor Lodge of the coming resurrection of the foliage and flowers that died the autumn before. All about the cottage home there was hope and peace; and everywhere the signs of woman's watchful love and tidy care, when, suddenly, toned with affectionate solicitude, rang out: 'Carl, Carl!' but no answer came. Downstairs, upstairs, at the barn, even in the well, everywhere, the mother's voice called anxiously, again and again. But the silence, menacing and frightening, was unbroken by an answer from the lost boy. At last, however, he was found behind a smokehouse, busily digging in the ground with a small spade, though only five years of age, and he said: 'I'm too busy to talk. I'm planting an orchard,' and sure enough, he had set out a seedling apple tree, a small cottonwood, and a little elm.
"The delighted mother clasped him in her arms, kissed him, and said: 'This orchard must not be destroyed.'
"And so now
- I hear the muffled tramp of years
- Come stealing up the slopes of Time;
- They bear a train of smiles and tears
- Of burning hopes and dreams sublime.'
"The child's orchard is more than thirty years of age. The cottonwood is a giant now, and its vibrant foliage talks, summer after summer, in the evening breeze with humanlike voice, and tells its life story to the graceful, swaying elm near by, while the gnarled and scrubby little apple tree, shaped, as to its head, like a despondent toadstool, stands in dual shade, and bears small sweet apples, year after year, in all humility. But that orchard must not be destroyed. It was established by the youngest treeplanter who ever planted in this tree planter's
MOST FAMOUS WESTERN ESTATE
state, and for his sake and the memory of the sweet soul who nursed and loved him, it lives and grows, one cottonwood, one apple tree, one elm.
- "'But O, for the touch of a vanished hand,
- And the sound of a voice that is still.'
"The memories that live and bloom in trees, that whisper of the loved and lost in summer leaves, are as imperishable as the seasons of the year - immortal as the love of a mother."
EARLY REMINISCENCES OF NEBRASKA CITY
BY ELLEN KINNEY WARE
As a girl graduate I came to Nebraska City from Virginia, at an early day. It seemed to me that I was leaving everything attractive socially and intellectually, behind me, but I was mistaken. On arriving here, I expected to see quite a town, was disappointed, for two large brick hotels, and a few scattered houses comprised the place. Among my first acquaintances was the family of Governor Black, consisting of his daughter about my own age, his wife, and himself. He was not only bright and clever, but a wit as well, and famous as a story-teller. Alas a sad fate awaited him. For leaving here to take command of a Pennsylvania regiment, he was killed early in the civil war.
Those were freighting days and Russell, Majors and Waddell, government freighters, made this their headquarters. Alexander Majors brought his family here adding much socially to the town. Major Martin, an army officer, was stationed here. He was a charming gentleman and had a lovely wife. Dancing was the principal amusement with the young people. Informal dances at private homes and occasionally on a steamboat when it arrived, brilliantly lighted and having a hand of music on board. At the "Outfit" as it was called, where the supplies for the freighting company were kept, dwelt a family, Raisin by name, who were exceedingly hospitable, not only entertaining frequently, but often sending an ambulance for their guests. At these parties no round dancing was indulged in, just simple quadrilles and the lancers. Mr. and Mrs. J. Sterling Morton, who lived on a country place, a short distance from town, which has since become widely known as Arbor Lodge, were among the most active entertainers, dispensing that delightful hospitality for which in later times they were so well known.
And so we lived without railroads, without telephones, automobiles, or theaters. But I believe that our social enjoyment was greater than it is now. Instead of railroads, we had steam240
OREGON TRAIL MONUMENT, LOCATED AT THE POINT WHERE THE LINE BETWEEN JEFFERSON AND GAGE COUNTIES INTERSECTS THE KANSAS-NEBRASKA STATE LINE
Dedicated May 12, 1914. Cost $350. Trail crosses state line 1,986 feet east, and crosses Jefferson-Gage county line 2,286 feet north of this point. Erected by the citizens of Gage and Jefferson counties, Nebraska, Washington county, Kansas, and Elizabeth Montague Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution
REMINISCENCES OF NEBRASKA CITY
arriving almost daily from St. Louis, St. Joseph, and other towns. In carriages we drove to Omaha and back, and the social intercourse of the two towns was much greater than it is now.
Amateur theatricals took the place of the theater, and often brilliant, undreamed of talent was shown. Literature also was not neglected, many highly educated men and women were among our pioneers and literary societies were a prominent part of our social life. We played chess in those days, but not cards. This alone might be taken as an index of how much less frivolous that day was than the present.
In 1860 Bishop Talbot arrived here from Indianapolis and made this his home, adding greatly socially and intellectually to the life of the community. In his family was the Rev. Isaac Hager, beloved and revered by all who knew him, a most thorough musician, as well as a fine preacher.
Remembering old times we sometimes ask ourselves, where now are the men and women, equal to the ones we knew in those days, certainly there are none superior to them, in intellect, manners, wit, and true nobility.
- "Oh brave hearts journeyed to the west,
- When this old town was new!"
© 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 for the NEGenWeb Project by Pam Rietsch, T&C Miller