Morton Mansion a testament to power and beauty of trees — and salt mines

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The summer mansion of salt king Joy Morton in Nebraska City, Neb., has 52 rooms, including the grand hall complete with sporting trophies.

If this 52-room mansion was a “summer retreat,” what was their daily home like?

The Arbor Lodge/Morton Mansion is an immense neo-colonial mansion at the Arbor Lodge State Historical Park in Nebraska City, Neb. What began as a four-room, L-shaped, frame home built by J. Sterling Morton and his wife, Caroline Joy French, in 1855 — a mansion in its own time — evolved through multiple renovations and expansions into the vast structure completed in 1903 by their eldest son, Joy, and donated to the state of Nebraska in 1923.

In 1855 J. Sterling Morton was the editor of the Nebraska City News, using the paper to promote the benefits of tree planting and agricultural advancement. In addition to his career in journalism, Morton held many public offices, including Territorial Representative, Secretary and Acting Governor of the Territory and later U.S. Secretary of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland.

Yet with all his career success, Morton is best known as the founder of Arbor Day.

“Other holidays repose upon the past,” he said. “Arbor Day proposes for the future.”

As president of the State Board of Agriculture, he introduced a resolution in 1872 calling for a tree-planting day. In 1885 the Nebraska legislature made Arbor Day a legal holiday to be celebrated on Morton’s birthday, April 22. More than 1 million trees were planted in Nebraska on the first Arbor Day in 1872.

Today U.S. states celebrate Arbor Day from January to May, based on the best tree planting dates for their area, with National Arbor Day — and also Iowa’s Arbor Day — celebrated on the last Friday in April.

The Mortons, both husband and wife, were nature lovers whose mantra was: “Plant trees.” J. Sterling Morton believed there was not only an aesthetic value to trees but also an economic value. He thought trees would benefit Nebraska by providing lumber, fruit and windbreaks and by retaining moisture in the soil.

Joy Morton, founder of Morton Salt, expanded and altered the home after his father’s death in 1902, also adding a carriage house and terraced gardens. For 20 years, Joy and his family used the mansion as a summer retreat before donating it to Nebraska. The family’s Thornhill Mansion and Estate in Lisle, Ill., formed the original basis of what is now the Morton Arboretum.

The Morton Mansion in Nebraska City is currently decorated for the holidays and provides information on the origins of various holiday traditions, such as trees, tinsel, mistletoe and more.

The Mansion is open April to October and on special dates in November and December. The Mansion is currently open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Dec. 20.

Plant trees.

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