Harmon’s Histories: Arbor Day a leafy rite of spring in Missoula since 1887
“The day was perfect. The sunshine took a conspicuous part in the proceedings.” The Missoula Brass Band played as “crowds of little ones in spring attire and those of mature years” poured out onto the school yard.
It was Tuesday, May 18, 1887: Missoula’s first Arbor Day.
The morning had been spent in special exercises at the school. Students from all grade levels participated in recitals, which appropriately included “Woodsman, Spare that Tree.”
Local attorney Walter M. Bickford told the crowd it was particularly fitting “that one day a year be devoted to the planting of trees on which to expend care, to water and watch grow,” and if Missoulians would just “take more time to plant trees, we would have the pleasantest town in the West.”
He told the youngsters they would learn much that afternoon. When they grew older, he said, they would look
back at the day with pleasure.
Judge George W. Reeves echoed Bickford’s remarks, saying: “In a country where there is not sufficient moisture for the trees to to grow without water, care and attention, the planting of trees was a glorious idea – a magnificent monument to the names of departed loved ones.”
Some of the happiest moments of his life, said the judge, “were spent under the branches of a stalwart oak, when he and Mrs. Reeves were making agreeable whisperings and thinking thoughts of love.”
The school trustees had arranged for each class to have a tree to plant, and that each would be named.
One tree planted that sunny afternoon was named after Frank L. Worden, a town founder. Another was named for Ulysses S. Grant and yet another for Robert E. Lee, whom Judge Reeves termed “second to no man that ever lived, who was compelled to surrender his sword to a man as good as he.”
The next trees were named for Grover Cleveland, Henry Ward Beecher and Capt. Christopher P. Higgins.
Then there was the tree simply named “Bertha,” to honor Berth Payne, a young student who had died the previous winter.
In the quarter century following the very first Arbor Day on April 10, 1872 in Nebraska City, Nebraska, the tree-planting movement caught on across the country.
Montana’s Legislature passed “An Act to Encourage Tree-Planting and Arboriculture” on February 28, 1887 and Governor Preston Leslie followed up with a proclamation setting the third Tuesday of May as Montana’s annual Arbor Day.
Over time, the date was changed to the final Friday of April. Late May, for much of Montana, proved a little late to be planting trees.
One of the most notable Arbor Day observances in Missoula was held in 1896 when it expanded to include a parade, musical performances, a morning dedication of the new University grounds and afternoon athletic events at Union Park.
The 25th Infantry Band from Fort Missoula led the parade “from Court House square” to the Central School (now MCT) where schoolchildren joined the procession to the University.
Five hundred cottonwood trees were planted on campus, with the school kids helping the sponsoring fraternal groups and business leaders get the job done.
At 1 o’clock everyone gathered at the courthouse and proceeded to the Athletic Park for bike and foot races, pole vaulting and a baseball game.
This year, Jamie Kirby, the Urban Forestry Coordinator at Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, tells me there are “over 40 Arbor Day Celebrations set to take place around Montana.”
She says, given the pandemic, “Kalispell is hosting a large hybrid event, both virtual and live from their park. They have clips from dignitaries like Senator Tester and the state forester Sonya Germann to share live. Several schools and classrooms will participate virtually.
“Dillon hosted a socially distanced tree pruning and care event (and) Whitehall will be having preschoolers make their way to the park, all masked, for a simple tree planting with DNRC.”
Kirby notes that Great Falls is celebrating its 40th year of being a Tree City USA, and Missoula has held a virtual 5K Run for the Trees and a live 10K event, with more activities planned in the weeks ahead by the group Trees For Missoula.
Karen Sippy, coordinator of that group, says their educational outreach this year includes “every student at Lowell receiving a clay leaf to make their own. Clay Studio will fire the leaves and SPARK! Arts will create a mural using the leaves.”
Kirby says she’ll likely spend Arbor Day, this Friday the 30th, in Browning “celebrating with Blackfeet Community College, giving away tree seedlings – an event held mostly outdoors with food, celebration and community.”
By the way, in case you’re interested, the city of Missoula has an official list of “approved street trees.”
No matter where you are this Friday, you can get in the spirit of things by singing the official Arbor Day song – that’s right, there is an official Arbor Day song.
It can be found online from a rare 1902 booklet stored at the University of Montana’s Archives and Special Collection, at the Mansfield Library:
Arbor Day has come at last; the long expected day.
Now we meet to greet you all; for this is Arbor Day.
Arbor Day has come at last; and we are bright and gay.
All hearts join in happy songs; for this is Arbor Day!
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at email@example.com. His new book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is now available at harmonshistories.com.