“Drizzling Rain Kept All Indoors”: Wyoming’s First Arbor Day, 1888
By Phil Roberts, Department of History, University of Wyoming
Wyoming law establishes the last Monday in April as Arbor Day. On that day, according to the statute, a “tree shall be planted on state grounds in a simple ceremony.”
Pioneers in many Wyoming towns tried to plant and maintain trees in their communities. For instance, in Laramie in 1874, the town council passed an ordinance stating that "no horse, mule or other beast of burden" could be "tied to any tree without the owner's permission." Further, the ordinance stated that up to a $50 fine could be assessed on anyone "who shall willfully, without the permission of the owner, destroy or mutilate any growing tree" within the town's borders.
Arbor Day in Wyoming had it origins in the territorial days. A month after the territorial legislature passed the Arbor Day law in March 1888, Gov. Thomas Moonlight issued a proclamation designating it on April 27.
“I request that it be observed throughout the territory by the planting of trees, shrubs, and vines; by the beautifying of homes, highways, public grounds, church yards and other public and private places,” Gov. Moonlight wrote. He further urged the University president and superintendents of schools in the various counties to “give especial attention to tree culture” on that day.
Newspapers throughout the territory printed the proclamation and most encouraged citizens to “plant a tree.”
A few days before that first official Arbor Day, the editor of the Cheyenne Daily Leader wrote: “The indications are that Arbor Day will be more generally observed in Cheyenne this year than ever before. Much interest has been manifested in the subject of tree planting for several years past and the result is shown in the way that is gratifying to every one with the interest of the town at heart.” He credited the town’s tree-planting as an important part of the city’s efforts to “stimulate private enterprise.”
The day after Arbor Day, the Daily Leader reported on the school ceremonies. It “was celebrated with all the pomp and circumstance possible under existing conditions,” the report said, noting that “the weather precluded the occurrence of outdoor demonstrations.” The weather seemed typical for Wyoming in late April: “a drizzling rain forced all indoors,” the article read.
In the indoor ceremonies, students read essays they had written and others recited poetry. A well-known civic leader, “J. C. Baird addressed the scholars.”
But not all of the ceremonies remained inside. After the recitations, students helped teachers and school employees. “A line of trees was planted in front of the school grounds. Each was named and placed by the pupils.”
Most of the names given to the trees were for famous Americans, including one for J. Sterling Morton, the Nebraska newspaperman who originated Arbor Day in 1872 in Nebraska. (Officially, however, Nebraska first designated the holiday just three years prior to Wyoming’s 1888 declaration).
Two students apparently gained the wrath of their teacher when, contrary to “naming their tree” for someone like Lincoln or Washington, proposed it be named for John L. Sullivan and Paddy Ryan, two famous boxers of the period. “The teacher would have none of it,” the paper concluded.
Not only were trees planted at the school in Cheyenne, “Trees and shrubbery were set out in the park, about several of the churches and at the post [Fort D. A. Russell].”
As the Cheyenne editor pointed out, “So far as has been learned, the day was generally observed throughout the territory.”
In Rawlins, “Tree planting has been all the rage last week, a great number of them being planted,” the local paper noted. A week later, the same paper observed, “Tree planting still goes on. In a few years Fourth Street will be the shadiest and handsomest street in the city.”
In Lusk, a town founded barely a year and a half earlier, the newspaper urged citizens: “Plant trees. Today is Arbor Day.” Similar exhortations appeared in other newspapers in the territory.
Surely, the official observances must have urged residents in Wyoming towns, many only recently founded, to bring trees to previously barren plains.
The statement made years later about the Arbor Day plantings in Cheyenne in 1897 may be typical: “School children marched to the lake and planted trees,” the historical account reads. “For years each knew which one they had planted.”
Arbor Day brought not only more trees and greenery to Wyoming communities but a continuing sense of pride in residents of all ages—even when, for the ceremonies at least, “drizzling rain kept all indoors.”