In the spring of 1872, a 17-year-old boy named Joy walked with his father through the sunny streets of Nebraska City, Nebraska, watching citizens plant young tree saplings. Volunteers planted an estimated one million trees throughout the state that spring day. That same year, Joy’s dad instituted a tree-planting campaign that would birth a legacy for both of them. What the father and son could not know was that decades later, their legacy of giving back, service, and global beautification would still be impacting us.
It is possible that a seed was planted in the mind of young Joy that same day in 1872. That seed would grow into financial and philanthropic marvels, corporate and public, that still exists today. The influence from his father’s passions, talents, and career would set up Joy to create a legacy that has literally changed the globe.
Joy S. Morton was born on September 27, 1855, in Detroit, Michigan. By the time he died in May 1934, he would build a business empire and legacy of giving back, as well as funding conservation and beauty. According to author James Ballowe, Morton’s life was bookended by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Great Depression, a span of time during which the United States became a large urban and industrial nation fraught with social, cultural, political, and economic conflicts. Joy’s life would mirror those challenges.
His mother, Caroline Joy French, was an accomplished artist, musician, and gardener. She gave Joy her “green thumb” and creativity. His father, Julius Sterling Morton, a newspaperman and a leader in Nebraska politics, served as the US Secretary of Agriculture in President Grover Cleveland’s second administration. J. Sterling Morton was also central to the founding of Arbor Day, which is still celebrated today.
Joy Morton’s dad gave him an intellect, inner drive, and social connections that Joy would leverage for good and service. His father left a few important legacies of his own. In addition to founding Arbor Day in 1872, and his service in the US government, he imbued in Joy a strong work ethic and a love of trees.
At 15, Joy Morton began to manage the family farm and estate. At age 18, he fell ill with spinal meningitis. Needing physical exercise and an outdoor environment for full recovery, he farmed his own land for two years. Later, he worked for railroads, finally landing in Aurora, Illinois, before joining a Chicago salt distribution company in 1880. By 1886 he owned the firm, naming it Joy Morton and Company, and branched out into the distribution and processing of agricultural products in Nebraska and Illinois. In 1910 he incorporated his salt firm as the Morton Salt Company, one of the many lasting Morton legacies.
Joy Morton took an active interest in the future of Chicago, chairing committees and advocating for progressive industry; primarily inland waterway transportation and building air rights. Morton Salt was the last firm to use the Mississippi River to transport goods from Chicago to the Quad Cities before the United States entered into World War I. His advocacy for air rights in Chicago helped make possible the construction of buildings, such as the Merchandise Mart, above railway lines. And the legacy grew.
After his father’s death in 1902, Joy hired the famous architect Jarvis Hunt to redesign and enlarge his family’s Nebraska farm, Arbor Lodge, into a 52-room mansion. Joy used it as his family’s summer home. A one-time humble home on a treeless prairie was transformed into a lush estate planted with hundreds of trees, shrubs, and flowers. Morton subsequently chose to honor his father by donating Arbor Lodge to the state of Nebraska as its first state park. Known as the birthplace of Arbor Day, today Arbor Lodge is open to the public, along with Arbor Lodge Historical State Park. The Morton legacy had expanded once again.
In 1922, Joy Sterling Morton, transplanted Nebraskan, successful businessman, and passionate arborist, established the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, on 178 acres of land adjacent to his “country estate” outside Chicago. According to the website, the mission of The Morton Arboretum “is to collect and study trees, shrubs, and other plants from around the world, to display them across naturally beautiful landscapes for people to study and enjoy, and to learn how to grow them in ways that enhance our environment.” Today, the Morton Arboretum has grown to 1,700 acres, and offers opportunities ranging from field trips to academic research to full-time science careers.
And with that, the Morton legacy was complete.
Related: A Legacy of Second Chances
One might say the love of trees, an artistic touch, and the entrepreneurial spirit was deeply rooted in the Mortons. Joy Sterling Morton embraced his two passions, entrepreneurship and the environment, and used them to create immense wealth and an immense legacy. Is it possible the seedlings for his legacy were planted on a spring day in 1872, in Nebraska City, along with one million other saplings? Only Joy knew for sure.
The next time you salt your popcorn, or sit under shade of a beautiful tree, remember Joy Morton. Remember his parents, their creativity, brilliance, and passion. And remember the principles bequeathed from father to son, and their legacy of preservation and strong roots.
And this is why, Legacy Matters…
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