100 Years Ago Today: Arbor Day at Towson

Arbor Day.  It’s not the first thing that jumps to mind when someone says “state holidays”.  But at the turn of the previous century, it was a significant day for Maryland schoolchildren, and therefore significant for Towson University’s predecessor, the Maryland State Normal School.

While not a holiday, Arbor Day was a day set aside to celebrate trees and nature, and even, eventually, birds, as it was re-named “Arbor and Bird Day” by the state in 1901.

Planting of trees, Arbor Day, N.Y. Public School #4, 173rd St. & Fulton Ave., New York
New York schoolchildren celebrating Arbor Day in 1908. Library of Congress.

The history of Arbor Day as an official day recognized by state governments has its origins in Nebraska.  On April 10, 1872, a campaign spearheaded by J. Sterling Morton resulted in the planting of one million trees in Nebraska.  Other states would soon adopt Arbor Day as a state holiday, and by the 1920s, every state was included in the celebration.

Maryland was no exception.

The Maryland Academy of Sciences, the precursor to the present-day Maryland Science Center, made the following resolution as reported in the Baltimore Sun on May 5, 1885:

Resolved, That a committee be appointed to consider the expediency of an arbor day for the State of Maryland, and report what steps are necessary to carry the recommendation into effect.

(Side-note: one of the members of the Maryland Academy of Sciences was George LaTour Smith, a beloved science teacher at the Maryland State Normal School .  He was killed in a train accident in 1892.  Smith Hall, home to the Fisher College of Science and Mathematics at Towson University, was named after George L. Smith after its construction in 1965.)  

George L. Smith

“Trees are great big lungs,” opined a Sun article on March 22, 1889.  The desire to plant trees stemmed from concerns that throughout the world, the removal of trees for agriculture and transportation growth (namely, railroads) was damaging the climate — soil erosion was already on our forebears minds, as well as air quality.

However, the Sun went on to say that “It will be many years before Maryland will feel the need of wood or experience the evils consequent upon the utter disappearance of the forests.  Her Arbor Day, therefore, will have as its main object the shading of highways and adornment of public grounds or private homes.”

In other words, trees planted in Maryland were more about aesthetic qualities rather than stopgaps for climate change.

That year, Governor Elihu Emory Jackson declared April 11, 1889 as Arbor Day, and McFadden Alexander Newell, secretary of the State Board of Education, as well as principal at the Maryland State Normal School, sent information to all the counties that offered ideas about how schools could celebrate Arbor Day.

As the students at MSNS were all studying to become teachers, anything that had to do with the education of the State’s children was of particular interest to the members of the school community, and they embraced Arbor Day celebrations with great fervor.

Plans for observing Arbor Day across the state were reported in exhaustive detail* in the newspaper.

A special committee of the school board decreed “the regular work of the schools on Arbor Day be limited to the opening exercises and the roll-call, the rest of the morning to be given to a programme of indoor exercises such as music, readings and essays bearing upon tree planting, tree culture and forestry; all the schools to close for the day at 12 o’clock” reported the Sun on April 3, 1889.

Six days later, the Sun had even more information: “Naturally the children wished to include fruit trees in the list, and they have had their way, as a number of cherry and pear will be planted.”

As for MSNS, they planned on celebrating with planting a tree and vine — which was mostly likely ivy — by the school entrance, an address by Newell, some readings by the students, and then some physical education drills.

A list of the trees planted, locations, names, and other hallmarks of past Arbor Day celebrations


The addition of Bird day in 1901 wasn’t recognized by the school until 1903, and only seemed to add to the variety of recitations in the program.

By 1913, when MSNS was preparing to move to its new campus in Towson, the programs for the Arbor Day celebrations were extensive, yet familiar.  There were hymns, readings, songs, and even maypole dances by the children who attended the model or demonstration school.  This school was used by students at MSNS to practice teaching.  A tree would be planted and named, ivy would be planted.  As space around the school itself ran out, they began putting the trees in the park across from the Carollton Building.

It was decided that Arbor Day in 1913 would be celebrated on the newly purchased land in Towson.  Five trees would be planted and named after local and school luminaries: Governor Phillips Lee Goldsborough, M.A. Newell, State Superintendent of Education M. Bates Stephens, Congressman and 1886 MSNS graduate J. Charles Linthicum, and Principal Sarah E. Richmond.

Originally, Arbor Day was to be celebrated on Friday, April 11, but because of rain, it was decided to re-schedule the MSNS program until the following Tuesday.

One fuzzy photograph remains of that day, a cluster of six students sit on the grass while another group of women dressed in the height of Edwardian fashion gathers behind them.  They have an MSNS pennant, and seem quite charmed by the future home of their school.

One hundred years ago today, MSNS students got their first taste of what life would be like on the Towson campus.

MSNS students celebrating Arbor Day at the new campus, April 15, 1913.

One final note about trees and Towson:

Today there is still work being done on campus to establish all of the native trees of Maryland in the Glen, thanks to the efforts of the Glen Arboretum Board of Directors.  Currently 80 of the 120 native Maryland trees have been planted and identified.  Efforts to promote signage, create foot paths, restore picnic areas, and offer more educational opportunities to Towson students, particularly in the areas of Chemistry and Physical and Geological Sciences, are on track.

If you would like to help promote these Towson University efforts, please consider donating through the Towson Foundation to the Glen Arboretum.  The Glen itself is a true Towson treasure.

*The Baltimore Sun also covered in amazing detail the health of Governor Jackson who could not celebrate the first official Arbor Day due to a bacterial infection that had him in bed with a fever.  Besides reporting his temperature and pulse at various times of the day, it also reported that Jackson directed the planting of his trees, named after the family members, from his sickbed.

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