Do You Remember: Arbour Day?

Glen Goodhand

Planting of saplings on Arbour Day.
Arbour Day was spearheaded in Nebraska in 1872 when resident J. Sterling Morton took the first step to replenish the hundreds of trees in his state which were being cut down and not being replaced. He launched a tree-planting day on April 10 that year, resulting in one million of them being deposited in the ground because of his efforts. He chose “arbour” because it is the Latin word for “tree.”

That was the emphasis in those early days—and is now being imitated by Canada’s National Forestry Week in September.

But for the average reader, the connotation of “Arbour Day” relates to a move made by Ontario’s Education Minister in 1885. He declared a day in late April (it has since been moved to May) as a school holiday, the purpose of which was to aid teachers in “improving and beautifying school grounds.”

According to him, at that time “school grounds throughout the Province were anything but complementary to the taste and tidiness as a people.”

In Canada, and Ontario in particular, this purpose was given a boost by an article in the Globe and Mail in 1912, written by a teacher, who described what her class did on that day. It included the planting of flowers—the seeds had been voluntarily donated by her pupils—and concluding with a walk through the nearby forest.

To senior citizens especially, this recalls local one-room public school grounds. Usually the second Friday in May, that holiday continued in the spirit of both the 1885 declaration and the sentiments of that schoolmarm in 1912. (Yours truly remembers it as one of the two days he was happy to make that ¾ mile trek down the road to Port Hoover School—S.S. #18. The other was the last day before summer vacation.)

While there was a spirit of levity abounding—even our teacher, a very prim and proper chap— “let down his hair”. He simply must have used less Brylcreem that morning, because his hair, always with every strand in perfect order, used to blow out of place in the wind.

But there was work to be done. The flower planting fell to the lot of the girls—usually headed by one from the senior grades. One year it was Marie who was shouldered with that mantle. The choice of one of the packages of seed—either by mistake or by mischief—no one ever really knew—was rather careless. After the first bloom had appeared, some impish boy (it wasn’t me) announced. “If you go up by the swings you can see Marie’s Purple Bloomers.” In those days when modesty was the “in” thing, it caused Marie some embarrassment, but even she agreed it prompted a lot of chuckles the rest of the school year.

There were lots of trees along the two sides of the playground, meaning that fallen leaves abounded. Although there were no “spring” rakes in those days, there were lots of leaves, which had blown into the corners, under steps, and along fences, which needed to be gathered. There was no such thing as putting them out for the garbage collector, but they were piled in a back corner like a kind of compost heap. Some of this mulch found its way to the local apiarist as insulation for his beehives. Invariably there were broken tree branches and twigs that were gathered, broken into manageable-size pieces, and piled.

But the fun part of the day was the hike back to the local bush, where lunches were enjoyed around a little pond, listening to the sounds of nature. The teacher still held sway in the nature of activities, but there was freedom to catch frogs, play hide-and-seek or tag, and pick trillium (even red ones which were plentiful then) and daisies—often combined as a bouquet to take home to Mom. Occasionally those in the senior grades, who were under the influence of puppy love, managed to slip away for a walk, daring to hold hands out of the sight of Mr. Whitten’s sharp eye.

The only negative thing about Arbour Day was having to wait an entire year for the next one.