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Thursday, Nov. 5, 2009 05:24 am

Trees made him worth his salt


Fall in the Morton Arboretum, three hours northeast of Springfield.

The 19th century witnessed America’s transformation from a rural, agrarian economy and culture into a restless, 20th century industrial giant and imperial power. Large 19th and early 20th century firms were publicly identified with the men who founded them or guided their early growth — Ford and his auto, Edison and his light bulb, Carnegie and Rockefeller in steel and oil. Every manufactured product, from hairpins to train rails, was ripe for mass production. Even grain, the staff of life, became the basis for immense milling and cereal fortunes like Pillsbury and Post. Salt, among the lowliest, but most important foods, used in cooking, preserving and flavoring, was the basis for one of these great 19th century fortunes, still associated with its founder’s name — Morton.

 The most famous Morton family member is, arguably, J. Sterling Morton. A Nebraska pioneer and politician, his great legacy is Arbor Day, which led to the mass plantings of trees in American cities. But it was his son Joy Morton’s great wealth that funded much of the family legacy. James Ballowe, Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus at Bradley University, who teaches at the Morton Arboretum, has written A Man of Salt and Trees, the first biography of Joy Morton, who brought us the salt and the Lisle, Ill., arboretum that bear his name. “An avalanche of letters, diaries and other documents” gave Ballowe unique insight into the family’s personalities and dynamics.

The Mortons were descended from hard-working, staunchly conservative, Puritan New Englanders who carefully minded their money, oversaw their business and planned their futures. A young J. Sterling Morton was urged by influential friends to try the new state of Nebraska in the 1850s as a place to start his career. There, the Democrat enlarged his life as a farmer by entering a political career, something he relished, eventually becoming President Cleveland’s secretary of agriculture.

Family tradition honored hard work, success and careful, premeditated courtship and marriage. J. Sterling reflected this tradition when he advised son Joy to think of his family heritage when selecting a wife, seeing that any children: “…in part, a perpetuation of your Mother and Father — may not make my own and your own existence a mistake…. Select with a view to improving our race…. Use judgment, taste, common sense of a skilled breeder of domestic animals, who never selects from those afflicted with a diseased ancestry.”

Presumably following this advice himself, J. Sterling’s wife, Caroline, had a respectable pedigree and was a capable household manager, gardener and farm overseer. She was also subject to depression and loneliness, never coming to terms with the isolation of Nebraska life.

Not so her son, who loved the life of the sparsely settled country as well as farm work and who later followed careers in banking and business. His great wealth came from the Michigan Salt Association. He based company operations in the rough and tumble business world of post-fire Chicago. Joy Morton himself favored little government control and freedom for big business above all. His single-minded pursuit of the salt business won him leadership in its production and distribution and a household name by the early 20th century. When he and his father visited George Vanderbilt’s Biltmore Estate, with its first U.S. school of forestry and conservation, the elder Morton advised his son to use his great wealth to leave a legacy — preferably one to do with horticulture.

By 1920 Joy Morton had become an important Chicago civic leader, involved with its famous city plan and a proud promoter of its growth. He asked the manager of his St. Louis branch to visit Henry Shaw’s famed botanical garden there with a view to establishing one like it in the Chicago area. Morton also toured European gardens as well as International Harvester Chairman Charles Deering’s 435-acre Florida botanical garden. On land near Lisle, he began work on the Morton Arboretum with an initial planting of some 23,750 pine trees. It was “something to develop during the balance of my life…and hope the work may prolong my life.” He engaged leading landscape architect Ossian Cole Simonds (designer of Springfield’s Washington Park) to survey and lay out the 400 acres.

Joy Morton had been disappointed in Shaw’s Garden in St. Louis for the poor quality of its plantings and its too-refined landscape. He desired something more naturalistic. Joy’s son, Sterling, visited European botanical gardens, reporting that he too disliked over-civilized design, and urged his father “above all, do not make [the arboretum] too tame.” Joy Morton also personally directed collection of a botanical research library at the new garden.

When Joy Morton died in 1934 his funeral was in startling contrast to what was expected for an American business, financial and industrial leader. Arboretum workers covered a two-wheeled garden cart, including the tires, with green paint. Around the skirt they arranged white pine boughs. Joy’s body was placed on the cart; two workmen pulled it a short distance to the cemetery over a trail of lilacs.

It was a fitting, if surprising, close to the career of a man whose reach extended from the highest levels of power to the lowest condiment on the American dinner table. But what Joy Sterling Morton wanted most was to be remembered for his gift of a cultivated landscape and the growth of botanical knowledge and understanding. James Ballowe’s biography tells that story completely for the first time.

Edward Russo is former Springfield city historian. In addition to history, Russo is keenly interested in landscape architecture. He was instrumental in founding the neighborhood association in one of Springfield’s historic neighborhoods, Hawthorne Place.

A Man of Salt and Trees by James Ballowe. Northern Illinois University Press, 319 pp., 28 illus.