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Mission and History

The stark landscape in the early 1920s

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. Our goal is to encourage the planting and conservation of trees and other plants for a greener, healthier, and more beautiful world.

The Morton Arboretum was founded in 1922 by Joy Morton (1855-1934), whose father founded Arbor Day. Over the decades, the Arboretum has continued to evolve, while staying true to the Morton family motto, “Plant Trees.”

Joy Morton

Joy Morton (1855-1934) founded the Morton Salt Company in Chicago in 1885, and later The Morton Arboretum 25 miles west of the city in Lisle in 1922.  LEARN MORE  

Arbor Day

Joy Morton's father originated Arbor Day in 1872 some fifty years before Joy founded The Morton Arboretum. “Plant Trees” was the Morton family motto. LEARN MORE  

Logo Story

The logo of The Morton Arboretum is symbolic and has meaningful ties to the Morton family emblem. Learn more  

Four Columns

Inspiration and intrigue surround the sculptures known as the Four Columns near the Hedge Collection. Learn more  

Morton Family Cemetery

Arboretum founder Joy Morton set aside this one-acre parcel as a family burial plot in 1925. It is the final resting place for himself and members of his family. Learn more  

Thornhill Education Center

Set on the site of the former Morton family mansion, the Thornhill Education Center provides space for classes, programs, and events.  The original Morton family library remains a part of the historic structure, which contains a unique bay of stained glass windows dedicated to the trees through history. Learn more  

Administration and Research Center

The Administration and Research Center has evolved to serve the changing needs of Arboretum staff and visitors over several decades. Learn more  

Historical Timeline 

1872    J. Sterling Morton (1832-1902), father of Arboretum founder Joy Morton (1855-1934), established Arbor Day in Nebraska. (He later served as Secretary of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland.)

1909    Joy Morton acquired property in Lisle, Illinois, where he built his country estate and named his home Thornhill.

1922    The Morton Arboretum was founded in 1922 by Joy Morton with a focus on living collections, a research library, and a herbarium. 

1934    Joy Morton died. His daughter, Jean (Mrs. Joseph M. Cudahy, 1883-1953), became Chairman of the Board of Trustees and served in that capacity for 19 years. Under her leadership, the Arboretum developed a national reputation. In memory of her father, she built the Administration Building, which provided a reception area for visitors, staff offices, and space for the herbarium and library. The Hedge Garden was established, making it the oldest hedge demonstration in a U.S. public garden.

1937    Mrs. Cudahy commissioned a custom-designed open air bus to provide tours of the grounds for visitors; it was inspired by vehicles used at the World's Fair ("A Century of Progress") in Chicago in 1933-1934. 

1938    The Ground Cover Garden was planted.

1939    Clarence Godshalk (1897-1988) was named director. He had commenced his employment as superintendent of the grounds in 1921. Trained as a landscape architect in the naturalistic style of O.C. Simonds and others, he further developed the Arboretum’s distinctive landscapes. 

1940     Mrs. Cudahy started the Arboretum’s renowned education program by inviting the gifted naturalist and ecologist May Theilgaard Watts (1890-1975) to teach.

1942    Thornhill Building, a new educational facility, opened on the site of the razed Morton mansion. May Watts developed an innovative public education program, the first such program among U.S. arboretums. She was also known for her Tree Finder and Flower Finder identification books, and her book Reading the Landscape (1957, revised 1975 and 1999).  In 1963 she originated the Illinois Prairie Path, the first rails-to-trails project in the U.S. 

1952    A rustic Outpost with overnight accommodations was completed to house week-long workshops and later a 5th grade residential environmental education program.

1953    Sterling Morton (1885-1961), son of Joy Morton, became Chairman of the Board after his sister Jean’s death, serving for eight years. Achievements during his tenure included adding a new research wing to the Administration building, initiating a practical research program; dedicating an auditorium in the building to Jean; increasing the size of professional staff; and adding considerable acreage. 

1957    Construction of the East-West Tollway and widening of Illinois Route 53 changed the Arboretum landscape, resulting in new lakes, roads, and a staffed gatehouse.

1960    An admission program went into effect.

1961    Suzette Morton Davidson (1911-1996) became Chairman of the Board after her father Sterling’s death, serving for 16 years.  

1962    The Schulenberg Prairie restoration project began.

1963    The Sterling Morton Library was built, and Mrs. Davidson greatly expanded the rare botanical book and art collection. A formal scientific Research program was established. 

1966    After 45 years at the Arboretum, Clarence Godshalk retired and was succeeded as director by Dr. Marion Trufant Hall (1920–2020), a scientist of broad interests and experience. Over the next 24 years he led the Arboretum's growth as a major scientific and cultural institution. An elm-breeding program was started to develop hybrids resistant to Dutch elm disease.

1968    The Plant Clinic opened.

1972    The Arboretum celebrated its 50th anniversary. A general master plan was developed; the Visitor Center was built in memory of Suzette's mother; a membership program was inaugurated; the first catalog of the plant collections was published; and an exhibition of the Arboretum's rare books was held at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

1973    The first stand-alone Visitor Center opened.

1976    The Arboretum was accredited as a museum by the American Association of Museums.

1977    Suzette Morton Davidson retired and selected her successor, Charles C. Haffner III, as the first person outside the Morton family to serve as Chairman of the Board.

1980    The volunteer program was formalized.

1982    The new Research Center was dedicated.

1985    The Fragrance Garden was developed.

1990    Dr. Gerard T. Donnelly, a botanist with background in forest ecology and experience in teaching and garden administration, was hired as Executive Director and later was titled President and CEO.

2001    W. Robert Reum became Chairman of the Board.

2004    The Branching Out! strategic initiatives and first-ever capital campaign resulted in new programs, services, and facilities, along with expanded outreach to the public. Projects coming to fruition this year included a visible and welcoming entrance to the Arboretum, an environmentally-sound main parking lot, a new Visitor Center, a Maze Garden, and a restored Meadow Lake.

2005    As part of the Branching Out! site redevelopment, the four-acre Children's Garden opened.  The Morton Arboretum co-hosted the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta annual conference in Chicago and suburbs.

2011    The Morton Arboretum led the creation of ArbNet, a program that identifies arboreta worldwide, offers opportunities for exchanging professional information, and provides an accreditation program for them.  The Morton Arboretum received accreditation as an arboretum through ArbNet.

2012    The Morton Arboretum renewed its accreditation as a museum with the American Alliance of Museums.

2013    The Morton Arboretum launched the Chicago Region Trees Initiative -- a collaborative effort to build a healthier urban forest in the seven-county region.  Also, the Arboretum introduced a major wintertime exhibition, "Illumination:  Tree Lights at The Morton Arboretum."

2014    Darrell B. Jackson became Chairman of the Board.

2015    A five-year project began to restore the section of the East Branch of the DuPage River that runs through the Arboretum.  For the first time, the Arboretum served its 1,000,000th annual visitor.

2017    The Growing Brilliantly campaign was publicly launched to raise support for a new curatorial and operations center, Center for Tree Science, tree conservation programs, new plant development, and Children's Garden enhancements.  The curatorial and operations center opened, as did a new education support building.  Christopher B. Burke became Chairman of the Board.   

2020   Arboretum operations were curtailed in unprecedented ways by the coronavirus pandemic, starting March 16, causing closure of the grounds in April and May and otherwise limiting programs and services in the months to follow. However, efforts were active to maintain contact with members and the public, and offer adjusted operations, creative alternatives, and innovative solutions to keep people engaged with the tree-focused mission. Stephen C. Van Arsdell was elected Chair of the Board of the Trustees.

For an overview of the Arboretum's history or founder's life, read:

A Great Outdoor Museum: The Story of The Morton Arboretum, by James Ballowe (2003). 28-page booklet.

A Man of Salt and Trees: The Life of Joy Morton, by James Ballowe (2009). 287-page biography.  

Both available for sale at The Arboretum Store.