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Chi Lives: how Joy Morton grew trees from salt

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Morton Salt founder Joy Morton was born in Nebraska in 1855 with a silver-plated spoon in his mouth and a dual family mission: to succeed in business and to plant trees. His father, J. Sterling Morton, was a brash, politically conservative editor and big-business publicist with a Johnny Appleseed complex. He was acting governor of the Nebraska territory and secretary of agriculture (under Grover Cleveland), but J. Sterling is mostly remembered for founding Arbor Day and doing his best to turn the Nebraska prairie into something more like the forests of his boyhood home in Michigan. His 52-room Nebraska City mansion is now Arbor Lodge State Historical Park.

Joy (it was his mother's last name) was the eldest of J. Sterling's four sons and a bit of a laggard at first. A University of Michigan dropout, he went to a business school run by an uncle, then knocked about in banking, railroad, and farming jobs, mostly set up by his father. He found his niche when his brother Paul (a go-getter who started as a railroad clerk and wound up as president of the Equitable Life Assurance Company) recommended him for a job at the Chicago firm of E.I. Wheeler & Co., a salt seller. When Wheeler died five years later, Joy bought out his widow and began to expand the business, buying up other firms. Under his leadership, the company developed moisture-resistant table salt and the "When it rains it pours" logo that became its calling card.

Joy Morton speculated in grain, land, and cattle and was a key player in the development of trusts designed to control the price of commodities like salt, starch, and lumber. Ruthless as any of the entrepreneurial barons of the time, he undercut competitors to get established, then campaigned to eliminate "wasteful competition." He understood that price gouging would destroy the trusts and warned against it, but he wasn't above using his father's position in Cleveland's cabinet to sic government inspectors on competitors or stop them from looking into his own operations. He built the Nebraska City stockyards, developed Argo cornstarch, and had an interest in a number of banks. A Chicago resident for years, he eventually moved to Thornhill, his estate and farm in suburban Lisle. In 1921 he decided to turn the farm into an arboretum.

Morton intended the arboretum to be an "outdoor museum." He hired O.C. Simonds, Graceland Cemetery's designer, to plan it, and sought the advice of Charles Sprague Sargent, director of the Arnold Arboretum near Boston, which he had visited at an impressionable age with his father. Devoted primarily to woody trees and shrubs, the Morton Arboretum now covers 1,700 acres (bisected by Route 53) and includes five man-made lakes and more than 3,600 kinds of plants. A working plant-research center, it also offers educational opportunities from certificate programs to children's workshops. Its Sterling Morton Library, named for Joy's son, is scheduled to reopen in February after a renovation that takes advantage of one of the park's best vistas--a wide hedge-lined lane that ends in four tall columns, said to stand for Joy Morton and his three brothers. Joy died at Thornhill in 1934 and is buried there. His company, last known as Morton International Inc., was swallowed up in a takeover last February.

The Morton Arboretum's 11 miles of roads and 12 miles of hiking trails will be open Christmas Day. The day after there'll be Yule log hunts beginning with a trumpet fanfare and a rhyming list of clues and ending with carols and a hot wassail toast. If you want to pay your respects to Joy, you may have a more challenging hunt. He lies in an unmarked family plot not far from the site of the old mansion (now the education building). A park spokeswoman said there are no paths leading to the plot. She refused to give any further clues, rhyming or otherwise, to its location.

The hunts will get under way Sunday at 12:30 and 2:30 PM at the arboretum, 4100 Route 53 in Lisle. They're free, but parking for nonmembers is $7 per car. The park is open every day from 7 to 5 (later in summer). Call 630-968-0074 for restaurant hours and other information. --Deanna Isaacs

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