A Brief History


The Nebraska National Forest's Bessey Nursery began as an experiment. University of Nebraska botany professor Dr. Charles E. Bessey, with the assistance of Gifford Pinchot, first Forest Service Chief, convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to set aside two treeless tracts of Nebraska sandhills as “forest reserves”. Dr. Bessey’s intent was to eventually produce wood products, which would help to offset what some thought would be a national timber shortage due to large fires, unregulated harvest, and the country’s growing appetite for wood products.

The Charles E. Bessey Nursery was established in 1902 as part of the Dismal River Forest Reserve. It is the oldest seedling nursery managed by the USDA Forest Service. The Nursery was established to produce the tree seedlings used to create the "World's Largest Man-Made Forest", the adjacent Bessey Ranger District. The Nursery and Ranger District were named in honor of Charles E. Bessey, a professor of horticulture at the University of Nebraska who envisioned a forest growing on the wide-open Sandhills of Nebraska. The Nursery is located about one mile west of Halsey, Nebraska, near the geographic center of the state. The area is characterized by rolling sand dunes covered with grasses.

Though the sandhills forest never met Bessey’s vision of becoming a timber producing forest, it is important for its wildlife, aesthetic and recreational values, and as a living monument to that vision. Charles E. Bessey Tree Nursery still produces 2.5 to 3 million seedlings per year for distribution to national forests, and state, and tribal agencies in the Great Plains and West. The national grasslands and the native ponderosa pine forest of Nebraska’s Pine Ridge area were added to the National Forest System in the 1950’s.

History-Bessey Chronology

1901- July 1 to Oct. 1. Reconnaissance of western Nebraska to determine the advisability of starting a forest-planting project.

1902 – April 16. Creation of the Dismal River and Niobrara Forest Reserve by
Proclamation of President T. Roosevelt.

1902 – July 13. Ground broken for Halsey Nursery, now known as the Bessey Nursery.

1902 – September and October. Collection of western yellow pine seed in Pine Ridge of Nebraska, and Black Hills; also 40,000 wild seedlings at Nemo, S.D. Collection of blue spruce and yellow pine seed in northern New Mexico.

1902 – November. First seed beds sowed at Bessey Nursery.

1902 – December 23. Headquarters building, now used as a bunkhouse, completed.

1903 – April. First planting, consisting of 35 acres (70,000 wildlings) of jack pine from Minnesota, and 15 acres (30,000 wildlings) of yellow pine (those collected previous fall); also 34 acres of broadcasting of red cedar, blue spruce, jack and
yellow pine seed. The planting of jack pine was successful, but the broadcasting, and the western yellow pine plantations were failures.

1903 – Improvements added to plant, including mess house and barn.

1904 – 335 acres of one-year yellow pine seedlings raised at Bessey nursery planted- trees not well enough developed for sand hill planting and heavy losses resulted.

1905 – 431 acres of seedlings planted with slightly better results.

1906 – First transplanting in nursery.

1906 – Present headquarters building erected.

1910 – Prairie fire that started 65 west of Forest, burned several hundred acres of partly stocked plantations. The first and only fire in the plantations except for a few acres burned in lightning fires.

1910 – Trencher system of planting first used on a large scale. The trencher plow makes V-shaped slit in the middle of a furrow. Roots of the trees are inserted in this slit and planted with a thrust of the foot.

1911 – Most successful trencher planting of jack pine and yellow pine in the history of the project resulted from this year’s operation.

1912 – Free distribution of trees to the residents of the sixth Congressional or Kinkaid District, started as a result of Congressional Act. This has ended with the distribution of 1927.  About 2,455,000 trees have been given away to 12,663 people.

1914 – Morton Nursery established on 80 acres of land purchased along the Niobrara River, authorized by Congressional Act, for the purpose of raising trees for the increased planting on the Niobrara Division.

1915 – Name of Halsey Nursery changed to Bessey Nursery in honor of Dr. Chas. E. Bessey, late Professor of Botany at the University of Nebraska, and one of the first men to suggest the establishment of a forest in the Nebraska Sandhills.

1915 – Buildings erected at the Morton Nursery.

1917 – Nursery production reduced as a war measure.

1919 – First thinning of plantations for Christmas trees.

1922 – Grazing of plantations with horses started for the purpose of reducing the fire hazard. Cattle grazing found injurious to the young trees.

1925 – Morton Nursery abandoned on account of soil not being adapted to raising conifers.

1925 – Bessey Nursery increased in size to 19 acres with a capacity of 2,500,000 transplants annually, to raise trees for both division of the Forest and also for state distribution.

1926 – Commenced supplying coniferous trees to the state for distribution under the Clarke-McNary Act. Distribution is handled by the extension service of the University of Nebraska. Trees are sold out at cost to farmers by the State for
windbreaks and woodlots.

Key Contacts

Public Affairs Officer
Cydney Janssen
(308) 432-0326 - Office

(#08) 432-0300 - Main Office