December 8, 2023

Out on a Limb... The Great Leetsville Shoetree is forever in bloom

May 25, 2005
Just north of Kalkaska on the west side of US 131 is a little display that catches the eye of many a road-dazed driver. A large maple tree displays perhaps the most unusual crop ever seen on a tree in Michigan -- or anywhere else, for that matter. But we’re not talking about leaves, pine cones, or apples, or even that most popular of Michigan tree harvests, cherries. Nope.
We’re talking about shoes.
The tree in question, dubbed “The Great Leetsville Shoe Tree,” is only one of many shoe trees -- odd, semi-organic, populist objets d’art -- that have sprung up across the United States.
There’s another one that’s just beginning to, er, bloom as spring arrives here in Northern Michigan -- if you’ve ever driven on M-119 between Petoskey and Harbor Springs, you’ve probably already noticed it, silhouetted against the sky near Hedrick Road, just past the square stone wall that stretches up the hill.
There are only maybe half a dozen shoes thrown up in the M-119 Shoe Tree’s branches, though -- it’s got a long way to go to catch up with the Leetsville Shoe Tree, which by now boasts an estimated over 150 pairs of shoes, everything from neon running shoes to rugged work boots, men’s dress shoes to sandals, ballet slippers to high heels. So what, exactly, is this shoe tree phenomenon all about?

Well, a little bit of research reveals that there are just as many theories on the origin of shoe trees as there are shoes on the trees themselves. Being as that many shoe trees are near well-traveled roads, the shoe tree could have started simply as a result of someone finding a pair of lost shoes alongside the road, and putting them up into the tree so that the shoes’ owner would have a better chance at finding them.
Another idea is that it’s simply a human urge to try and throw those shoes as far up into the tree as you can, getting your shoes higher up in the branches than the unknown person who threw before you.
A shoe tree in Nevada is said to have been started when a young couple got into an argument and the husband threw his new wife’s shoes up into the tree so she couldn’t walk away from their fight; that same still-married couple is said to have returned later to the site of their bridal spat and added their children’s shoes to the tree.
At the University of Wisconsin, their shoe tree is the work of each year’s seniors, who whip their shoes up into the branches of a 60-foot oak tree on campus, symbolic of them leaving their souls/soles behind at the school when they graduate.
There are stories of boys taking the shoes of their rivals and throwing them up into trees, tramps grumpily throwing up their old, worn-out boots, shoes thrown by road builders for fun, and shoes thrown by gangs to mark territories. But there are more exotic theories, too.

Among oilfield workers, there’s apparently an old custom in which they throw their work shoes up into a tree when they finish digging an oil well -- and when passers-by see those oil-stained work shoes all dangling from the branches, they toss their own shoes up to help celebrate.
In the movie “Wag The Dog,” a political spin doctor throws shoes into trees as part of a campaign for Sergeant William Schumann, whose nickname is “The Old Shoe.”
In the Mojave Desert, shoe trees can be found in several remote locations, and one resource explains that the desert shoe tree custom is actually somewhat reminiscent of the “rag trees” that originated in the Middle East. These are reportedly sacred trees in which people tie rags or bits of clothing for various reasons, which may include paying homage to the tree’s spirit, asking for the tree’s help, or for prayers or votive offerings.
But the odd thing about shoe trees possibly being “descendants” of the Middle East’s rag trees is that in the Arab world, shoe flinging is seen as a gesture of disrespect, as evidenced when U.S. forces pulled down a statue of Saddam Hussein during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and many of the Iraqi detractors of Hussein threw their shoes at the fallen statue. So there’s a little conflict of interest going on there between the rag trees and the shoe trees.

It’s probably easier to just go with the reasoning given for the shoe tree in Priest Lake, Idaho, which is simply explained away as “Bigfoot started it.”
Maybe the mystery, though, is supposed to be part of the fun -- if you really think about it, we throw strings of lights around trees to celebrate Christmas, hang colorful eggs on trees to celebrate Easter, put streamers in trees to celebrate birthdays or the 4th of July, and hang fabric ghosts in trees as part of Halloween celebrations. So who’s to say shoes in trees aren’t equally logical? Maybe that’s just the way some people like to celebrate the long walk that is life. Or maybe they just weren’t all that great at organizing their closets and took the phrase “shoe tree” a little too literally.


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