U students unclear about the origins of shoe tree

by Lee Billings

It only takes a quick stroll along the Washington Avenue Bridge to realize something odd is afoot on the West Bank. Outside Anderson Hall, nestled next to the bridge, a mysterious tree stands, branches hung low by its strange fruit: pairs of shoes by the dozens.

For most passersby, the shoe tree is a familiar, yet puzzling sight that never stops sparking curiosity.

“I’ve been trying to figure out where it came from for three years now,” said Kate Nelson, a junior sociology student, as she walked on the bridge.

Getting to the root of the tree’s origins proves difficult. There seems to be as many ideas about how it started as there are shoes slung about its limbs. Still, most people do not even know the stories.

“For all I know, aliens could’ve come and demanded that shoes be thrown into the tree for worship,” said computer science junior Jason Sorensen as he gazed up at the tree.

Ann Pflaum, a University historian, said she has “no idea” about the shoe tree’s origins.

Patty Mattern, assistant program director for University Relations, said no one really knows how the phenomenon started.

“The first thing I had heard was that it was marching band members who threw their shoes over in some rite of passage,” she said.

Tim Squillace, an architecture sophomore, thought marching band was responsible as well.

“I was told that it was for the band members when they graduated,” he said.

But in interviews with multiple marching band members, none admitted any knowledge of such a practice.

Chad Horsley, Riverbend Commons hall director, said he has heard many rumors about the tree since he joined University staff four years ago.

“I’ve heard that it’s (Institute of Technology) students, and whenever they graduate they throw their shoes in the tree. I’ve also heard that runners, the first win they have, they’ll throw their shoes in the tree,” he said.

“And then there are other not-so-pleasant rumors,” Horsley added. “There’s rumors that the first time someone has sex, they’ll throw their shoes in the tree.”

Even less clear than why it started is when the tree began collecting shoes. Estimates range from 10 to 25 years.

“You can see almost the eras that the shoes go through – the 70s, the 80s; it’s a progression,” Horsley said. “I think it used to be a bigger deal, now it’s kinda just there.”

Despite its unique look, the shoe tree has failed to find a definite foothold in most people’s minds. A passing oddity, no one is even sure what species the tree is.

Les Potts, the grounds superintendent for University Facilities Management, said it is a hackberry tree. But some of his colleagues disagreed.

“Someone else I asked thought it might be a maple,” Potts said. “We’re just not sure.”

Potts noted that the tree is actually under the jurisdiction of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, not the University.

Ralph Sievert, the board’s forestry director, said with some uncertainty that the tree is a box elder, adding that the tree does not get much attention.

“Right now, because it’s in this natural area where we do no active management, unless it’s a safety issue, we won’t do anything,” he said.

While the shoe tree poses no threat to people, some speculate that the tree itself is in peril from all of the shoes.

Potts said shoelaces girdling the branches could act like tourniquets and harm the tree.

Jeff Gillman, a University assistant professor of horticulture, agreed with Potts.

“Trees are our friends, right? You wouldn’t tie a tourniquet around your friend,” Gillman said. “You might lay some shoes across his shoulder but you certainly wouldn’t wrap strings around his arms to make them fall off – so treat the tree gently.”

Lee Billings welcomes comments at [email protected]