If you look to the north on Highway 72 in Colbert County, before you hit the state line, you will notice one of the strangest roadside phenomena in Alabama: The Shoe Tree.
If you consult Merriam-Webster for the definition of a shoe tree, you will find that a shoe tree is typically a term used to refer to a “foot-shaped device, meant for inserting into a shoe to preserve its shape.” However, if you ask anyone in the town of Cherokee for the definition of a shoe tree, they will reference the tree with hundreds of shoes hanging from it.
Shoe trees have popped up all over the world. As a matter of fact, there are five other shoe trees in the Southeast. The Walasi-Yi Shoe Tree, in Georgia, is known for providing gear to hikers on the Appalachian Trail. On the Chattahoochee River in Helen, Georgia, there is a tree filled with lonely flip flops that have been lost by tourists tubing the river. That tree has been affectionately named “Lost Soles of The River.” In Townsend, Tennessee, you can find the “Tree of Lost Soles” at captain Dave’s Little River Artistry during regular business hours. In Marianna, Florida at the intersection of Graham Street and Orange Street, you will find a shoe tree shrine dedicated to shoe shiners. In the middle of the Ocala National Forest in Ocala, Florida you can find the “Shoe Tree Trio.” Each tree has its own story and is unique in its own right.
One thing is commonplace among shoe trees: they are covered in shoes both old and new. Just as there are multiple shoe trees, there are also multiple origin stories. Roadside America gives the best origin story: “A shoe tree starts with one dreamer, tossing his or her footwear-of-old high into the sky, to catch an out-of-reach branch. It usually ends there, unseen and neglected by others, but on rare occasions that first pair of shoes triggers a shoe tossing cascade. Soon, teens are gathering up their old Adidas and Sauconys, families are driving out after church with dad’s Reeboks and grandmas Keds. Many inscribe messages on the sneakers in permanent marker – greetings, love poems and life accomplishments. The shoe tree blooms with pure polymer beauty. A work of art like this may last for generations, tracing our history by our sneakers.”
No one knows who started the shoe tree on Highway 72, or when exactly it started. Some of the town residents will tell you they started seeing shoes appear in the tree sometime in 2008, others will tell you the tree appeared in 1998. Just like the date, the stories behind how the tree started vary. One local resident said the tree was started as a joke by various students from Cherokee High School after graduation. Another said a wife got frustrated at her husband’s addiction to shoes so she threw his new pair of Nikes into the tree after an argument. If you ask local children, you will get a story of how the shoes fell out of Santa’s sleigh during his Christmas run.
Another story goes that a hitchhiker wore the soles out on his shoes and started walking barefoot with their shoes on their shoulder. A passerby saw this and was kind enough to give them a new pair. After putting on the new pair of shoes, the hitchhiker threw their old shoes into the tree. No one is really sure how the tree really started, but everyone has an opinion. The tree has been written about numerous times and each time it has been mentioned, the number of shoes on the tree climbed. No matter the version of when and how the tree started, everyone you ask has a favorite pair of shoes they have seen in the tree. From pink pumps to converse, the tree is full of diversity.
Legends and myths surround landmarks with an unknown history. The Cherokee shoe tree is no exception. While no one has seen any shady characters around the tree, it has been said that the shoe tree is a marker for gang territory. This myth could stem from the stories in larger cities of drug and gang related incidents. There are stories in larger cities of drug dealers hanging shoes over the power lines in front of their dealing locations to let people know where to go to meet them. There are other stories of gang members taking the shoes off their deceased partners and throwing them onto the nearby power lines or trees as a memorial to a life lost.
While that is not the case of the Cherokee shoe tree, it does make you think when you see a pair of shoes hanging up on their own. In the inner cities you will find shoes thrown on power lines by bullies who have stolen a pair of shoes from some poor kid or by friends who want to play a prank on their drunken friend. Not all legends are of a bad nature, however. There are some who say shoes are tossed in power lines as a visibility aid for low flying aircraft. Some shoes are tossed in a tree or on a line to commemorate cultural events such as weddings, graduations or other rites of passage. You can find examples of this in Cimarron, New Mexico at the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch where scouts have tossed their shoes over the entrance sign. Military members have referenced boot pitching as a rite of passage for someone who either just graduated basic training, leaves one post for another, or when they leave the service for good. Often the boots are painted yellow or orange before being tossed up over a wire.
Shoe trees come into existence from shoe tossing. Shoe tossing is found in many forms around the world. You can see a reference to shoe tossing in the 1997 film “Wag The Dog” as troops portrayed by Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman toss shoes onto trees as a tribute to Sgt. William “Old Shoe” Schumann played by Woody Harrelson. You might also remember shoes being on the powerlines in the 2002 movie “Like Mike” when Calvin, played by Lil Bow Wow, pulled a pair of electrically charged shoes off the live wire. In New Zealand and Britain there is a competitive sport called “welly wrangling,” where the goal is to tie two boots, or wellies, together like a bola and see who can toss them the furthest.
While the stories around shoe trees are all different, the residents of Cherokee all agree on one thing: take a pair, leave a pair. If you see a pair of shoes in the tree you like, they are yours if you can climb high enough. However, if you take a pair, leave a pair in return for the next person. If you have an extra pair of shoes lying around, throw them up in the tree and they will find a new home.
Rick Krogran had the best theory surrounding the disposal of shoes in a 1997 Chicago Tribune article entitled “A City’s Sole” where he wrote, “We are a determinedly decorative society. At Christmastime and Halloween, on Easter and the Fourth of July, many of us feel compelled to doll up houses and windows and lawns with all manner of objects and lights,” he said.
“Some call this folk art. Others will tell you it has to do with the human need for self-expression. Clothes decorate the body, but rarely do we use clothing to decorate anything else. But there is no place for old shoes. Shoes are not like a sweater, a tie, or even a pair of slippers. We’ll cling to such items after they have grown old and moldy. But shoes? They are the most expendable item in the closet, tossed out without tears or second thoughts.”