Photographic Memories: The story of the shoe tree

By Dale O’Dell

A shoe tree is a tree with shoes on it. It’s kind of like a Christmas tree, except it’s decorated with footwear instead of ornaments. According to my internet research, there are more than 50 shoe trees in the United States — one or more for each state. Because they’re such bizarre sights, I always stop and photograph shoe trees when I find them during my travels. I’ve photographed shoe trees (and one “shoe fence”) in Arizona, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Texas, and Utah. And it’s not always shoes in the trees. I’ve seen trees with socks, hats, T-shirts, and even bras hanging from them.

So what’s the deal with shoe trees? How did this practice of tossing shoes into trees get started?

The most common story I’ve found comes from American folklore. According to legend, a newlywed couple had an argument while driving to their honeymoon and the bride became so angry she threw her new husband’s shoes into a tree. He never got his shoes back, and when others came along later they added their shoes to the collection and the shoe tree was born.

The author, Dale O’Dell. Courtesy photo.

Other urban legends about the origin of the shoe tree: throwing shoes into trees on the last day of school; hanging shoes from tree branches to denote a place where you can buy illegal drugs; discharged soldiers throwing combat boots into trees or onto power lines. Of course, bullies have been known to throw their victims’ shoes into trees. Other, less plausible, explanations include fertility rituals, a way for the recently dead to walk the Earth again, and preparation for an alien invasion. (There’s always a space alien angle, isn’t there?)

No matter how or why the shoes got into the tree, a shoe tree is an interesting, unusual sight.

Some shoe trees have been around (and gathering more and more shoes) for a long time — long enough to be listed on websites like RoadsideAmerica.Com and AtlasObscura.Com. Others don’t last long and are cut down and removed by local Department of Transportation road crews. The usual excuse for DOT destruction of shoe trees is the removal of fire hazards or removal of falling branch hazards from all of the weight. (Those guys are just no fun!)

So, if you see a shoe tree on your travels, stop and take a picture because you never know if that tree will still be there the next time you pass by. If you’ve got an old pair of shoes with you, tie their laces together and add your shoes to the tree — the next photographer who finds that tree will thank you.


A woman tosses shoes into a shoe tree in California. Infrared photo by Dale O’Dell.

Shoe Toss,” California Highway 395.

There’s a relatively well-known shoe tree that’s been on the side of the highway for many years gathering shoes. When we pulled off the road to photograph this shoe tree there was a family exiting a car in front of us. The woman in the photo had an armload of shoes. I laughed and said, “So you’re the one throwing all the shoes in the trees.” She explained that she and her sister had always thrown their old shoes in this tree whenever they were in the area. She went on to tell me that her sister had lived in Oregon for the past few years but had recently passed away. After the funeral, she gathered up all of her sister’s shoes, drove from Oregon to this tree (not far from Reno), and was adding all of her sister’s shoes to this tree since she didn’t need shoes anymore. I asked her if I could photograph her additions. With a tear in her eye, she said “sure” and seemed touched that I wanted to document the moment.


Condensed from the original, as published in “Photographic Memories,” by Dale O’Dell, 2009. See more of Dale O’Dell’s photography and digital art at DalePhoto.Com.

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