What is the Deal With the Kalkaska ‘Shoe Tree’?
A couple of weeks ago, I had to make the drive to Petoskey for a family medical situation. While I've been to Petoskey before, I was always going there from the north, so I had never had the opportunity to drive through the small towns you encounter on 131 heading north from Grand Rapids. Towns like Kalkaska, Alba, and Mancelona have their own, unique charm, but near Kalkaska I noticed something super weird - a giant tree full of shoes.
I had never heard of the "Kalkaska Shoe Tree" before, but I guess it's been a thing for a while. So, when I got back to work the following day, I started looking into it. It seems that no one is quite sure how the whole thing got started, but according to one commenter on RoadsideAmerica.com, the tree is "pretty standard for a shoe tree". So, apparently shoe trees are a normal occurrence?
Mark Jeska, another RoadsideAmerica user, said that he found a pair of shoes in the tree dated 1995, which means that the tree has had at least one pair of shoes in it for at least 22 years.
Apparently, you can check in to the Shoe Tree on Facebook, and a lot of people do.
According to an article in the Northern Express from 2005, the tree is actually called "The Great Leetsville Shoe Tree".
But, where did the shoe tree get its start? It turns out there are a lot of them around Michigan, but the one in Kalkaska prompted some digging from the folks at Michigan's Otherside.
It seems that no one really knows the true origin of the shoe trees, but most of what people believe about them is centered around things that never actually happened.
"The Walled Lake Child Killer" is said by many to have started Michigan's shoe tree phenomenon by throwing the tiny shoes of his victims into the tree after he'd killed them. The thing is, that killer never existed. That doesn't keep people from believing the story, though. It is such a widely believed theory that the Walled Lake Public Library actually had to publish a statement about it on their website back in 2005 after many people had come in looking for more information on the killer.
Thankfully, this "shoe tree" story is simply not true. It perhaps was inspired by the still-unsolved murders of four children that took place in Oakland County over a 13-month period in 1976-77. In those cases, none of the children were from Walled Lake, and the bodies were found in Livonia, Franklin Village, Troy, and Southfield.
Extensive searching got me no answers as to the real story behind the shoe tree. Now, the tree serves as a place for people to stop and take photos. New shoes are added all the time, sometimes you'll even spot a pair of waders or some ice skates up there (seems dangerous to just fling ice skates into the air...)
So, next time you're on 131 in Northwest Michigan, keep an eye out for the shoe tree. We may not know where it came from, but it's something pretty cool to see.