Trees are trees and because they aren’t people, they don’t get to legally own property. Or do they? In Athens, Georgia, there is a tree that begs to differ. This is the famous Tree That Owns Itself, or more correctly, the Son of the Tree That Owns Itself, since the original Tree was claimed by storm damage. How did this tree get ownership of itself and the land that it sits on?
How the Tree Came to Own Itself
This story starts in the early 1800s, between 1820 and 1832, by all accounts. A man named Colonel William H. Jackson, a professor with the University of Georgia, owned the bit of land that the tree rests on today. As the story goes, Colonel Jackson loved the tree so much so that he deeded it to the 8-foot by 8-foot plot of land that it was growing on.
Today, at the foot of the tree, a weathered stone marker bears the following words, which were said to have come from the original deed:
For and in consideration of the great love I bear this tree and the great desire I have for its protection for all time, I convey entire possession of itself and all land within eight feet of the tree on all sides.
Now, this may sound strange, but no one actually knows for certain whether Colonel Jackson deeded the tree to itself or not. Some people assume that the tree gained ownership of itself because of the legend of Colonel Jackson, not because of Jackson himself. This is because the first written account of the Tree That Owns Itself came from an 1890 article in the Weekly Banner newspaper.
According to the newspaper story, few people at the time were left that knew the original story. What’s more, no one has seen the supposed deed that Jackson drew up, so there is some question as to whether the deed ever existed. The thinking is that the Weekly Banner article about the tree popularized the story so much that the people living in this area of Athens decided to go along with it, allowing the tree to own the square of land that it was growing on.
About the Tree That Owns Itself
The Tree That Owns Itself was a white oak tree that was believed to have first sprouted sometime between the mid-1500s and late 1700s, long before the area turned into residential neighborhood. When Athens was formed, it was considered to be the largest tree in the town — over 100 feet tall. The tree flourished throughout the 19th century, but by 1906, it became apparent that the tree was struggling. Erosion appeared around the base of the tree, so a man named George Foster Peabody paid for restoration and preservation work. He paid for new soil to be placed around the tree, and he erected the tablet that rests on the site today as well as a chain barricade supported by granite pillars around the tree.
In 1907, the Tree That Owns Itself was damaged in an ice storm, and despite the community’s best efforts to preserve it, rot appeared and the tree started to weaken. It continued to stand, however, until October 9, 1942, when the tree finally fell down. One story says that the tree had already been dead due to root rot for several years, but most accounts say that the tree, albeit diseased, was still alive all up until that day.
The Son of the Tree That Owns Itself
While the original tree was gone, the community in Athens loved the Tree That Owns Itself so much that several gardeners in the area took acorns from it and sprouted saplings. The plot on which the tree once stood remained empty for four years until it was suggested that the Athens’ Junior Ladies Garden Club do something about it.
One of the saplings grown from the original tree’s acorns was chosen — a five-foot tall specimen that gardeners agreed would have the best chance of survival. Roy Bowden, with the University of Georgia College of Agriculture, oversaw the planting of the new tree, and on December 4, 1946, Mayor Robert L. McWhorter conducted an official dedication ceremony for the Son of the Tree That Owns Itself.
Since that time, the Son of the Tree That Owns Itself has flourished. A 50-year anniversary ceremony was held on December 4, 1996. Today, the Son still stands on the land it inherited from its parent tree, having grown to over 50 feet tall.
If you ever happen to find yourself in Athens, Georgia, you can visit the Tree That Owns Itself on the corner of South Finley and Dearing Street. Be sure to share your pictures with us.
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Amber Kanuckel is a freelance writer from rural Ohio who loves all things outdoors. She specializes in home, garden, environmental, and green living topics.