Amazing Places

There's a Tree That Owns Itself in Athens, Georgia

Tourists love trees: the Redwoods of California, the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, and the animatronic boughs of the Rainforest Cafe. But there's only one tree, to our knowledge, that tourists flock to because it legally owns itself (ok, semi-legally): the aptly-named Tree That Owns Itself in Athens, Georgia.

Related Video: 10 Bizarre American Laws

How Can a Tree Own Itself?

Good question. The tree certainly wasn't born (or didn't sprout?) owning itself. For hundreds of years, it grew on a local family's land and they owned it, in adherence with common sense and property law. It grew to a quite a stately size, too: in the early 1800s when Athens became an official city, it was the tallest tree in town.

It wasn't until 1890 or thereabouts that the tree made the local news: It had gained its independence.

Being a tree, it had not been able to advocate for its rights. Instead, it lucked into them, thanks to a man named William H. Jackson. His family owned the tree, and Jackson, a University of Georgia professor, had grown up with it. He was emotionally attached to the tree and viewed it as a kind of bark-wrapped friend. So, legend has it, he gave it the legal deed to itself and a circular plot of land around its trunk.

(It seems relevant that the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which formally ended slavery, passed in 1865 — right around the time Jackson allegedly gave the tree autonomy. It was a time of reimagining what autonomy meant and who deserved it.)

Though Jackson's original deed has never been found, a plaque at the foot of the tree features an approximation of its text:

"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 – William H. Jackson"

The Tree Today

Nowadays, the Tree That Owns Itself is actually, technically, The Son of the Tree That Owns Itself, though people usually drop the first clause in conversation. The original tree fell down in 1942 after an ice storm damaged it beyond repair. But the people of Athens missed it so much that they replaced it with a seedling grown from one of the original tree's acorns. Today, that seedling is more than 50 feet (15 meters) tall — hardly a seedling anymore—and cared for by The Junior Ladies Garden Club of Athens.

The government continues to respect the tree's autonomy, too. It's something of a gentlemen's agreement (or gentleman-tree agreement, as it were): In the city, it's not technically legal to own property if you can't "accept the delivery" of the property, which is loose terminology that still strongly suggests trees can't be landowners.

And yet, if you stop by the corner of Dearing and Finley Streets, you'll see a tree owning land right before your eyes. (It's a residential area, though, so don't dawdle too long — it's weird.)

You can see this tree's descendants throughout the city, too. On Arbor Day each year, kids plant seedlings grown from its acorns all around town, spreading its legacy, if not its unusual legal status, throughout Athens.

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Planning a visit? Check out the Greater Than a Tourist book "Athens Georgia USA: 50 Travel Tips from a Local" by Susan Elizabeth Allen. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice October 12, 2018

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