KALKASKA -- Sara Crosby doesn't know why passersby throw shoes into the branches of a large tree near her house on U.S. 131 north of Kalkaska, but they've been doing it for years.
The famous -- or infamous, take your pick -- shoe-draped tree recently was cut back almost to the trunk on one side, but might not be felled, as some feared. State highway workers trimmed the tree significantly in recent weeks as a safety precaution, officials said.
For about a decade, Crosby watched motorists screech to a halt on the busy and fast-moving highway, pull into her driveway, jump out of their vehicles and stand in wonderment before the tree. They take photographs and many end up tossing a pair of sneakers, work boots and even stiletto pumps into the tree, Crosby said.
A pair of fishing waders dangled from the branches for a while, too.
"Sometimes people come up the drive and ask about it," she said. "I'd love to put a lemonade stand out there. I'd make a fortune."
Theories abound as to why the shoe tree exists and how it got started: a memorial to a local student killed in a traffic crash; an oil field worker tradition to avoid taking dirty boots home to the chagrin of wives; a domestic argument in which a husband threw his wife's shoes into the tree to prevent her leaving; or, simply a way to be "closer to heaven," Crosby said.
All guesswork aside, there's no definitive answer, just conjecture.
The tree is on Crosby's property, but within the state's easement along U.S. 131. She doesn't mind the strange phenomenon, but acknowledges safety concerns for those who stop to admire or add to the shoe cascade.
After all, traffic moves at a fast clip along that stretch of highway, Crosby said.
"It's the best landmark in northern Michigan. We don't have any trouble telling people where we live," she said.
Her neighbor, Trisha Farrier, wishes people would stop throwing shoes into the tree because of the damage it causes. The weight from the hundreds of shoes has killed branches.
"They aren't doing it on purpose, but it is killing the tree," she said. "I would like to see them stop, but I know my own children have thrown shoes up there."
Bob Felt, Michigan Department of Transportation spokesman, said they cut some branches so shoes don't end up in the road and create a driving hazard. The tree could end up being removed. Or not, he said.
"While its origin has many theories, the U.S. 131 shoe tree has been an icon in the community for years. We know it's a special tree. We will monitor it in the future and only take it down if it ends up dying," Felt said.