Tree That Owns Itself
277 South Finley Street
…the Tree was happy…
–Shel Silverstein, “The Giving Tree,” 1964
When I read Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree as a child many moons ago, I found the story disturbing. There is more than a bit of sadness in this story of altruism, and I found that disquieting. Perhaps this was one of my first introductions into that grey area where noble ideals spar with reality. That place where morality and immorality square off, where the dramatic tension lies between the blacks and whites of good and evil.
The legend of Athens, Georgia’s Tree That Owns Itself exists in this same grey realm of fact and legend. When I stumbled across this 1916 article while browsing the historic newspaper collection of the Digital Library of Georgia, I was happy to be able to add this story to my collection on Athens. Unfortunately, the bottom corner of the paper has been torn and part of the paragraph describing the phantom is lost.
The Daily Times-Enterprise
July 1, 1916
Courtesy of the Digital Library of Georgia
GHOST HAUNTS TREE THAT OWNS ITSELF
AT LEAST THAT IS STORY COMING
OUT FROM ATHENS, AND
THERE IS MUCH SPECULATION
Atlanta, July 1—Has the ghost of William Jackson come back to haunt the Tree That Owns Itself?
That’s the tale they are telling in Athens, Ga., where on a big hill in the center of the city stands a giant white oak, the only tree that owns itself, trunk, twig and leaf, together with eight feet of land on all sides.
Early in the nineteenth century William Jackson was one of the largest plantation owners of Clarke county. Under the white oak, which is four or five hundred years old, he used to sit and direct his slaves at work. When he died, this paragraph was found in his will:
“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 comes the report that a phantom has been seen beneath the Tree That Owns Itself.
[page torn]…mist of a man, fading is-
[page torn]…a man with powdered
[page torn]…a broad hat
[page torn]…and laces and frills sitting there under the tree, with one hand resting gently on the bark.
Was it the ghost of William Jackson?
Ask the boys of that college town—they don’t know.
A surprisingly thorough article on Wikipedia examines the legend and its inconsistencies, noting that the first documented version of the tree’s legend appeared in the Athens Weekly Banner in 1890. That article, couched in the heroic language of the period, describes the tree as seeming to “stand straighter, and hold its head more highly and proudly as if we knew that it ranked above the common trees of the world.” The 1890 article continues with the history of the tree but noting that the tree’s deed of ownership is mysteriously missing from the county’s records.
Since 1916, the original tree succumbed to rot and fell on October 9, 1942. The Athens Junior Ladies Garden Club took up the cause of the tree and replaced it with a sapling grown from one of the original oak’s acorns. The current tree, sometimes deemed “Son of the Tree That Owns Itself,” continues to flourish from its space on South Finley Street. The tree is now surrounded with a retaining wall and a chain barrier with a plaque denoting the tree’s ownership of itself. Perhaps Col. William Jackson still appears on occasion to rest beneath the stately branches that he gave so much for?
- “Deeded to itself.” Athens Weekly Banner. 12 August 1890.
- “Ghost haunts tree that owns itself.” Daily Times-Enterprise (Thomasville, Georgia). 1 July 1916.
- Tree That Owns Itself. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Accessed 19 June 2019.