How One Community Embraced and Saved its Oddball Roadside Attraction

The hula hoop tree in Jones County, Iowa has attracted notoriety from tourists and locals alike.

The hula hoop tree in Jones County, Iowa has attracted notoriety from tourists and locals alike. Jon Zirkelbach

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Facing safety concerns, Jones County, Iowa found a way to preserve its famed hula hoop tree.

Whether blown into his tree by a storm or tossed there as a practical joke, Jon Zirkelbach isn’t sure how two hula hoops ended up caught in its branches.

But five years later, he’s certain about one thing—the whimsy of dangling hula hoops has caught on in eastern Iowa. The once barren dead tree located on a two-lane road in Jones County has sprung to life, adorned with hundreds of colorful hoops.

“It kind of kept being more and more. Now, I don’t know, there’s 400 to 500 in there,” said Zirkelbach, a member of the Jones County Board of Supervisors.

The tree has become the county’s premier roadside attraction. But popularity has a downside.

Safety concerns about the traffic, as well as the stability of the tree, were raised at a recent county supervisor board meeting. Local lawmakers said something needed to be done, leading to rumors that the county intended to cut it down.

“We’re afraid it’s going to fall on someone,” Jones County Supervisor Lloyd Eaken recently told the local Gazette newspaper.  

Word spread on a Facebook page dedicated to the hula hoop tree, with locals and out-of-state visitors alike expressing outrage at the idea of taking down the tree.

The tree is on both county-owned land in the right-of-way and spans onto Zirkelbach’s property, raising questions about liability.

There’s something undeniably endearing about American roadside attractions. Websites and guidebooks compile lists of such oddities, ranging from the self-proclaimed world’s largest ball of twine in Kansas to the Cadillac Ranch, a Texas art installation with 10 vehicles buried nose-first in the ground.

The hula hoop tree is no exception. It’s included in Atlas Obscura’s list of local oddities and locals have taken to selling T-shirts with its likeness. A local artist paints images of the tree on small rocks that she leaves at its base for people to take as souvenirs.

Flanked by crops and flat cow pastures, the tree is located on a stretch of road with a 55-mph speed limit. On any given Saturday or Sunday during the summer, five to six cars could be pulled over on the gravel shoulder at a time so visitors can snap pictures or toss hoops into the tree’s branches like a game at the county fair, Zirkelbach said.

“It’s not as easy to get a hula hoop up there as it looks,” he said.

Zirkelbach said he’s in favor of keeping the tree intact, but he understands the concerns.

“It’s a dead tree and we all know what happens with dead trees, they eventually fall down,” he said.

Locals have suggested that the road’s shoulder could be widened to accommodate parking, or the hoops could be relocated to another healthier tree or structure, according to the Des Moines Register.

Commissioners panned the ideas, but Zirkelbach said the cost of doing so was prohibitive.

Instead, in consultation with the county attorney and engineer, the commissioners opted to lower the speed limit around the tree. New 35-mph speed limit signs were ordered and are expected to be installed later this month about a half-mile from the tree in order to alert drivers, Zirkelbach said.

He hopes that will assuage concerns for now.

It isn’t the first time the roadside attraction has faced potential demolition. In 2017, someone set fire to the tree and the Des Moines Register reported that it needed to be reinforced with cement to keep it upright.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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