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HULA HOOP TREE

Hula hoops hang from a tree along E23 County Home Rd. west of the town of Amber, Iowa, on Monday. It's a mystery how and who started the tradition. Several of the hoops has memorial messages to departed loved ones. One had a happy birthday announcement. The attraction is featured on the website Atlas Obscura. 

AMBER — Fans of one of Eastern Iowa’s most whimsical tourist attractions are hoping against hoop it will be saved.

The Hula-Hoop Tree, a scraggly, leafless tree decorated with hundreds of the plastic hoops, for years has brought onlookers to the small community of Amber, home to about 35 houses. People have memorialized birthdays and wedding anniversaries at the tree. A Facebook page with over 3,200 followers is devoted to it.

But now there are concerns about dangers the Hula-Hoop Tree poses. Jones County supervisors are scheduled Tuesday morning to hear a report from their attorney about liability questions.

It was about 2015 when the first hoops appeared in the tree. Now there are hundreds of them.

There are a lot of stories about how hoops came to be in the tree, said Bobby Krum, president of the Amber Community Club. But he is partial to the story about a group of employees from Monticello that started throwing hoops in the tree on payday.

“Its helped put Amber back on the map,” Krum said. “It’s whimsical. A nice, feel-good family event. People can throw hoops, make a wish.”

While Krum fully supports the tree and what it brings to the community, it was the Amber Community Club that brought its concerns over safety to the supervisors, he said.

The tree is on public right of way on E23 County Home Road, north of Anamosa, on a curve where the speed limit is 55 mph. Drivers frequently stop on the side of the road and people often cross or mill about and toss hoops onto the tree.

Krum would like to see pedestrian crossing signs placed on the side of the road. Administrators of the Amber Iowa Hula-Hoop Tree Facebook page already had signs printed: yellow with a person hula-hooping and “XING” written at the bottom.

They were told the signs would have to be approved by supervisors before they were posted.

The Amber Community Club is prepared to move the hoops if the decaying tree is cut down, or if it fell down. Members voted to either construct a monument to the tree or select a backup tree if need be. Either way, it would never be the same, Krum said.

“Maybe (tourists) won’t come as they used to, but we do like it a lot,” Krum said.

Krum will be at the Board of Supervisors meeting. He said people are getting “irate,” and he is concerned about the stance some people are taking of save the tree at all costs.

“We want to work with supervisors to find a solution,” Krum said.

Chris Nadge, creator of the Hula-Hoop Tree Facebook page, said he is nervous about the board’s discussion, but “completely” understands it needs to be a county decision.

Nadge said stories shared on the Facebook page are from people who have had “heartfelt experiences” visiting the Hula-Hoop Tree.

“People share some pretty intimate stuff about their lives,” Nadge said. “They visited the tree after going through their last cancer treatment or celebrating 50 years of marriage or after their friend who wanted to visit the tree died.”

Potentially dangerous

Jones County Supervisor Lloyd Eaken said the board is concerned the tree is getting “dangerous.” It is hollow and was set on fire shortly after the hoops began appearing. Someone tried to repair it by filling it with concrete. But the weight of the hoops is causing a strain on the tree, he said.

“We’re afraid it’s going to fall on someone,” Eaken said.

Even so, Eaken said, the Hula-Hoop Tree is “really something.”

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“It’s a tourist draw now,” Eaken said. “The No. 1 question (visitors) ask when they call for information in Jones County is where the Hula-Hoop Tree is. We’ve got to keep it somehow.”

This is the first time the tree has been on the supervisor’s agenda, said Jones County Attorney Kris Lyons.

Lyons said he was unsure of the county’s responsibility if the tree is a liability and was waiting to hear back from the county’s insurer.

The tree is on the county right of way, Lyons said. When people park on the shoulder of County Home Road or run across it to throw a hoop in the tree, it could pose a liability.

Lyons said he couldn’t comment on any advice he would give supervisors before the meeting, but he said supervisors would “explore all options” before deciding.

Jones County Engineer Derek Snead said the tree is about 50 feet off the road. The Secondary Roads Department cuts down dead and dying trees on the county right of way “all the time,” Snead said. But there are trees much closer to the road than the Hula-Hoop Tree that the department prioritizes, he said.

As far as he knows, Snead said, there have not been any accidents because of the tree.

Beloved public art

Al Capaccioli has lived just down the road from the tree for about seven years. He noticed the first hoops appearing years ago.

“About every day, someone is stopping by,” he said. “I like it. I think it’s just neat.”

He said some of the hoops light up at night. Others have notes written on them, including memorials to people who have died.

“I stop when we have a storm and pick them back up and thrown them back up there,” he said.

A post on the Amber Iowa Hula-Hoop Tree Facebook page asks community members to go to the supervisors’ meeting “to speak on behalf of our beloved public art.”

The Facebook post generated 160 comments from locals and people from out of state who had visited the tree.

MaKenzie Hafel commented her kids still talk about how much fun it was to hang a Hula-Hoop on the tree. “Harder than it looks!” she said.

Gary Gunderson commented from Oregon that he and his wife and kids visited the tree and “absolutely loved it.” He said they would be back to visit next summer.

Shana Rosenthal commented from Las Vegas, saying she visits the tree every year and would be “so sad” if it were gone.

“This tree brings people together and creates happiness,” commented Mandy Zieser.

Alison Gowans of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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