No one can be sure of how the first hula hoop came to be perched around a branch of the large, dead oak tree in the tiny town of Amber, Iowa.
A storm, most people say, serendipitously blew that first hula hoop high up onto the tree.
Others say a man who lives in the area threw the hoop up there to celebrate his 40th birthday. Another man claims that first hula hoop belonged to his wife and he tossed it on the tree because he was mad they were getting a divorce.
“There a few different stories out there and you don’t know who to believe,” Bobby Krum, who lives in Amber and is president of the town’s community club, said. “So, we really can’t say how it happened.”
However it started, that’s not where the mystery ends surrounding the Hula Hoop Tree.
'Like a big secret'
For awhile, at least a few months, the lone hula hoop stayed where it had landed. People driving by noticed it, sometimes swaying in the wind but always clinging onto the tree.
“We would see it up there,” Krum said. “And think, ‘Well, that’s kind of funny.’”
At some point in 2015, according to Krum and others familiar with the tree, more hoops were thrown up onto the tree. One day, there were 10. Then, 20.
“Next thing you know,” Krum said. “It’s what you see today.”
Regina Engelbart, who lives in Amber, watched the tree’s transformation from her kitchen window.
“Nobody saw anyone add any hoops,” she said. “It was like a big secret. They just appeared, kind of magically.”
Spreading the 'feel-good feeling'
Today, the tree is something to behold.
It’s something that pops up seemingly out of nowhere on the quiet E23 County Home Road in rural Jones County. It’s something that causes passersby — truck drivers and commuters and families in the middle of a cross-country road trip and teenagers on their way to prom — to pull over and get a look.
About 200 colorful hula hoops regularly adorn the tree, which has become a landmark, of the quirky variety, in eastern Iowa. Visitors from around the Midwest and beyond have shared selfies with “Her Majesty,” as it is referred to on the Amber Iowa Hula Hoop Tree Facebook page.
Along with faraway fans, there is a small, dedicated network of people who tend to the tree. They buy new hula hoops and return hoops that have fallen off back to their spots. Some also paint rocks — hundreds have been painted in the last two years — to be placed at the base of the tree for visitors to take as souvenirs.
In that group is Chris Nadge, who works at the nearby car retailer Yogi’s Inc. in Monticello.
“When you see it, there’s like an initial shock,” Nadge said. “A hula hoop is meant to be twirling around a person, not high up on a tree. They just seem out of place on a tree."
Nadge started the Hula Hoop Tree’s Facebook page, which has over 1,000 followers, because he wanted more people to experience the “wonderful surprise." He also thought the tree could, on social media, do what it does best: Make people smile.
“I deleted my personal Facebook, because all you see on there is people talking about politics, bad news and people fighting with each other,” he said. “But then maybe you come across a photo of a hula hoop tree on your feed. And it’s just like you’re driving down the road and coming across the tree by accident. And you get that same feel-good feeling.”
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'Life still has some whimsy'
Georgia Sack, who lives in Lost Nation and also works at Yogi’s Inc., drives by the tree every day, twice per day, on her way to work.
“Every time we see it, it makes us happy,” she said. “It’s a piece of art.”
Sack has thrown plenty up hula hoops up there herself, which is “not easy, by the way.” Some people, she said, write a name of a loved one or a motivational phrase on a hoop before tossing it up.
“A lot of people make wishes when they throw their hoop,” she said. “For some people, it’s kind of like a wishing well. It means something different to everyone.”
“The world has so much negativity and this is just something fun and positive,” she said. “It reminds you that life still has some whimsy in it.
Keeping 'Her Majesty' alive
There isn't much to the town of Amber.
"If you’re driving through and you blink, you’d miss it," Krum said.
Engelbart sizes up the town’s population this way: “If you count up all the people and all the cats and dogs, there’s maybe 100 of us who live here.”
Amber used to a railroad town with a few bars, a gas station and a grocery store in town. All of that is gone now.
But Amber has something. It has the Hula Hoop Tree. And the community, Krum promises, is going to make sure “Her Majesty” lives on.
One morning about a year ago, someone set fire to the Hula Hoop Tree.
“The fire department came over,” Krum said. “Normally, with that kind of fire, they would just knock the tree over and destroy it. But they knew it was important to everybody. So they saved the tree.”
Krum has thought about what might happen if the tree was set on fire again or if something else happened to it.
“It is in the county right-of-way, so the county could cut it down anytime they wanted to,” Krum said. “We’ve already decided that if something happens to it, we’re going to start another one.”
'It's the simplest things'
Engelbart couldn’t imagine not having the Hula Hoop Tree around.
She has met people from as far as Texas who have stopped to check out the tree.
“It just fascinates everyone who sees it,” she said.
That includes Engelbart's young grandkids as well as area residents, who are ages 70 to 98, that Engelbart serves via a Meals on Wheels site in Monticello.
“Every morning, I have a coffee and look at the tree,” she said. “Sometimes it’s the simplest things that make people the most happy.”