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Athens Travel Guide

Meet the Tree That Owns Itself

Turning law on its ear, this may be Athens’ most popular resident.

In 1806, Athens, Georgia officially became a city. Named after Greece’s capital city, it aimed to replicate the scholarly status of its European counterpart, becoming the home of the University of Georgia. Among celebrities that attended UGA are Ryan Seacrest and Food Network star, Alton Brown. It’s also the birthplace of musical acts like R.E.M. and The B-52s. But the most famous resident of Athens is not a person at all. It’s The Tree That Owns Itself.

Stop by the corner of South Finley and Dearing Streets in Athens and you’ll find a mammoth 70-foot tall oak tree sprawling in the middle of the road. Surprisingly, the tree, estimated to be as old as 400 years, owns itself along with the eight feet that surround it. The giant oak was deeded to itself sometime between 1832 and 1890 by Colonel William H. Jackson. The Colonel, whose military history or service has never proven, grew up with the tree on his property, and fond memories spurred him to make sure it lived on forever, or so the legend goes. In his will, Jackson bequeathed the tree unto itself, declaring the oak its own caretaker.  

UGA CAES/Extension/Flickr

How can a tree or plant own itself? Since no one has ever questioned it, the tree remains a landmark in the north Georgia town, about one hour away from Atlanta. A plaque sits in front of the tree with the following inscribed: “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 — William H. Jackson.” Luckily for the stately oak, it has endeared itself to the entire town of Athens. Because a little digging reveals the story is mired in inconsistencies.

Inconsistency #1

The tree is actually a second generation. In 1942, a storm knocked the original oak over. The town of Athens couldn’t bear the end of their beloved oak, so they gathered acorns to grow a second tree. Four years later, they planted what Athens visitors see today in the residential neighborhood located at the edge of downtown. Technically, it is the “Son of The Tree That Owns Itself” but that just doesn’t have the same ring and would ruin folklore. The Junior Ladies Garden Club of Athens took responsibility for caring for the tree.

Inconsistency #2

If the legitimacy of ownership were questioned, it wouldn’t have a leg (or root) to stand on. There is no printed copy of Jackson’s will. The only record is a story that was printed in the newspaper, The Weekly Banner, that Jackson took out. Further, if a copy of the will did exist, a court would need to legally recognize it, which has never happened, and as by law, a tree cannot own itself.

INSIDER TIPPlan your trip during non-peak traffic times as the tree is located in a residential area and an abundance of visitors can cause a commotion on this quiet street.

Visitors to Athens will see why a famed landmark is preserved with care instead of becoming a target for destruction. Perhaps this small, quirky southern town can teach the rest of the world a thing or two about protecting any species—legal or not.