Learning to love the University of Georgia goes hand in hand with learning to love the general quirkiness of Athens, Georgia itself. Most college towns have their eccentrics and eccentricities, and Athens is no different.
But it's doubtful that any college town in America has had anything more eccentric than the Tree That Owns Itself. The story goes that prominent Athenian William Henry Jackson had a strong affection for the white oak tree near the corner of South Finley and Dearing Street in Athens. Legend had it that Jackson treasured fond childhood memories from playing under the tree, unlikely given that Jackson's childhood was spent in Jefferson County, not Clarke. But the genesis of Jackson's affinity is less important than its unwavering certainty.
So concerned was Jackson for the tree's well-being that he deeded the area around it on all sides to the one living thing he trusted to care for it: the tree itself. A plaque at the base of the tree carries a paraphrasing of the apocryphal deed language used by Jackson sometime in the 1820s:
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
Of course no one can find the original deed, and no one is entirely sure it ever truly existed. As an oak tree is likely not strictly sui juris, the deed wouldn't have been legally valid to begin with. But as with the giant stone currency of Yap, what matters is that everyone in the community has treated Jackson's deed as if it had value and the full force of law: common, statutory, and ecclesiastical. So for years the tree stood, master of its own domain. The original tree was damaged beyond saving and eventually came down in 1942, succumbing to years of rot and decay. Estimates placed the birth of the original tree sometime between the early 1600s and mid 1700s, but it's lot sat unfilled for four years of the World War II era, before it was replaced by a seedling grown from one of the acorns of the original tree (such progeny are planted all over Clarke County, by the way).
Rumor has it that like so many great ideas that sprang up in Athens over the past 70 years or so, this one came from the fertile mind of one Dan Magill. Magill would later to become the sports information director, tennis coach, and Bulldog Club secretary for the University of Georgia. But in 1946 he was just the son of a concerned member of the Athens Junior Ladies Garden Club. After a search, a fitting tree grown from the original was found and transplanted to the spot where it stands today.
The tree is maintained by the Athens-Clarke County government (technically the tree is in a public right-of-way and thus a municipal responsibility). The Athens Junior Ladies Garden Club remains the "official advocate" for what has become known as the "Son of the tree that owns itself." Which, for all intents and purposes, it does. Next time you're in Athens, take a moment to stroll through its quiet residential environs, which look a little different than they did when the tree was emancipated over 170 years ago. And find some time to appreciate that this is the kind of story that could probably only take root in Athens. Until later . . .