For luck, honk as you pass tree on K-96

"There was not in the whole country-side another tree which could compare with him. He was matchless. Never a stranger passed the elm but stopped and stared and said something or thought something about it... The tree was compelling. He insisted upon a recognition of his beauty and grace. Let one try to pass him unheeding and sunken in the contemplation of his own little affairs, and, lo! he would force himself out of the landscape not only upon the eyes, but the very soul." -- Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman, from "Six Trees"

Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman never saw our tree.

Our tree, a cottonwood, has stood guard for nearly a century. It is one of the best known landmarks on K-96 between the Bentley and Maize Road exits. The lone sentinel watches daily as thousands of Kansas State Fair travelers and others pass beneath its branches, sometimes stopping to take pictures while it grandly stands at attention against the sunset. Other times, it will stand silent, leaves trembling in the Kansas spring and autumn breezes. High school teams passing by in buses honk and wave.

Blue and gold ribbons — the colors of the Hutchinson Salthawks — sometimes adorn its branches.

People tie yellow ribbons around its massive trunk to commemorate lost or missing loved ones.

Nearly a decade ago — shortly after 9/11 — it proudly wore the American flag.

And in the 1990s, when officials threatened to reroute K-96 and cut the tree down, adoring fans urged the Kansas Department of Transportation to save it.

“Fortunately, the expansion went north of it and the tree stayed in place,” said Benny Tarverdi, metro engineer for KDOT. “If you walk around it, you will find a lot of stuff people have left there.”

It has been nicknamed the Lucky Tree, the Wishing Tree, the Honking Tree.

It has its own Facebook page — “We always honk at the lucky tree outside of Wichita!” — with nearly 3,200 followers from all around the world.

Debbie Royse is one of the women who helped start the page on Facebook more than a year ago. The tree’s story has been told in her family for three generations.

“When my grandpa and grandma were dating, they would drive by the tree and honk,” Royse said. “And when I was a child, when me and my dad and mom would take trips to Oklahoma, we’d always honk at the tree for a safe trip home.

“I’m 30, and any time I pass that tree, I honk so I have a good trip.”

Honk for luck

The tree’s mere presence denotes luck, especially to athletic teams.

“When I am driving to a game in that direction, I always honk,” said Eric Armstrong, athletic director for Hutchinson High School. “It’s just, God, you’d hate to lose because you didn’t honk.”

The traditions vary with the drivers.

Hutchinson High School vans have honked an equal number of times for the number of passengers — while the passengers hold their feet off the floor.

Others honk one time and do a backward wave. Others tip a hat and wave.

Hutchinson mother Mel Dower remembers the ill-fated night when her son was a freshman and the van driver didn’t honk when the team passed by. The team lost.

Beloved cottonwood

It is not the first time Kansans have been so taken by a cottonwood.

Until the late 1980s, a giant cottonwood stood on the state Capitol grounds in Topeka. The tree, believed to have been planted when the Capitol was built, survived fire and a tornado. By the 1980s, the more than a century-old cottonwood had succumbed to disease and damage.

It was considered one of the most beloved trees in Kansas because of the numbers of dignitaries and visitors who sought shade under its branches.

“The thing about those cottonwoods , once they get to be a century old, is that they begin dying from the inside out,” KDOT’s Tarverdi said. “Their branches get hollow and the high winds can knock them down.”

Hopefully, the Lucky Tree will defy the odds.

“If something were to ever happen to that tree, I don’t know what people would think,” Royse said. “This is our tree. It is famous. It is a legend in its own right.

“It has its own aura that draws people to it.”