Killer spawns 'legend' of Michigan shoe trees

When an area tree covered with shoes dangling by their laces became an item for local newspapers and television several years ago, it brought awareness to a phenomenon and a legend associated with its origin.
Kevin Collier
May 6, 2013

They are called “shoe trees,” and the one that created local buzz is located in Coopersville.

      It is estimated as many as 76 shoe trees exist across the United States, created for various reasons. Several are in Michigan.

      The Coopersville shoe tree, on the right side of southbound 68th Avenue, was started as an amusement years ago.

      However, it appears the shoe tree phenomenon — at least in Michigan — is often associated with a child serial killer, who, legend claims, hung the shoes of his tiny victims in a tree near their burial site.

      There's several versions of the tale, but it always has to do with a child killer.

      “Back in the day, maybe the early 1900s, a sick and cruel man began murdering kids,” author Amberrose Hammond explained on Michigan's Otherside website. “After he disposed of the bodies, he would throw their tiny shoes up into a tree. Eventually, the man was caught and people found the tree, ornamented with the dangling shoes of their dead children.”

      Another story claims the tree bearing the shoes of the young victims was located at the Walled Lake amusement park.

      According to reports, the infamous “Walled Lake Child Killer” kidnapped the children from the park, and buried their bodies in the nearby field around a tree. When authorities saw the dangling shoes and investigated, the bodies were uncovered.

      The legend is so convincing, several people over the years went at the Walled Lake Library seeking more information about the “Walled Lake Child Killer.” Once there, they are told the story is untrue.

      “Perhaps (the legend) was inspired by the still-unsolved murders of four children that took place in Oakland County over a 13-month period in 1976-77,” a library spokesperson said. “In those cases, none of the children were from Walled Lake, and the bodies were found in Livonia, Franklin Village, Troy and Southfield.”

      To this day, the Oakland County Child Killer remains unidentified. It is believed the man was responsible for the abductions and murders of four or more children in Michigan from 1976-77.

      The victims were identified as Mark Stebbins, 12, of Ferndale; Jill Robinson, 12, of Royal Oak; Kristine Mihelich, 10, of Franklin Village; and Timothy King, 11, of Birmingham. Their deaths triggered a massive murder investigation — which, at the time, was the largest in U.S. history.

      Fear and near-mass hysteria swept southeastern Michigan, and it was reported that children avoided using a playground directly behind a Birmingham police station, which is likely where the “amusement park” idea came into play regarding the legend.

      There was also no shoe tree connected to these crimes.

      However, children occasionally tossed pairs of old tennis shoes onto telephone lines for amusement; thus, it is plausible that a sight like this in and around Oakland County at the time could have been twisted and slithered its way into the legend.

      While the legend of Michigan shoe trees is linked to an unidentified child killer, the Coopersville tree is strictly linked to amusement. There is nothing sinister about the Coopersville shoe tree — it's all in fun.

      I talked to the wife of the property owner a few years back, and she explained at one time there were “as many as 300 pairs up there.” At the time, she jokingly hinted the old pair of worn shoes on her feet were “just about ready” to go up into the tree.

      According to her, the majority of the shoes that have been suspended from the branches of their tree were purchased at a Coopersville church flea market for as little as 50 cents a pair, then strung aloft.

      A trace of truth can often be found in even the most outrageous of legends, but the origin of Michigan shoe trees is an exception.

      The mythological tale of a serial child killer connected to a shoe tree remains just that — a myth. But for many, it has become a part of unusual folklore in Ottawa County.

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