A family’s memories hang on the branches of the shoe tree

Brock Thielbar tosses a pair of shoes on a lower branch. Robin Thielbar has made two signs for the shoe tree. Someone stole the first sign about a year ago. 
Photos by Derrick Knutson
Cousins Jett and Brock have fun playing around the shoe tree. The Thielbars, from left: Paige, Brandon, Brock, Jett, Brooke, Robin and Jerry.
Robin Thielbar shows what’s left of the first pair of shoes to be thrown onto the family’s first shoe tree, her late father’s bunny boots. Brandon Thielbar throws a pair of work boots onto the tree.
Robin Thielbar shows what’s left of the first pair of shoes to be thrown onto the family’s first shoe tree, her late father’s bunny boots.

When a person grows up and comes back home to visit their mom and dad’s house, objects in and around the home sometimes elicit fond memories — tree houses, antique family heirlooms or framed photos, for example.

In the yard of Robin and Jerry Thielbar, there’s something strewn with objects that bring forth an array of memories: a towering oak tree covered with hundreds of pairs of shoes.

For more than a dozen years, the Thielbar’s shoe tree has been attracting attention on their property, north of Stark in Chisago County. Motorists will drive by, stop and marvel at this tree, its branches drooping from the weight of the shoes.

Some passersby likely wonder, “What made the owners of this tree want to do this?”

For the Thielbars, the reason for the tree is twofold: It’s to pay homage to Robin Thielbar’s late father, Elmer Minke, who died in 2003, and it has been a gathering place for the Thielbars since the first pair of shoes — Minke’s old bunny boots — were tossed up on the tree in 2001.

With a laugh, Robin Thielbar described her father as an “instigator.” She remembers many good times she and her seven siblings had with him growing up near Silver Lake in North St. Paul.

“He had this old station wagon he used to tie ropes to and put skis behind, and he’d pull us kids around the lake,” she recalled.

Later, Minke and his wife Marion lived right down the road from his daughter and son-in-law outside of Stark.

Robin Thielbar said her father got the idea to have a shoe tree after seeing one in Wisconsin. Minke thought it would be fun to start a shoe tree, but he wasn’t so keen about having it on his property.

“He wanted it (on our property), because he didn’t want the mess at his house,” Jerry Thielbar said.

At first, the Thielbars were apprehensive about having the shoe tree on their property, but eventually they started it, and they’re glad they did.

The tree has been a source of family camaraderie, neighborhood wonder and a way to meet new people.

Robin Thielbar said people from as far away as Chicago, New York and San Diego have stopped and asked them about the tree.

“They’re probably vacationing in the area,” Robin Thielbar said.

Brooke Thielbar, Robin and Jerry’s daughter, added, “People stop all the time and take pictures.”


Where they get the shoes

Initially, all of the shoes tossed onto the tree were worn-out ones owned by the Thielbars, their children and their grandchildren, but they soon ran out of shoes.

The Thielbars then started collecting shoes other places — from friends, at garage sales — and once word of the shoe tree spread around the area, people the Thielbars didn’t know starting coming to their yard and throwing shoes on the tree.

“It feels like it’s not us throwing a lot of them, it’s people coming and throwing their own,” Paige Thielbar, Robin and Jerry’s granddaughter, said.

Robin Thielbar said she has a loose rule when it comes to the shoes: Once they’re on the tree, they’re supposed to stay on it.

This rule has been broken a couple of times by the family, though — once when Brooke Thielbar wanted a pair of black platform shoes to wear on Halloween, and again when grandson Brock Thielbar spotted a pair of shoes that drew his eye.

“Brock wanted a pair off there, so we made like a 20-foot pole and made a hook on the end, hooked them, and got them off there,” Brandon Thielbar, Robin and Jerry’s son, said about his young son. “They had Spiderman on them, so he wanted them.”

A few years ago, the tree upon which the shoes dangled died, and the family cut it down.

Rather than have the tradition of the shoe tree come to an end, the Thielbars and some of their friends got together, restrung many of the shoes with twine, and, after having a bonfire and wiener roast, threw them onto the tree upon which they now hang.

If that tree someday falls, a new shoe tree on the property is a likelihood.

“We’ll have one as long as we’re here,” Robin Thielbar said. “It’s just kind of fun.”

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