The tree had meant so much to generations of Johnson County residents.
Locals knew all about the “Leaning Tree,” the massive gravity-defying sycamore tree that bowed across Airport Road south of Franklin. People have vivid memories of driving underneath it; it was as much a landmark as the county courthouse or Historic Artcraft Theatre.
So when it became an extreme risk to fall over and workers had to take it down in 2020, it sparked sadness throughout the community.
“If at all possible, we wanted to find a way for that bit of history to be shared with anyone and everyone that has fond memories of that tree, and hopefully try to turn something that we absolutely didn’t want to do into something we could all share,” said Luke Mastin, director of the Johnson County Highway Department.
Nothing can replace the leaning tree. But through a joint project of the county parks, historical society and highway department, area residents can come away with a memento of the magnificent tree.
Wooden nickels, imprinted with an image of the tree and made from its remaining wood, are available to the public free of charge. The coins can serve as a reminder of an important part of the county’s heritage, said David Pfeiffer, director of the Johnson County Museum of History.
“We’re trying to make the best of the situation. Everyone is obviously sad, and we want to remember it as best we can,” he said
Safety concerns forced county officials to take down the leaning tree in September 2020 after a citizen submitted a formal complaint asking the highway department to look into its condition earlier in the summer. On June 4, Airport Road, also known as Nineveh Road, was closed after an initial inspection determined the tree was unsafe to drive under.
Later in June, two master arborists determined the tree was at “extreme risk” for falling, according to the arborist’s report. The Johnson County Board of Commissioners voted 3-0 to remove the tree on June 21.
The decision sparked a passionate reaction from the community. People went to the tree to get photographs, or to sign their names on a sign that had been erected at the tree’s base. Facebook pages were formed to rally people into saving the tree.
The decision was a blow to everyone involved, Mastin said.
“It meant a lot, especially for the employees who have roots here. It was a decision that ultimately had to be made because of safety, and I think we all understood that, but it didn’t necessarily make it any easier,” he said.
Rot and disease had made much of the wood from the leaning tree useless. But the county was able to save a considerable amount of the wavy-grained sycamore, which it had stored at Johnson County Park while searching for the best way to repurpose it.
Officials fielded countless calls from people wishing to acquire the wood, Mastin said. But those involved — the Johnson County Historical Society, Johnson County Highway Department and Johnson County Parks and Recreation — wanted to be sure that everyone in the community could benefit from it.
“People had reached out, not just to the highway department, but to their elected officials and other county employees they know, so we knew there was a desire to have a piece of the tree,” Mastin said. “Typically the requests were a little unreasonable, as in a couple of people would get all of the wood available, and we didn’t want to see that happen either.”
The idea for wooden nickels came from previous celebrations the historical society had done in the past. Particularly during the county’s sesquicentennial, the tokens were immensely popular, Pfeiffer said.
“It was easy to do, we could get a lot of them for the amount of lumber we were able to salvage. It’s something that a lot of people recognize, and that way, it’s not too complicated,” he said.
Organizers enlisted Wavy Works and its owner, Eric Rose, to laser-etch a photograph of the leaning tree towering over the roadway onto the wooden coins. Arched across the image are the words, “The Leaning Tree,” and underneath “Franklin, Indiana.”
“There were all these things we wanted on there, but there’s only so much room. We wanted it to be legible, and they did a great job,” Pfeiffer said.
The coins are available at the history museum, the county highway department, the county annex building and Johnson County Park. Distribution is limited to one per person, so that everyone who wants one can get one, Pfeiffer said.
“We think a lot of people are going to want them, and we want to have enough for them,” he said.
AT A GLANCE
Leaning Tree wooden nickels
What: Mementos created from the wood salvaged from the famed Leaning Tree, which had arched over Airport Road in central Johnson County and had to be taken down in 2020.
Who: The nickels will be distributed to the public for free. One nickel per person.
- Johnson County Museum of History, 135 N. Main St., Franklin
- Johnson County Annex, 86 W. Court St., Franklin
- Johnson County Parks and Recreation, 2949 E. North St., Nineveh
- Johnson County Highway Department, 1051 Hospital Road, Franklin