Discover how a lone Kansas cottonwood became a folk legend.
There is a tradition among travelers on K-96 between the Bentley and Maize Road exits: Honk as you go by “the Lucky Tree.”
It’s a custom thought to have been started decades ago by Hutchinson High School students.
“I had the privilege of working there when there was an outstanding football season and basketball season, as well as debate and other activities,” said Kathleen Foster, now retired and living near Pawnee Rock.
“The students that I worked with taught me that when we go by the Lucky Tree, outside of Maize, we honk four times, and everyone lifts their feet off the floorboard,” Foster said. “And repeatedly, we did that year after year, season after season.”
Go by the tree today and the sounds are deafening.
Semitrucks, cars and even Kansas Department of Transportation tractors and mowers provide constant movement and sound.
The tree is unwavering.
It’s a massive cottonwood that’s nearly 150 years old. Its leaves tremble in the spring and autumn breezes and sway with summer storms as vehicles pass by.
If you listen long enough, there is occasionally a honk of adoring affection.
You’ve undoubtedly passed it if you’ve traveled the road. But did you honk?
The tree stands between mile markers 276 and 275.8 on the west side of the road.
Unlike most cottonwoods, the Lucky Tree has its own Facebook page — “We always honk at the lucky tree outside Wichita” — with more than 5,800 followers.
According to information on its Facebook page, through the years, it has been called the Lucky Tree, the good luck tree, honking tree and the memory tree.
When she was in high school, Marci Penner — co-director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation near Inman — said she remembers climbing on an Inman school bus and riding it into Wichita for the annual state track meet.
“I remember everybody talking about the tree — only they didn’t call it the Lucky Tree … there was something about that tree, and I would just start honking at it. But I didn’t know others were honking at it.”
Sarah Green, the other co-director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation, said she also learned about the tree when she was in high school and visiting friends in Halstead. They would honk.
So, she started honking.
And now, even her dad honks at the Lucky Tree.
“My dad doesn’t use his horn at all except to honk at the Lucky Tree,” she said.
Through the years, blue and gold ribbons — the colors of the Hutchinson High Salthawks — have adorned its branches. In times of war, people have tied yellow ribbons around its massive trunk to commemorate lost or missing loved ones.
More than two decades ago — shortly after 9/11 — it proudly wore the American flag.
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.
The custom of honking may have started on the spur of the moment, Penner said.
“I think it has to be noticed and someone makes a deal out of it. And then, it starts to spread,” she said.
Back in the 1970s, Penner attended a track meet for three years as a high school student.
“That was where I would start to get nervous — or psyched up — at that tree,” Penner said. “It triggers something in people. And it’s not just about luck … it just feels like it’s always been there for you.”
So, what happens if you don’t honk when you pass the tree?
“I feel bad,” Penner said. “I feel like I had a chance to wish somebody good luck or put some good vibes out — and I missed it. I missed the opportunity.”
Foster said she isn’t surprised the custom has brought good luck to so many people.
“[Hutchinson] High has many, many traditions, and the lucky tree is one of them,” she said. “It brought us great luck and state championships many times over.”
Each person who travels the highway and gives a nod to the Lucky Tree has their own personal style of honking:
Those who honk once.
Those who honk multiple times.
Some honk and do a backward wave.
Many more simply drive by.
“We honk four times,” Foster said of the Hutchinson High tradition. “I was the van driver many times for the students, particularly for the scholars bowl and math relays. We honked four times … and everyone lifted their feet off and cheered.
“It was very methodical and very much a tradition.”
But if she is in her personal vehicle, Foster said she has yet another honking style that takes over:
“I honk one time, and I do not lift my feet off the gas pedal.”
As reported in the Hutchinson News