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The Curious Story Behind The Tree In The Middle Of The Road

Every state has its naturally-occurring oddities, or at least, things found in nature that have been around forever. In Iowa, one of these oddities is the Tree In The Middle Of The Road. The name says it all – well, specifically, it’s a 100-foot-tall cottonwood tree in the middle of an intersection. Curious? Read why this giant tree exists and where you can find it in southwest Iowa.

A 100-foot-tall cottonwood tree at an intersection in Iowa

How I learned about the Iowan round-about

I first learned about Tree In The Middle Of The Road when my friend, Megan, over at Olio in Iowa shared pictures on social media. And I had so many questions, but primarily: Why?

First thing was first, I had to see it for myself. I’m not patient so rather than wait for good weather, I decided to punch the tree’s location into my GPS – 2401 350th St., Brayton – and drove there. It was January. There was snow on the ground. I did not think it through.

The good news is that GPS will take you directly to the tree. The bad news is that driving to the tree in the winter is a terrible idea. It’s in the middle of farmland and not exactly on snow plow routes. Drive with All-Wheel Drive at your own risk in the winter. I swear there was a moment in my drive that there was no discernable road or tire tracks to follow. I may have been in someone’s yard. 

When I shared a video of my encounter with the Tree In The Middle Of The Road, several readers clued me in on what it’s really known as: The Iowan Round-About. Both names are a mouthful, though.

The tree has not been left alone to grow in obstruct rural traffic on its own. No. The trunk is decorated with graffiti ranging from prom proposals to the requisite and charming spray-paint penis.

A car at a stop sign facing the Tree In The Middle Of The Road near Brayton, Iowa

Why is there a tree in the middle of the road in Iowa?

Back to my first and really only question: Why is the tree in the middle of the road? Travel Iowa shared a simple explanation to the tree’s existence: “The story is when the county lines were being established the surveyor placed a green cottonwood stick into the ground at the exact point where the lines crossed and grew into the present tree.”

Digging a little deeper, details are added to the legend:

  • Sometime around 1850 or 1851, the county lines between Audubon County and Cass County were drawn and the only thing on hand to mark the separation was a cottonwood stick. The Des Moines Register was not able to confirm this legend, but it’s generally the consensus. 

What’s near the Tree In The Middle of The Road?

Honestly, not much is near the tree. It’s found at an intersection of two country roads in southwest Iowa. Brayton is a town of about 142, and it’s near Exira, which has a population of 785.

A mural for Coca-Cola in downtown Atlantic, Iowa. Atlantic is the Coca-Cola Capital of Iowa.

I combined the excursion with a stop in Atlantic, which is about 14 miles from the tree. Atlantic is the Coca-Cola Capital of Iowa, which is reason enough for me to want to check it out. If you love all-things-Coke, plan a visit to Atlantic during Coca Cola Days at the end of September.

Since it was winter when I visited, I had to settle with having a warm latte at Coffee Girl.

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Catherine Kearns

Wednesday 22nd of November 2023

I am not an Iowan, but I am an artist and I’m attempting to paint this tree during different seasons. Thank you for your funny and enlightening story about the tree in the middle of the road. I found you quite charming and delightful. I’m a California girl and learning how to navigate the snow is not easy, I could totally relate to your comments!


Wednesday 26th of April 2023

This article was painful to read ?‍♂️ I live in Iowa and driving to this "round about" a very common term is not at all as described here.

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