Once upon a time, there was an 87-foot tall white pine tree that stood between two houses on Ronalds Street in Iowa City.
That tree, which already leaned a bit towardthe home of Joe and Julia Hennager, became a concern during the derecho in August 2020.
For safety, it was decided the tree would have to go.
But not all of it.
A 16-foot version remained.
Joe Hennager had a vision for his new mini-tree. And that's where this story begins.
From Hennager's imagination has sprung the Iowa City Reading Tree. Its a mini-lending library, registered as a Little Free Library, built into the tree. Books reston shelves enclosed behind glass, available for anyone to access, but designed specifically toencourage children to read.
All you have to do is walk up the steps off the sidewalk at 312 Ronalds St. or let the Hennagers know in advance to take you through the back if you have accessibility needs and let the reading tree speak to you.
The tree is meant to create a sense of community. Next year, authors may read their books or local musicians by perform their songson the deck surrounding it.
But the true story of the reading tree, as written by Hennager, is how the happy tree turned sad when it was damaged by the derecho.
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It goes like this:
When elves heard about the sad tree, they decided to protect it by building a roof for it. The elves ended up liking the tree so much that they decided to move inside.When the elves becamebusy with other projects, they hired some local dogs to help build their home instead.
The elves, now moved in, want to share their love of reading and their many books.
Sothose who stop by the reading tree may get to speak to the elves. Theywill certainly get a book.
When the derecho hit, the Hennagers were concerned that the large treewould fall and crash into their home.
With their neighbors permission, the bulk of the tree was removed.As a thank you, Hennager wanted to build something to memorialize the tree.
I think the image that I saw in my mind when the tree was left 16-feet-tall was exactly what's out there, he said.
Though he received suggestions from friends and neighbors, Hennager said he wanted the tree to be functional, to be beneficial to the community, something people could use.
Hennager has spent more than a year building the tree.
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He completed the carvings on the rafter tips.Then, scaffolding was put up andremained out all lastwinter. When there wasnt snow, Hennager was up carving on the tree and setting the rafters into it.
Carving was made difficult, with the height, the cold temperatures and the moisture of the pine sap factoring in.
There were just challenges all along trying to figure out the engineering and making sure that it was going to be extremely stable and over-engineered rather than under-engineered, Hennager said.
The Iowa City Reading Tree needed to be safe, and it needed to last. Hennager used treated wood so that bugs wont destroy the tree. Hetreated it with a lacquer for further protection.
Then he installed the roofs and the cabinetry.
Hennager tried to work on the tree daily, anywhere from a few hours to 14. When there was rain, wind or snow, Hennager could moveinside to perfect some detail of the tree.
What mattered was that I could get it get it done, he said. And it was an artwork. It wasn't building a building. It was a sculpture, and so it changed (the) motivation completely. I knew what it had to look like, and that's what it came out.
There was plenty of help from the community, from getting materials, help constructing the concrete deck and more.
Electrician Jason Troendle, who lives in the Coralville area, got involved with the reading tree when Hennager called the company he works for, Price Electric, to do some work at his house.
As someone who has been in the trade for about 20 years, Troendle has come across plenty of material. Sowhen Hennager needed electrical work done for the reading tree, Troendle offered to supply his material and labor at no cost.
He did it, he said, because he likedHennagers ideato promote reading for children.
I'm always reading books with my daughter, Troendlesaid. Shes 5, so we're always reading stories, books and stuff. And getting children involved in reading and sparking the creativity in their imagination ... is kind of the big thing (in)why I just donated my time, and I wasn't afraid to do it.
Hennager has a background in art, and the reading tree would be his first sculpture.
He knew that for a project like this, it had to be functional and safe, but it also had to have an aesthetic, something that children would be drawn to, not frightened by.
The carvings of animals on the rafter tips are not only visually pleasing, they are meant to start conversations for children.
When you ring the doorbell at the reading tree, an "elf" will be there to greet you. The technologyallows the elves to talk through its speaker, and its camera will notify Hennager if someone is there.
For this to work, people will need to make an appointment so that the elves will already know about the child when they visit the tree.
We want them to think of it as a place that was comfortable enough for the elves to move into, and so it's a comfortable place for me to visit, Hennager said.
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The idea behind that, Hennager said, is inspired by the Disney World trip he went on as a child.Mickey and Minnie Mouse would come up to him and his siblings and know their names and while it was less magic and more coordination on his parents end, a child wouldnt know the difference.
Sowhen the tree asks children what they like to read, any I dont knows can be solved with another question.
Do you like animals?
All kids like animals, and so they'll pick an animal and it just gives them something to define, Hennager said. They don't know what they want to read about. Very few children know what they want to read. They know what they have read and maybe they enjoyed a book on bunny rabbits or something like that, so that's what they'll say. And so, we just want them to be there as a reminder and make it easy.
The design of the tree isnt complete.
It will be a literal reading tree, with its wood face to be adorned with bicycle rim glasses and a 4-by-4-foot book Hennager will construct across its lap. Light will cast up on its face, and the tree will look like its always reading.
Hennager estimates that ongoing maintenance and care costs termites and bug control, for one will run $800 to $1,000 annually.
If authors do readings at the tree for students, Hennager wants to be able to provide a copy of the book for each student. The cost of that will add up quickly if it's multiple classes across multiple schools.
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Hennager wantsto add benches to the deck sopeople can sit. Hes alsolooking for people who have birdhouses to add to the tree, along with fairy garden houses to adorn the surrounding landscape.
That is why the reading tree has a GoFundMeto assist with the costs of the project, and what's next.
Plus, the reading tree will need books.
Dont throw your books away. Don't throw your puzzles away, Hennager said. We're recycling books and jigsaw puzzles, CDs.
Books for peopleofall ages are welcomed, but the reading tree can especially benefit from more middle grade and young adult books. People are welcometo drop off their donations atHennagers home.
Already, many neighbors and friends have contributed books and other assistance towardthe tree, according to Hennager.
But, as any bookworm would tell you, you can never have too many books.
The reading tree has already had a handful of visitors a day stop by, according to Hennager.
He wants the reading tree to be something that residents enjoyat their leisure,perhaps while they are walking their dogs. The reading tree will have dog treats another cost for people that stop by with their four-legged friends.
If the dog is happy to stay at the reading tree, then perhaps the owner will be, too, Hennager reasons.
I want them to be able to grab a book and sit down for five minutes, one minute, whatever, and just read any book, just grab any book out of there and just read and turn off your phone, he said.
Beyond that, Hennager is hoping to have some local readings by authors on the trees stage, as well as have musicians perform. He said he has heard a handful of people express interest in wanting to do readings at the tree, perform there and even stage a possible poetry slam.
People can pull up a seator sit on the front lawn to enjoy.
Hennager also sees the tree as a way to connect with elementary schools in Iowa City.
Julie Robinson, principal at Horace Mann Elementary, received an email from Hennager about the Iowa City Reading Tree, inviting her to check it out.
So she did, and he informed her about his intent for the tree to be available to schoolchildren.
The two brainstormed, and they thought it would be great for elementary students who are writers to read their works to younger classes at the tree, Robinson said.
Robinson also said that the school bands could have their concerts at the tree.
One of the things Robinson said she loves about Horace Mann is its location on the north side of Iowa Cityand near downtown.
I love any opportunities that we can give our kids to connect with and be a part of the neighborhood, she said. Sothe opportunity to have something like this thats a 10-minute walk away makes it really exciting.
In order to begin facilitating some events, Hennager will set up an email blast. At the tree is a cabinet people can open, where there will be a booklet to sign their name for those updates as well as a QR code to scan to visit the reading trees website.
Regardless of what the future brings,the tree can have its own happily-ever-after where its at now.
It could just survive nicely by having an occasional person stop by it, walk by my camera," Hennager said.
"That's all I need.
Paris Barraza covers entertainment, lifestyle and arts at the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Reach her at PBarraza@press-citizen.com or (319) 519-9731. Follow her on Twitter @ParisBarraza.
How an Iowa City man built a library inside a tree to spark a love of reading in children - Iowa City Press-Citizen