Given the big hearts in the Keys, is it any surprise that a few people determined a forlorn, hardscrabble Australian pine tree growing out of the concrete on the Old Seven Mile Bridge was the equivalent of Charlie Brown’s questionable choice for a Christmas tree — and begged to be adorned?
Mysterious elves year after year festoon that Australian pine who they named Fred with Keys-themed ornaments, lights and attention-getting ribbon and furls. Any alert motorist on the Overseas Highway more than likely has glanced in the tree’s direction only to do a double-take and state the equivalent of, “Well, I’ll be…” in wondrous surprise.
The décor does its job admirably in generating smiles and holiday cheer and is a quirky Keys tradition year after year. Its popularity is noteworthy. Books and songs have been written about it. And, Fred the Tree has almost 16,000 followers on its Facebook page created in September 2015. Also, of note, Fred is an acronym for “For Real Enjoyment Driving” said its creators.
How long has Fred the Tree been growing on the old bridge? According to Cathy Salustri, in an article referencing 2003 on cltampa.com, “She was a sapling then, barely a branch tucked into a loose piece of concrete. I don’t know how she got there, but I can imagine she sprang from the leavings of one of the millions of birds that either fly over or roost on this disconnected, decaying span of Overseas Railroad…” That likely is how it got its start.
While the trees’s birth year may be debatable, the decorating began 11 years ago, according to a WRLN article by Nancy Klingener and confirmed by one of Fred’s elves. Klingener said two residents named Tim and Loretta began the tradition on a bridge section that is not connected to land any more. The decorations between mile markers 41 and 42 have evolved into about 300 feet of solar lights that have to be protected from rats by rat traps. Rats had chewed through the wiring in the past, Klingener wrote.
As well, painted lobster or crab trap buoys of six-inch in diameter are visible from the Seven Mile Bridge, as well as angels. At the request of a Lower Keys rabbi, a menorah has been added to the décor as a nod to inclusivity and everything the holidays stand for. A giant lit-up star also is erected by a multi-person pulley/rope system as Fred’s crowning glory.
Another addition after the devastating Hurricane Irma in September 2017 was a “Keys Strong” sign. Many Middle and Lower Keys residents had to deal with flooded and destroyed homes from the category four storm that holiday season so a reminder of community support was a thoughtful inclusion, and continues to be a reminder for anyone who is hurting.
How the brave elves get up on the old bridge is a bit of holiday mystique — similar to how Santa Claus travels around the world in 24 hours and squeezes down chimneys. There may be boats, ladders and/or rappelling involved or helicopters and drop zones. Not too many people see the elves in action, so it’s hard to get the facts from the secretive decorators. It could be they sprout magical wings and fly there… so they would have us believe!
Festive Fred garners plenty of attention from amused passers-by driving upon the Overseas Highway. One elf said Fred is about as iconic as the Rockefeller Center tree in New York or the White House Christmas Tree.
S/he added that the small Australian pine beside Fred is Wilma, and a bushy shrub further down is Barney, and all will receive their decorations around the second week in December, weather permitting. The décor will remain in place about one month. After that, just as mysteriously as the lights and cheerful apparel went up, they will come down as the busy elves disassemble the beautiful additions, and “leave no trace,” the elf said, with a nod to being environmentally-friendly.
Why do they do it? It brings holiday spirit to all who see it. The fact the trees are seemingly inaccessible adds to its magnetism and joy.
The Old Seven Mile Bridge was part of Henry Flagler’s Oversea Railway and was built between 1908 and 1912. The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 — a category five storm — damaged the bridge and the new Seven Mile Bridge was completed in 1982. Fred the Tree is forging its own history over the vast expanse of Atlantic Ocean and making Christmas and life a little more wonderful in the Florida Keys.
– Article Contributed by: Jill Zima Borski
– Photo’s Contributed by: Kristen Livengood