If you’re a Keys local, you know a trip across the Seven Mile Bridge isn’t complete without acknowledging and offering a greeting to Fred, the tree that sprouted defiantly and triumphantly from concrete on the old bridge (or perhaps you weren’t aware its name is Fred).
Around the holidays, Fred is adorned with lights and holiday decor to the delight of passing motorists and boaters below. Keys Weekly was privileged recently to sit down with the most famous Australian pine tree in the USA.
Keys Weekly: Fred, how does a tree on a bridge in the middle of the ocean end up decorated with Christmas lights?
Fred the Tree: Well, it all started about 12 years ago. Two mischievous and anonymous elves got together, bought some lights from The Home Depot and strung them all over me. It was a good effort, but they realized, once you got far enough away, you couldn’t see my lights from the road at all. By the following year, they had it all figured out. They talked to some folks who knew more about electricity and hooked up solar panels to charge battery banks that power much brighter lights.
KW: And who are these elves? Friends of yours?
FTT: At this point, yes, most definitely! There are usually about 15 people now who come each year on D-Day (Decoration Day) to deck me out for the holidays. The two original elves were fishermen in town who enlisted the help of their buddies with boats. And of course, as they needed more people to help with electrical things and brute strength, they brought a couple more friends along. But if you’re looking for names…I’m sorry, you won’t get them. That might be my biggest secret.
KW: Not even the two who started it?
FTT: Nope. A lot of people try to take credit for it, but the elves know who they are. One guy at a bar tried to impress people by saying he strung my lights. But he didn’t know he was sitting right next to some of the real elves.
KW: But…you’re on a bridge in the middle of the ocean. How do they get up here?
FTT: Santa’s magic. They fly up here — like the reindeer
KW: We heard they come out at night, and that’s why people rarely see those elves. Is that true?
FTT: Absolutely not. That would be way too dangerous. They come during the day, and it usually only takes them about four or five hours. They’ve got it down to a science now. There are a lot of logistics involved, and every elf has his or her own job.
KW: So, when the elves are up there, do people see them?
FTT: Yes, but not their faces. They get into all kinds of shenanigans when they’re up here, like cartwheeling contests. They usually end up slowing down traffic on the active Seven Mile Bridge because people want to stop and watch.
KW: These days it seems like there are more than just lights that go up. Do you have any favorite decorations?
FTT: A few years ago, a rabbi from Key West called the elves and asked if they could put up a big PVC menorah, so that was a great addition. We also have some angels that go up now, and the little tree next to me gets decorated, too. Most people call it Wilma, but my elves always call it Randi. My favorite addition has to be the “Keys Strong” sign. The elves put it up after Hurricane Irma, and that one means the world to me. Everyone was so worried about me after the storm, and they were surprised I made it through. Our whole town went through so much, and I was able to cheer up everyone driving over the bridge and remind them that we’ll get through it. This year they put the sign up again for the COVID pandemic. Who knows? At this point, it might just become a new staple.
KW: Actually, that brings me to my next question. Everyone wants to know: How on earth do you live out here? You’re on a concrete bridge, and your species is native to Australia.
FTT: People say I might have sprouted from the droppings of a passing bird. There are a lot of urban legends out there, too. Everyone wants to say they’re responsible for Fred the Tree. I’ll keep the real story a secret…unless someone wants to make a movie about my origin story. People think I don’t have anything to grow in, but they don’t realize the pilings under me are full of sand. There’s plenty there for my roots to dig into. Otherwise, Irma would have wiped me clean off the map!
KW: Anything else you want to share with our readers?
FTT: Happy holidays, everyone! Make sure you come by and see me in December, and always, always, remember, we are all Keys Strong, and we’re strongest when we work together.