Fred, the town dog: R.I.P.

SUN JOURNAL

Mascot: An aging pooch of undistinguished parentage and talents somehow put an Alabama town on the map.

January 17, 2003|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

ROCKFORD, Ala. - They buried him out back of the old county jail a few weeks ago. The grave is still fresh, with its swollen dirt mound, and amid the dead leaves someone has left two roses, a chew toy and a dog food scoop.

"Fred the town dog," reads the makeshift wooden cross. "12-23-02."

Fred died of a mysterious infection two days before Christmas. Ever since, people in rural Rockford, population 450, have been mourning the plump, sad-eyed Airedale mix who shuffled into town a mangy mutt and became a minor celebrity with his own Web site, T-shirt line, local newspaper column and cameos in the international news media.

It was an improbable rise for a white-pawed dog with no discernible talents except nudging doors open and lying on his back with legs skyward.

To many residents here, Fred was a tourist attraction, civic ambassador, brand name - and friend.

"He meant a lot to me, like one of my young'uns, I reckon," says Kenneth Shaw, who cared for and boarded Fred at his liquor store.

The adoration was by no means universal. Fred had detractors, whether driven by envy or a sense that things went too far.

"I hate for the town to have a name because of a dog," says Nellie Ferguson, working the lunch counter at Crew Drugs.

But even Ferguson has to concede that tiny Rockford, little more than an intersection 45 miles north of Montgomery, was not likely to get a name any other way. "Nothing much here," she says. "Never has been."

That's just what Fred's fans say. "I had much rather Rockford was known for Fred the town dog than a serial killer or famous child molester," says Glenda Cardwell, a clerk and librarian at the storefront Town Hall, Police Department, Fire Department and library.

"He put us on the map," says Joyce Taylor, a teller at First Bank, where Fred held savings account No. 6687563.

Fred certainly was not born to greatness. Before his name was in lights, it was almost lights out. No one knows where he came from, but when he showed up in the early 1990s, he was one sick puppy. Worried that he might spread a disease called the "red mange," folks talked of putting him down.

Then Shaw came to his rescue, taking him to a veterinarian who diagnosed a simple flea infestation. Soon Fred was ensconced at Ken's Package Store, moseying about by day and spending nights in a doghouse with "Fred the Town Dog" over the door. A "Fred Jar" collected spare change for his food.

Shaw did not treat him like any old dog. Fred, who like his master had white whiskers, wore a Santa hat and antlers at Christmas, a vampire getup or "bad dog" costume on Halloween, bunny ears for Easter.

In every season he roamed about the town, the core of which is at the junction of Highways 231 and 22 near the Talladega National Forest.

Fred's local renown began to grow in 1995 when he made the weekly Coosa County News. "Fred's on the mend," says the headline over a story about his flea troubles. A year later the paper told readers that "Fred greets 1997 with a new house and a lot of bark!" He figured into the crime roundup, too: "Town dog Fred injured in weekend brawl."

In 1998 the paper began running a column written "by Fred," accompanied by a photo of him in a red bandana. Ghostwriters imagined goings-on in town through a dog's eyes.

Depending on the writer, Fred might be pious or "a girl-hungry hound," says Jimmy Hale, one of two town police officers and the last "It's a Dog's Life" scribe.

Perhaps inevitably, Fred went commercial. There was a Web site. Shaw marketed "Fred's Knick-Knacks" - hunting caps ($4.50), mugs ($15), even a $2 Sept. 11 button emblazoned with Fred's picture, the American flag and "Fred the Town Dog Cares!"

Shaw says he clears little profit and uses that money to buy more merchandise.

Gradually, Alabama news outlets took note, and the British Broadcasting Corp. found its way through the rolling countryside to Rockford. Fred's breakthrough came in 1999 when the Animal Planet TV network ran a segment.

"Fred enjoys his job as town dog," the narrator assured viewers.

Joe and C. (for Cecilia) Arras, sitting at home in Findlay, Ohio, saw the show. They called the town to ask about buying a Fred shirt and got to know Shaw.

When it came time to pick a place to take their new camper, Joe said, "Let's go see Fred." They stayed three days and returned the next year with their two collies. They parked near Fred's doghouse.

"People'd probably say we was nuts," Joe says, "but we've done stupider things than that."

Some residents couldn't get enough of Fred. Cardwell, the clerk, arranged for Fred to visit her home so that she and members of the Beta Sigma Phi women's sorority could play with him, leaf through his scrapbooks and take his picture.

But others in town disdained the hype, and the dog.

"He'd lay out in the middle of the road and people'd have to get out to move him!" Nellie Ferguson says. "He was the butt-ugliest thing you ever saw." People sent a dog money, she notes, yet poor children in Rockford did without.

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