A Dog’s Life: How a Beloved Stray Changed a Small Appalachian Town

Rockford, Alabama is a small quiet rural Appalachian town with a population of about 450.  This quaint Coosa County town has one red light and one police officer because according to the locals, that’s all they need.

In 1993, a stray black and white Airedale shaggy dog came strolling into town. And he never left. He just wandered the rural roads, making his daily rounds to shops, restaurants, and his favorite townsfolk. It was a man named Neil who first discovered Fred roaming the road outside town. Neil’s brother-in-law tried to rescue the dog and take him home, but Fred liked the town of Rockford so much, he kept jumping out of the back of his truck. Fred was determined to stay in the town limits.

Over time, the folks in town started taking notice and started feeding and watching over him. No one knew where he came from or who he belonged to. He was scraggly, dirty, visibly sick and in need of some much-needed care.  The locals in town feared he might have a disease known as red mange and discussed the difficult decision of having him put down.  Local business owner Kenneth Shaw came to Fred’s rescue and took him to a local vet, where Fred was diagnosed with a flea infection.  Nursed back to health, Shaw took in the stray and provided Fred with a place to sleep and hang out at his local store. “He meant a lot to me, like one of my young’uns, I reckon,” Kenneth Shaw stated to the Baltimore Sun.

Fred Saves the Town

Before Fred became a permanent resident, the small town of Rockford was economically struggling to stay afloat. At the time, country roads were being replaced with busy highways and the town suffered tremendously. Local shops and businesses were forced to close due to the economic downturn and the population began to dwindle.  Some residents had no choice but to move away from Rockford in search of better job opportunities.  Rockford started to become just another deserted southern town.  As the old saying goes, “God works in mysterious ways.”  The arrival of Fred began to bring a spark of hope to Rockford and the local residents eventually adopted Fred as the town mascot. The beloved stray officially became Fred The Town Dog.

Fred’s Daily Rounds

Fred wasn’t one for staying in one place for too long.  Fred made his daily rounds wandering all over town visiting the courthouse, the local bank, or the local woodshop. He would often be found napping at the gas station or hanging out at Ken’s Package Store.  Fred brought unity and hope to this small community. Local businesses always had a “Fred Jar” when he would come around to visit. Fred even had a savings account at the local First Bank.  His account covered the cost of food and vet bills. Since Fred was considered a customer, the bank allowed Fred to come in and visit where he would usually receive a Milkbone treat.  First Bank continues to keep a doggie jar in memory of Fred.  The bank teller, Joyce Taylor, still gives out doggie bones to other dogs that come by to visit.

Although Ken Shaw was the official guardian, Fred belonged to the whole town.

Photo courtesy of Freds Facebook Page

Fred drifted all over playing with children, helping old ladies cross the street, and showing unconditional love to everyone who came in contact with him.  Using his nose to nudge doors open, Fred was welcomed everywhere. The town fell in love with Fred and the local newspaper started reporting Fred’s daily life with his own column “A Dog’s Life.”  The television network, Animal Planet, discovered Fred’s story and featured him on a segment “Town Dog of Rockford, Alabama” where Fred became an instant celebrity!

Fred’s fame put Rockford on the map and brought unity to a community that came together to help take care of Fred.  He was no longer just a stray companion.  Fred became a beloved family member to the whole town. Fred never met a stranger and was friendly to everyone he met.  Fred became a community volunteer and was dubbed the grand marshal of holiday parades with his very own float.  As Fred’s popularity grew, folks from all over started traveling backcountry roads to stop in and visit with Fred.  Businesses started selling Fred t-shirts and coffee mugs.

Signs began showing up in Rockford proclaiming, “Rockford AL Home of “Fred the Town Dog” celebrating their new treasured celebrity companion.

For almost 10 years, the wayfaring stranger captured the hearts of the people who lived in and around the small town of Rockford.  When Fred wasn’t roaming the streets, you might just see him actually laying in the middle of the street.  Drivers would literally have to stop, get out of their car, and persuade Fred to move.   Bringing fame to his adopted town as a lovable tourist attraction, Fred cruised around town sporting a red bandana around his neck.

Depending on the season of the year, you might see Fred wearing a Santa hat at Christmas or a vampire costume for Halloween. Local Alabama native, Ava Lowrey, grew up in the nearby town of Alexander City and had heard stories of Fred growing up as a child.  When she was a senior at New York University Tisch School of the Arts, she produced a short documentary film about Fred for her film thesis.  Her documentary about Fred won several awards including the Special Jury Award for Documentary Film at Black Warrior Film Festival and the Audience Award at the Montgomery Film Festival in 2015. “They’re all people I feel like I can identify with and an audience could identify with, and Fred was something that brought them all together,” Lowrey stated to the Alexander City newspaper, The Outlook.

Since her debut of the documentary film, Lowrey has been using her multimedia talents in creating other short documentaries that have been featured in The New York Times, Rolling Stone Magazine, and CNN to name a few.  She also completed her MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts at Duke University. Her films focus on social activism and untold stories from the other southern communities.

Fred’s Tragic End and Town Memorial

In October of 2002, Fred mysteriously contracted an infection speculated to have been a spider or snake bite.  Fred was taken to a veterinary hospital in Birmingham.  For weeks doctors tried to remove the poisons from Fred’s body. But the recovery became grim and Fred peacefully passed away in his sleep two days before Christmas.  It was a painful blow to the town and especially for Shaw, his guardian.  Fred was taken back to Rockford and was placed in a specially made casket for burial.  The community paid their respects by writing messages of love on his casket.  Fred was laid to rest behind the historic old county jail that now resides as a museum.  A small service was conducted by Reverend Cruse with a passage from the Book of Psalms and a small tribute he had written in honor of Fred.  A monument was erected in Fred’s honor with the proceeds coming from the sale of Fred’s souvenirs.

A dog’s life is lived in the moment which many of us could learn a little more about.  Dogs show us unconditional love and teach us about gratitude, forgiveness and not to hold grudges.

They teach us to keep moving forward in life and give us an excuse to go out and play.  They make walks more joyful and show us the true value of loyalty and friendship.  Fred greeted everyone with a wagging tail and did not discriminate or judge people by their race, religion or financial situation.  Fred taught Rockford the lesson of solidarity and coming together for a purpose, a dog’s purpose. The town of Rockford is quiet again and the signs have been taken down. But the spirit of Fred still lives on in the hearts of the community and will forever be known as “Rockford’s Beloved Companion.”

Memorial for Fred The Town Dog. Photo courtesy of Kelly Kazek | kkazek@al.com

To learn more about Fred and the residents of Rockford, Alabama, you can
visit Freds Facebook page! Fred: The Town Dog

By Hope Thompson

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