The Christmas Tree Island Commune mystery

Was trying to think of a Christmas themed communal living post to do – I first thought I would do a piece on different gift ‘games’ that people living communally play to try and make the festive season more co-operative and less commercialised, but when I looked at the various ideas they are not that particular to communes. (We play the ‘Pink Elephant game’ on solstice eve at Forgebank – a variation on White Elephant, or Yankee Swap, that we learnt one xmas at Twin Oaks.) So instead I googled ‘Christmas Commune’ and came across the mysterious story of the Christmas Tree Island Commune, a story of free-spirits, a squatted island and murder!

Christmas Tree Island
Christmas Tree Island

The island is a bit of a mystery itself. For starters it is a 21 acre man made island created from the spoil from repeated dredging of the Florida Key West harbour by the U.S. Navy in the late 1890s and early 1900s. The dredging created two islands a few hundred yards off the coast one named Tank island and the other nicknamed Christmas Tree Island after the large number of the invasive Australian pine (casuarina) trees that colonised the island. The island is also known as Wisteria island after the U.S. Public Health Service steamer Wisteria was wrecked whilst moored by the as yet unnamed spit of land in 1925.

The island has had a chequered use and ownership history. In the 1930s & 40s it was base for a shark hunting business that sold the shark skins to be made into clothing leaving the beach on the island peppered with thousands of sharks teeth. In the 1950’s the Navy had various plans to use the island which ended up being shelved. While a local official bought the island and started a long chain of ultimately disputed ownership. In 1956 the first plans to develop the island for housing and commercial space were put forward, followed in 1966 with plans for a 60-home development complete with a small golf course, yacht club, dredged canals, and a lagoon in the center of the island.

Christmas Tree Island with Key West in background
Christmas Tree Island with Key West in background

The first squatters probably arrived on Wisteria / Christmas Tree Island in the Sixties or early Seventies. It was a time when many young hippies headed south, and Key West became an affordable, tropical, counterculture retreat.                                  Miami new times.com 2007-11-01

The island seems to have become a haven for homeless hippies, beach bums, vagrants, artists and assorted adventurers & free spirits – it is unclear if they formed any sort of coherent community that could be called a commune or whether it was a much looser individualistic affair. One such adventurer was a Paul LaBombard from Massachusetts who hitchhiked there in 1971 spending a winter camping on the island before heading off to join a Sikh Ashram, where he changed his ame to Pritam Singh returning later in the 1980’s to become one of Key West’s major property tycoons. My interest in the story of the island commune was  initially grabbed by this post in a Key West online forum;

“About 20 years ago some boat captain told me about some type of commune on one of the keys west of key west.(or there abouts) that had several hundred people in it, made their own laws, liquor stills, was finally cleared out by federal government after things got out of hand, a few murders or something? I think he said it was in the 1960’s. Anyone heard of this? “

There was then a string of other posts, mostly about other communes in the area, or disputing which island it actually was. Until eventually someone who seemed to know what he was talking about unravelled the story;

” Back in the late 60’s a bunch of the local hippies did in fact live on Christmas tree island- never a big group maybe 10 people- one of the people who lived out on Christmas Tree was an alleged escaped murderer from Texas named Russ- Russ was far older than the rest and had been in jail in Texas(since 1932) more than 30 years when he escaped. One night the Key West police led by Tito Casamayor (one of the 2 guys who head up vice squad) if memory serves me right raided the group and chased everyone off the island. Russ, sadly was captured, and returned to Texas. I’d heard Russ’s story and knew him as an exceedingly gentle man. He had indeed killed the other man in an alchohol fueled jealous rage over some woman but certainly done a lot more time in Texas than he would have any where else. His act was more that of aggravated manslaughter than of first degree murder. ….”    Larry Claypool

Development of the Island has recently been thwarted following a protracted court case over the legal ownership. One particular ‘beach-bum’ attracted down to Key West was singer songwriter Jimmy Buffet who recorded Christmas Island in 1996.

 

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