Key West The "Conch Republic"

Key West

 Key West, the southernmost point of the continental United States, where many  residents refer to it as the “Conch Republic” (pronounced conk), embraces a fascinating mix of history, eccentricity and lush  island charm.  

 Early History

 Only 90 miles from Cuba and 159 miles from Miami, Key West is truly the end of  the U.S. mainland. It also has a truly fascinating history. The first European  to visit was Juan Ponce de Leon in 1521, and it soon became a Spanish colony, a  fishing and salvage village with a small garrison. The original Spanish name  for the island is Cayo Hueso, which pronounced very similarly to Key West, and  literally means “Callous Bone.” It is said that the island was littered with the remains (bones) from a Native  American battlefield or burial ground.  

 In 1763, when the Kingdom of Great Britain took control of Florida, the  community of Spaniards and Native Americans were moved to Havana. Florida  returned to Spanish control 20 years later but there was no official  resettlement of the island. Informally the island was used by fishermen from  Cuba and from the British Bahamas, who were later joined by others from the  United States after the latter nation's independence. While claimed by Spain,  no nation exercised de facto control over the community there for some time.  

 By the time of the U.S. Civil War, while Florida seceded and joined the  Confederacy, Key West remained in Union hands because of its naval base.  However, most locals were sympathetic to the South, and many flew Confederate  flags over their homes. Fort Zachary Taylor, constructed from 1845 to 1866, was  an important Key West outpost during the Civil War. Construction began in 1861  on two other forts, East and West Martello Towers, which served as side  armories and batteries for the larger fort. When completed, they were connected  to Fort Taylor by railroad tracks for movement of munitions. The Emancipation  Proclamation went into immediate effect in Key West on January 1, 1863, and  local African-Americans celebrated accordingly.  

 In the late 19th century, salt and salvage declined as industries, but Key West  gained a thriving cigar-making industry. By 1889, Key West was the largest and  wealthiest city in Florida.  

 Key West was relatively isolated until 1912, when it was connected to the  Florida mainland via the Overseas Railway extension of the Florida East Coast  Railway (FEC). The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 destroyed much of the railroad  and killed hundreds of residents. The FEC could not afford to restore the  railroad.  

 The U.S. government then rebuilt the rail route as a highway, completed in 1938,  which became an extension of United States Highway 1. The portion of U.S. 1  through the Keys is called the Overseas Highway. President Franklin Roosevelt  toured the road in 1939.  

 In a 1940 Saturday Evening Post article, Thelma Strabel wrote of Key West, “There is nothing for restless people to do. It is quiet and careless and  charming.”  

 Papa and Presidential Visits

 Several U.S. presidents have visited Key West. Harry Truman established the  Winter White House there staying for 175 days on 11 visits during his  presidency and returning several times after he left office. Dwight D.  Eisenhower stayed in Key West following a heart attack and in November 1962,  John F. Kennedy visited Key West a month after the resolution of the Cuban  Missile Crisis. Jimmy Carter held a family reunion in Key West after leaving  office.  

 More than half a century later, you'll find that Key West's charm has remained,  though the pace of life has picked up quite a bit. Key West has become a place  where people escape from the daily workday world. What other place has more  bars—along with more churches—per capita than anywhere else in the country?  

 If you prefer to live a more solitary life, you can spend your days dozing in a  hammock between two palms, and your nights listening to the gentle hum of  insects and the far-away beat of a reggae band. Or, if you're like most  residents, you'll take it easy during the day, enjoying the beach or Key West's  shops, water sports, fishing and spend your nights partying in its bars and  nightclubs, many of which are clustered along the main strip of Duval Street.  

 The laid back lifestyle, southern charm and Caribbean flavor are what make Key  West what it is today. Figures throughout history have visited Key West, many  making it their permanent home for a while, others enjoying the tropical  climate while they escape the harsh winter.  

 Ernest Hemingway made his home in Key West for almost 10 years, writing,  frequenting local bars or just fishing. Most scholars feel his Key West years  were the most productive of his career. Legend has it that Hemingway wrote “A Farewell to Arms” while living above the showroom of a Key West Ford dealership at 314 Simonton  Street. Hardware store owner Charles Thompson introduced him to deep-sea  fishing.  

 Among the group who went fishing was Joe Russell (also known as Sloppy Joe).  Russell was reportedly the model for Freddy in “To Have and Have Not.” Portions of the original manuscript were found at Sloppy Joe's Bar after his  death. The group had nicknames for each other, and Hemingway wound up with “Papa.”  

 Hemingway bought 907 Whitehead Street in 1931 as a wedding present for his wife  Pauline. Legend says the Hemingways installed a swimming pool for $20,000 in  the late 1930s, equivalent to $250,000 today. It was such a high price that  Hemingway is said to have put a penny in the concrete, saying, "Here, take the  last penny I've got!" The penny is still there.  

 During his stay he wrote or worked on “Death in the Afternoon,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” He used Depression-era Key West as the locale for “To Have and Have Not” — his only novel set in the United States.  

 Tennessee Williams first became a regular visitor to Key West in 1941 and is  said to have written the first draft of “A Streetcar Named Desire” while staying in 1947 at the La Concha Hotel. He bought a permanent house in  1949 and listed Key West as his primary residence until his death in 1983. Folk  musician Jimmy Buffett also lived there and used it to establish his  beach-going persona in his music.  

 In contrast to Hemingway's grand house in Old Town, the Williams home at 1431  Duncan Street in the New Town neighborhood is a very modest bungalow. The  Academy Award–winning film version of his play “The Rose Tattoo” was shot on the island in 1956. The Tennessee Williams Theatre is located on  the campus of Florida Keys Community College on Stock Island.  

 About 70 miles west, accessible by scheduled ferry service or chartered  seaplane, lies the beautiful islands of the Dry Tortugas, which make up Dry  Tortugas National Park. Believed to be America’s most remote national park, the Dry Tortugas are a natural wonder, known for a  great variety of birds and sea life. Divers and nature lovers will enjoy the  area for its staghorn coral, French angelfish, loggerhead turtles and rare  birds.  

 Key West is unlike any other part of Florida. Locals truly feel that their “Conch Republic” is its own country. Certainly, Key West's blend of cultures, history and it's  remote location have helped it evolve into what it is today, a tropical  paradise and a wonderful place to call home.   

 Liam P. Cusack is associate editor of The South Florida Cooperator.