The short and colorful life of the Conch Republic

In Florida, the closer you get to Margaritaville, the more the population skews Peter Pan.

Southernmost point, Key West

Southernmost point

While much of northern and western Florida is occupied by retirees and snowbirds, the further southeast you go, the younger the population seems to get. Like a lot of beachy areas, divers, surfers, and those pursuing laid back, I-don’t-want-to-grow-up lifestyles have settled in the Florida Keys. Even the retirees seem to be a little looser, a little more let’s-party (though that’s anecdotal—we’ve only been down here two weeks)!

Florida Keys mapKey West is as far south as you can get in Florida, (and the US), at the end of a chain of islands jutting out into the warm, aqua waters of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico; it’s about 90 miles from Cuba. The town has long been a haven for pirates, smugglers, and people arriving by less-than-legal means. As soon as Florida become part of the US in 1821, it became the Navy’s job to chase away the pirates who boldly attacked ships on the trade routes from the Caribbean.

Florida Keys map

Early industry here wasn’t exactly traditional. For a time, Key West was the largest, wealthiest city in Florida and the richest per capita in the US, thanks to its thriving “wrecker” industry. Locals salvaged shipwrecks from nearby reefs, and were known for their fine furniture and chandeliers, scavenged from the wrecks.

Many early arrivals to Key West were from the Bahamas; they were called Conchs (sounds like ‘conks’). By the end of the 19th century though, about half of Key West’s residents were from Cuba. The town is closer to Cuba than it is to Miami, and the ties go deep. Early Cuban revolutionaries sought recruits in Key West. The revolution of 1953 ended legal Cuban migration to the US, but refugees continued to head to the island. In 1980, most of the 100,000+ Cubans escaping during the Mariel Boatlift arrived in Key West. Down here, “rafters” doesn’t mean something under your roof.

Gypsy chicken, Key West

Gypsy chicken, Key West

As this little history lesson suggests, Key West acquired its rebellious, piratical, anything-goes vibe honestly. It’s long been a remote refuge for artists, authors, and outsiders. By tradition, Gypsy Chickens have roamed the town freely; the six- or seven-toed polydactyl cats descended from “Snowball,” Hemingway’s kitty, still run free around his house; and the town turns out every evening in Mallory Square to celebrate the sunset. For decades Key West has been a gay-friendly haven. In 1978 the town’s mayor, “Sonny” McCoy, water-skied to Cuba—on a slalom ski. It took a little over six hours.

And in 1982, the next mayor of Key West declared the city had seceded from the United States.

In an effort to battle the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs that were flooding in through the Florida Keys, the US Border Patrol blockaded Highway 1 at the northern edge of the Keys. Citizens called this a heinous act, as Highway 1, running from one end of the Keys to the other, is the only land artery to the US mainland. The blockade treated residents as aliens, forced to prove their citizenship before they could drive into Florida.

Highway 1, The Overseas Highway, Florida Keys

Highway 1, the Overseas Highway, Florida Keys

A seventeen-mile traffic jam materialized as the Border Patrol stopped every car trying to leave the Keys. News reports on the unprecedented border checkpoint within the US poured out through the US and the world, and with stories of the traffic people started canceling reservations to come to the Keys. Business was paralyzed; hotels emptied, tourist attractions were deserted, deliveries went undelivered.

Key West’s mayor Dennis Wardlow sought an injunction to stop the blockade in Federal court in Miami, but failed. On leaving the courthouse, he announced to the waiting TV crews, “Tomorrow at noon the Florida Keys will secede from the Union!”

The next day in Mallory Square, the mayor announced the birth of the Conch Republic as an independent nation, read the proclamation of secession before a big crowd, and declared war on the US. After one minute of rebellion (a loaf of stale Cuban bread was broken over the head of a US Navy man) the now Prime Minister Wardlow turned to the Admiral in charge of Key West’s Navy Base and surrendered to the Union. Then he demanded one billion dollars in foreign aid to rebuild the young nation after the Federal siege.

Conch Key, Highway 1, Florida Keys

Conch Key

The US government immediately removed the blockade (though the rebellious “Conchs” are still waiting for a response to their demands for war relief). They commemorate the birth of the republic in Key West every year with a week-long party, a tongue in cheek celebration of the “spirit of a people unafraid to stand up to government gone mad with power.“

Key West cottage

Key West cottage

But change happens. They still like to say the Conch Republic is the one country that seceded where others failed. Now though, Key West real estate prices are soaring, and a year-round party atmosphere attracts a bacchanalian crowd. Cruise ships are docked up the quay. It feels like a lot of other tourist towns. Those not associated with the Chamber of Commerce are lamenting the loss of the town’s quirky, subversive side.

But you already knew that change is inexorable—and cyclical. Key West, like the other Florida Keys, began as a coral forest under the sea. And by mid-century, it’s expected that climate change will return much of the Keys to the water.


All photos: © 2015 Sue Cummings and Bruce Howard. All rights reserved.

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