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Key West Time
May 28th
9:55am · 86°F

Key West History and Culture: Getting to Know the Local Ways

Conch Republic Key West Old Conch Republic Headquarters in Bahama Village, Key West

In this blog entry I’ll get a little out of the blog mode, and write a summary about the history and culture of Key West. I'll try to be brief. I admit, that from time to time I've been called a bit long-winded and too academic, and even worse - verbose (ouch!) So I'll confess, there's something you should know about me.  I was an academic (in my former life), a young research professor at the University of Oregon. I have a Ph.D. in sociology, I still love to study, and I believe it is important to have a basic introduction to the history and customs of the places we visit. I had a memorable early research career, but it's not relevant to get into that now – and in reality, it seems like a lifetime ago.

So how old am I anyway? Let us just leave it that I don't really feel like revealing my age today -  but I will  admit this year is a landmark birthday! And also … that I landed in the Florida Keys over 25 years ago during a sabbatical. But that's enough – I don’t want to get too long winded.  I hope you enjoy a little bit of light reading on Key West history, customs, and culture ...


Key West History and Culture: Key West's many distinct customs and cultures are a reflection of the island's rich mix  of ethnicities, intertwining social classes, and accompanying diverse life-styles. Since the early 1800's, through an ongoing process of nurturing and preserving and blending together on a speck of an island situated 150 miles out to sea and just 90 miles from Cuba, Key West culture and customs have peculiarly evolved.

In the 19th Century, most of the residents settling on the island were former British loyalist immigrants moving from the nearby Bahamas, Cubans who were arriving in increasing numbers after 1830, and African Americans who were fleeing southern states looking for freedom from Slavery. Some of these newcomers joined the sponging and turtle industries and most early immigrants joined the island society by following Cuban cigar manufacturing and businesses.

A plethora of cigar manufacturing plants were founded and operated by determined businessmen from the mainland of Florida who lobbied for the economic development of the tropical island. The strategic geographic position of Key West in the Florida Straits created a natural and important Caribbean seaport that became both a world shipping location and a Navy stronghold.  Lucrative trades in Cuban cigar making, fishing, and sponging, salvaging, and rum running were developed.

Today fishing is still an important local industry, treasure hunters continue to scour the sea bottom for ancient galleons lost at sea, and you can still find tiny open-air mom and pop cigar stores owned and operated by Cuban cigar rollers. Through these trades that originated in the 1800’s, the island manifested into one of the richest cities in the U.S. - both financially and culturally, and during this time a large collection of some of the most charming wooden Victorian architecture in the world was built and it still stands today as part of a preserved indigenous landmark in the authentic historic district of Key West.

By the mid 20th Century, Key West was attracting some of the more famous intelligent and creative minds of the time, such as Henry Flagler, Harry S. Truman, Ernest Hemingway, and Tennessee Williams, setting a precedent for an ongoing influx of remarkable individuals and intriguing characters seeking a more independent and artistic life-style. With more bars and more churches per capita than anywhere else in North America, the 1970's and 80's attracted a whole new wave of creative free-thinkers with the arrival of literary groups, actors, musicians, treasure hunters, artists, designers, photographers and film makers, entrepreneurs, trades people, sailors, philanthropists, self-proclaimed 'pirates' and members of the hippie 'counter-culture,' openly gay and lesbian people from every walk of life, and expatriates – most of whom flawlessly blended into the tiny existing community of local Conch's, Cubans, and African Americans. From thence forward the tropical island of Key West has morphed into an intriguing microcosm and one of the most interesting places to live and unique tourist destinations in the U.S.A.

One Human Family: A continual welcoming and accepting attitude toward all kinds of people to this tiny island has created a unique cultural convergence of different ethnic groups, languages, traditions, religions, foods, and free-thinkers and has resulted in a remarkably distinct cultural character that the community refers to as the ONE HUMAN FAMILY philosophy. In the year 2000, Key West artist resident J.T. Thompson coined this phrase to formally capture the essence of this all-accepting and all-inclusive state-of-mind and it was formally adopted by the City of Key West Commission as the 'official philosophy' of Key West.

While the unique neighborhoods of Key West reflect and retain their distinctive and delightful flavors by celebrating original Bahamian Conch, Cuban and African-American cultural heritage through unique customs, celebrations, and architecture, the citizens of the island honor and practice a remarkably accepting life-style by readily integrating "newcomers" and then striving to live harmoniously and work side-by-side with one another, setting aside social differences, regardless of ethnicity, social class, or sexual orientation. Irregardless of the inevitable flare-ups of small-town political foibles, there is a constant undertone in the community that reflects an undying feeling of, "we’re all in this together."

One ongoing way this special sense of group connectedness is ritualized on this speck of an island, is through the generosity of its citizens to reach out to one another and strive to continually support each other and positively improve the community through a constant myriad of institutionalized annual parties-turned-fund raisers, (e.g. Fantasy Fest, Parrothead Meeting of the Minds), grants, charity work and endowments that meet multiple needs of the tiny yet diverse island community. And one unique example of the manifestation of community cohesiveness you find on the island is the efficient and heart-felt manner in which its diverse citizens immediately unify the in the aftermath crisis of a hurricane to care for one another at every level - from providing emergency food, shelter, transportation, medical service, and immediate financial assistance. It has been said by some locals that "by the time FEMA arrives, most of the human emergency work has already been done by the local people."

While the practices of small island local politics, claims to property boundaries, debates about land development, and arguments over the presence of feral chickens in the streets can sometimes seem worthy of a comic or tragic theatre performance, there is nonetheless an underlying and uncommon sense of compassion and commitment that people seem to have for one another, their critters, and 'their island' that is pervasive in the island culture. Perhaps this naturally stems from the geographic isolation the island has from the mainland of Florida.  Even though Key West is connected with the continental U.S. by a ribbon of narrow bridges that stream down over 100 miles of narrow islands – "there is only one road in and one road out." And Once you get to Key West you’ve landed and become part of a tiny diverse and yet harmonious social microcosm that is closer to Havana, Cuba than Miami, Florida!

Conch Republic Independence: In April, 1982 Key West became a self-proclaimed micro-nation, a tongue-in-cheek "home-made country," an inspiring "tale of independence." The story of how the Conch Republic got started has been eloquently told by those who were directly involved in its creation, but is worth briefly repeating here. In protest of a United States Border Patrol set at the top of the Florida Keys on U.S. Highway 1 to search for illegal drugs and immigrants, a small group of demonstrative and creative fun-lovers ceremoniously protested.

The road block was becoming a major source of annoyance and began affecting tourism. Visitors driving down to Key West from the mainland were feeling harassed and began expressing to Key West City officials that it was actually discouraging them from driving to Key West.  For many, the road block seemed more like a 'border station between foreign countries.'  Then Key West Mayor, Dennis Wardlow, complained to the U.S. Government and attempted to get a court ordered injunction to stop the road block. But when the court refused the request for an injunction, the city officials decided to organize and stage a well publicized protest.

In a well-staged mock secession from the Union, local officials protested as the Key West mayor, "declared war" against the U.S. by symbolically breaking a loaf of stale Cuban bread of a man dressed in a costume Navy uniform. Protesters 'declared their independence' and pronounced the Florida Keys their own micro-nation, and The Conch Republic was born. Mayor Wardlow then ceremoniously surrendered and  asked for one billion dollars in foreign aid.

Today the spirit of the Conch Republic is alive and well in Key West and is another ongoing way the special sense of group alliance is ritualized on this tiny island. Ceremony has been kept alive with an annual Conch Republic Celebration facilitated every April by local character Sir Peter Anderson, self proclaimed Secretary General of the Conch Republic. As this micro nation has evolved, so has its stated 'official position.' The Conch Republic has as its stated 'Foreign Policy,' The Mitigation of World Tension through the Exercise of Humor. As the world's first "Ffth World" country, we exist as a "State of Mind," and aspire only to bring more Warmth, Humor and Respect to a planet we find in sore need of all three."


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