Key West

We started off our day in Key West on Duval Street, the main drag…

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…and immediately saw a rooster nearly get hit by a car.

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As Cubans began immigrating in the 1860’s, they brought their chickens to continue the popular “sport” of cockfighting. A ban on cockfighting in 1970 resulted in most of the fowl being abandoned on the streets, and today, they have their run of the town.

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One building on Duval Street in particular caught my eye – the beautiful Strand theater, now a Walgreens:

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Opened in the mid-1920’s, The Strand initially operated as a movie theater. By the 1970’s, movies like Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones were in midnight rotation. It then became a nightclub in the 80’s, and finally a Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Odditorium (the natural progression of life). Finally, the building was sold to Walgreen’s in 2001.

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The good news is that the facade was carefully restored and looks beautiful. So much great detail, including the lion at the peak of the roof…

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I love how intricate some of the ornamentation is…

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Two faces peering down at Duval Street tourists…

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I also love the torches adorning the rooftop:

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The ticket window has also been left behind. Seriously, kudos to Walgreens for not getting rid of all of this, and keeping their signage to a minimum:

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Unfortunately, most of the inside is gone; rumor is, it was pretty trashed after its night club years, then Ripley’s had its hand at some major changes. Today, it feels nearly totally gutted, though you can still find remnants. Here’s an old picture of the lobby…

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Tragically, most of this is gone, though if you look at the walls, you can still find the beautiful tilework hidden behind shelving:

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Also, you can still see a portion of the theater balcony near the ceiling:

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Quick sidenote: what’s up with Walgreens and Florida? First the amazing facade here, then the several Walgreen’s I came across in South Beach…

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…that had turned all of their front window space into gallery space. Were we in the Twilight Zone??

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Also, very cool to see the historical La Concha Hotel…

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…which has been standing since 1926…

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…and has the best view in town from its rooftop balcony:

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Key West is the southernmost city in the continental US, and we headed down Duval Street to the actual southernmost point. We knew we were getting close when we passed The Southernmost House in the United States…

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…and then the Southernmost Hotel in the United States…

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Then, we arrived at a dock. I assumed this was it, as tourists kept walking to the end, and taking pictures.

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It’s seemed a little funny that the southernmost point was designated by this unremarkable, sticker-covered sign. But we took our photographs and began texting them to friends and family.

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Of course, we then realized that the southernmost point is actually a block away and has a very remarkable marker. What fucking tourists…

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For years, the southernmost point was marked by a sign, seen below. However, after repeated thefts, it was replaced in 1983 by the iconic concrete buoy (actually an old sewer junction that was dug up in the area and deemed too difficult to move). This is actually not the southernmost point in the continental US – however, all points further south are on private land, so this is the best you’re gonna get.

Souvenir Seashells for Sale at the Southernmost Point of the United States.

As we were waiting in line for our photo opportunity, I noticed this funny little structure to the side.

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Apparently, it was built in 1917 to protect the 125 mile underwater telegraph cable that ran from Key West to Havana, Cuba. If you look in the back of it, you can still see the remnants of the cable (or cable casing) heading off to Havana . I’d love to know how much of it still exists.

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From there, we headed to the historic Key West Cemetery, founded in 1847 after a ferocious hurricane on October 11, 1846 washed the existing cemetery entirely away, leaving “the dead scattered throughout the forest, many of them lodged in trees,” according to one local.

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Quick note: if you happen to see anyone selling a self-guided tour pamphlet for $4.95 around town, perhaps in the gift shop of a not-so-well-regarded ghost tour outfit…

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Don’t buy it! They give ‘em away free at the cemetery (I may have fallen for the fake southermost point thing, but this tip comes courtesy of another pair of tourists we ran into who were quite pissed).

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Using the guide, we made our way to one of the most famous graves in America…

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…where a local hypochondriac is buried:

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Also buried here is one Gloria M. Russell, with another awesome epitaph:

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This one also caught my eye…

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Belonging to one Archibald Yates (died 1966), it features a naked woman, who, rather than suffering in anguish, er, appears to be in the throes of ecstasy on a pretty phallic looking mound…

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…with her hands tied behind her back:

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As it turns out, the woman is Yates’ wife – and as one historian points out, the position of her statue would put her right above ol’ Archibald’s face. Oh, Key West…

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Another neat grave is that of Wilhelmina Harvey. Among her many accomplishments is one interesting bit: Admiral, Conch Republic Navy.

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The Conch Republic was created in 1982 as a tongue-in-cheek protest to a stop-and-search police roadblock set up at the head of Keys that began to inhibit tourism.

Feeling as though they were being treated like a foreign nation with a border checkpoint, the mayor of Key West declared war against the United States on behalf of the newly founded Conch Republic on April 23, 1982…

…then quickly surrendered a minute later, requesting $1 billion in aid. The publicity not only helped to eliminate the roadblock, but also brought in a new wave of tourism.

Also buried in here is General Abe L. Sawyer, a 40-inch tall dwarf who traveled with various carnivals and was well known around Key West.

Sawyer Abe Gen.

His final request was to be buried in the grave of a full-size man:

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I really, really love all the beautiful red Royal Poincia trees seen around Key West…

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Also, we noticed quite a lot of iguanas running around the cemetery…

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…where the graves are their home. I’d love to know if they’ve developed a taste for us humans…(horror movie idea, anyone?):

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From there, we headed to Ernest Hemingway’s house, where the author lived from 1931 to 1939.

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Probably the most well-known feature of the Hemingway house are the dozens of cats running about…

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…with six toes. Hemingway was a fan of polydactyl cats, and according to our guides, these are direct descendents of his former pets.

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Except, this is probably bullshit. Both Hemingway’s son and his former wife claim he owned NO cats in this house, and that the whole six-toed cat affection didn’t start until his years in Cuba. For a while, the house, a for-profit group, was selling them; this has since stopped, but the guides still tell you they were his.

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Regardless of the questionable cat origins (and REALLY questionable artwork on the walls), wandering around Hemingway’s house is quite a pleasant experience.

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Hemingway completed several notable works in the house, including A Farewell To Arms and his short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro. Below is his bed, with an old monastery gate for a headboard:

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Very cool art deco-ish tiling in the bathroom…

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…with a bird and fish motif:

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One of the strangest bits on the property is this fountain, the base of which is made out of a urinal taken from Sloppy Joe’s, a bar Hemingway used to frequent:

Hemingway House Fountain

Sloppy Joe’s is still around, though in a completely different building than it was during most of Hemingway’s time (of course, they’re don’t tell you this; I really, really dislike bars that make a name off of one former celebrity regular):

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The founder, Sloppy Joe, is also buried in the Key West cemetery, and his grave is a popular place to leave offerings in exchange for good luck…

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…including some that look authentically black magic-ish:

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From Hemingway’s house, we walked a few blocks over to another major roadtripping landmark: the end of Route 1!

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As I mentioned in my last post, I grew up driving Route 1 to Boston (as well as to the Topsfield Fair!), and it’s really crazy to actually find its endpoint at the southernmost city in the US, of all places.

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Of course, every ending is really a beginning – right across the street is the “start” to Route 1, which continues 2,377 miles to Fort Kent, Maine (good luck with all those traffic lights).

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We stopped in for a bite of key lime pie, which may or may not have been invented in Key West. Come to think of it, a lot of the history in the Keys seems to be really questionable and not well documented. Anyway, it was quite good.

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We took a quick stop in The Little White House, where Truman and four other presidents have stayed over the years (most recently, the Clintons). It’s sort of an unusual building, with no obvious front door:

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There’s a little museum inside, featuring the killer shirt Truman wore during his stay:

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Finally, we stopped into the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum to see some real, honest-to-God, no-bullshit sunken treasure…complete with old wooden chest!

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Originally a chicken farmer, Fisher spent 15 years searching for the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a Spanish Galleon. Despite many setbacks, including the death of his son in a tragic boating accident during the pursuit, he continued on, finally finding the remains of the treasure ship in 1985:

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As recently as two years ago, a g0ld bar was on display that you could actually touch. Then, two guys walked in and stole it during working hours. Though they were caught on tape, they’ve yet to be apprehended – check out the video here!

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We spent the rest of our time wandering the streets and admiring the architecture…

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I love all the two-story porches…

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…as well as the gnarled trees:

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I really wish we had more ghost-looking trees in the north-east:

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¬†Walking the streets at night, Key West felt like it had a New Orleans vibe to it – haunting, devilish, a touch of the sinister…

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And this house in particular…If we were in a horror movie, I have a feeling you would not want to go in this house:

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After all,  you gotta watch out for those flesh-eating iguanas, right?

-SCOUT

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12 comments

  1. KWFL is one on my most favorite places … I haven’t been there in several years … you’ve given me a quick peek of some of my fond memories …

  2. Since you mentioned Route 1: Back in 1995, I left my job in Tennessee 6 weeks before starting graduate school in Minnesota. I decided first to drive to Key West, since I had never been there. When I saw the “Begin US 1 North” sign, I decided that would be a great way to spend some of the time. So I drove the entire length of US 1 (and then some, I ended up in Sydney, Nova Scotia). It was extremely interesting to see how many wildly different places were all on the same “road”.

  3. Thanks for posting this! I lived in Key West for six years when I was a child. It was a small town then (rather than a resort or spring break destination), a fun place to be a little kid. That was the 70s. We moved to Miami after that, which by comparison really sucked atmosphere-wise.

    I haven’t been there in many, many years.

    My father and I made a point to visit Fort Kent, Maine for the same reason you sought out the southernmost point. : )

  4. Random other ephemera provided by a guy who moved grew up in Miami and recently left there for Brooklyn:
    1. There was a concerted fight to keep the cats on the property of the Hemingway House a few years back when the National Park Service (which manages and maintains National Historic Landmarks) wanted to have them removed. The folks in Key West weren’t having it.
    2. There was a sub-40 degree cold snap in South Florida a copuple of years ago that caused the iguanas you mention to die, sometimes while lounging in trees. Occasionally they would fall from these trees. It was as comedic as it was morbid, but personally I kind of hate the suckers so I didn’t mind.
    3. The ghost trees you mention look to be either banyans or ficus (likely ficus by the shape of the leaves). There are no better climbing trees in the world.

  5. The Mel Fisher museum! When I was a very young child (like 3 or 4), my favorite book was Sunken Treasure, about the Atocha. I used to “read” it to my parents (because they had read it to my brother and I so many times that I had memorized it). Needless to say, when we went to Key West when I was about 12, the Mel Fisher museum was my absolute favorite. I remember that gold bar…

  6. Did you run into the story of Count Von Cosel and his obsessive love affair with girl which continued after she died? So bizarre and worthy of Key West lore.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Tanzler

  7. Hey Nick, it sounds like you and your girlfriend are having a great road trip. When I think back to my childhood, it is with fond memories those days we were loaded into a car and heading towards some destination. Half the fun was the places you stopped at on the way and the people you met. My parents would pick up hitch-hikers because “you ever know” who you might meet!”

    I laughed when I saw Conch Republic Flag, as I was traveling from KeyWest to Miami on the day the federal government decided to move the border. A 2 1/2 hour trip turned into 12 hours! Although it had been over two years since the Mariel Boatlift, illegals were still streaming into Florida and this ill conscieved “boarder” was intended to stop the flow.

    Lastly, I’m not a cat person. But I have always felt there werewaytoo many cats in the City of Key West.

    Drive safe and keep one eye off the road.

  8. Those are banyan trees, by the way.

    And I hate to be pedantic, but since KW is the last of a string of islands, it can’t host the ‘southernmost point in the continental United States’, just the southernmost point.

    Also glad you got to see Betty Roberts’ mausoleum.

  9. I was at the Fisher Museum in 2000 when I was 15 with my family (we were doing the great American Road Trip thing). I was one of the lucky ones to have held that 350 year old gold bar! Sad to hear some thieves took it, although it was probably only a matter of time.

    Anyway, up until that point in my life, I’d been told that gold was a heavier metal than most, but you don’t realize it until you have a significant amount of it in your hand. Wild stuff.

    That was easily one of my fondest memories of that visit to Florida. The second was touching the walls of the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine!

  10. I’m 57 and took my first trip to the Keys in 1974 on Spring Break from a small college in South Carolina. It was a very different time then. Long hair. Clean drugs. The greatest time for music in our history(IMO). For instance, I separated from my buddies in Key Largo and hitched with a young lady I met to Key West. We stayed in a campground. Lots of snorkeling and spearfishing. People with the sole purpose of partying. I did get back with my buds in KW for the trip back to SC.

    I now live in Florida and have called it home since 1989. That trip changed the course of my life from backpacking the mountains of the Eastern US to loving salt water. I live where people pay loads of money to vacation. We vacation at different Florida beaches and springs from Destin to KW to SW Florida. We live in Jacksonville near the Intercoastal and are on the beach every weekend in town…..warm or cold.

    Nick, you guys chose a road less traveled going to KW. You’ll never forget it. We invite you to come again. While the Keys are the crown jewel of Florida, Florida in an enchanting state if you stay away from the roads most traveled.

    You have earned another donation. Keep it up!!

  11. Man, here I am in New Jersey, only 30 miles due west of the Long Island part of Long Island (Queens & Brooklyn are on L.I. but they’re not “Long Island”), and we got nothing! Not even a dusting. Not even frost that needs to be scraped from your car windows before you drive.

  12. Hi,

    I just discovered your web site today, and as a big fan of New York (and movies), I really like it. I got a kick out of your Key West chronicle. If I had known about you last year, I would have loved to show y’all around and invite you to my shows while you were here.

    Just after college, I worked on the TV show “Ripley’s, Believe It or Not” with Jack Palance, and I scouted some locations for some shoots around L.A. I loved doing that. I’m looking forward to your future explorations!

    http://www.clintbullard.com

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