String of Pearls: Conch Republic

Key West


January 2018

Randomly ask a person where to find the southernmost point of the United States and that person might say, “Florida,” or even, “The Florida Keys,” which extend farther south than the mainland.

If that person has ever looked closely at this geography, they might even narrow it down to Key West, at the end of the chain of islands, the string of Pearls, splattered in the Atlantic Ocean south of the Everglades.

This southern point, this southernmost point.  It’s not far from Ernest Hemingway’s home.  It is not far from some of the most entertaining dead people who live in the Key West Cemetery.  It is not too far from the jugglers, puppeteers, tightrope walkers, musicians, sword swallowers, escape artists, animal acts and acrobats of Mallory Square.  It’s not far from the claimed best spot to watch the sunset.  It is near Pepe’s, Margaritaville, Sloppy Joe’s, dolphins, bicycles, boats and beaches.  There are hundreds of colorful free-roaming chickens.  It is not far from a national park, a state park, a naval base, a lighthouse, a maritime museum, titanic cruise ships, a butterfly garden and an aquarium.

Snug up to a big, ole, multi-colored, dumb looking buoy perched on a square base on the corner where Whitehead Street meets South Street, an undeniable marker proclaims, because it is painted on the buoy, that this is the southernmost point.  Heck, it’s got its own webcam.

Printed on top of the buoy, a monument claiming to be as far to the American south as you can get, is the logo of the Conch Republic.  A seashell in a sunburst.

The Conch Republic?  N’wait.  Does this mean that you have come to the southernmost point in the United States only to find that you are not even in the United States?  And what the deuce is the Conch Republic?

Welcome to the Conch Republic.  We seceded where others failed.  Shop online for passports and official Conch Republic gear.

Behold.  In April of 1982, the U S Border Patrol set up a roadblock and inspection station on highway US-1 at Florida City, Florida, the last settled mainland community before the Overseas Highway that leads you to the Florida Keys.  The feds claimed they were trying to control the travel of narcotics and illegal immigrants.  The Key West City Council repeatedly protested this blockade, as US-1 is the only land access to the islands.  Imposing this bottleneck of a checkpoint caused great inconvenience to visitors and damaged the Keys’ prime industry of tourism.  The federal agents paid no attention.

In response, Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow announced that the Keys would secede from the Union and become its own sovereign state, the Conch Republic.  He basically said, “Screw you, we’ll just make our own country!” and then publicly read his Proclamation of Independence (which did not contain the word “screw”) and made it official by breaking a loaf of stale Cuban bread over the head of a man dressed in an American military uniform.

After a full minute, now Prime Minister Wardlow surrendered to Union Forces and demanded one billion dollars in foreign aid and war relief to rebuild the nation.

The roadblock and inspection station at Florida City soon disappeared.

A ten-day party is held every April, a sort of Independence celebration, when the Conchs, the natives, assert and reassert, while claiming no geopolitical independence whatsoever, the Key’s reputed personality:  free-wheeling, fun-loving, quirky, independent bohemians.  Get down tonight.

To put a fine point on it, if Key West became the Conch Republic and was no longer a part of the United States, then the southernmost point of the USA could not be in a land that was not the USA.  So it would move up to Stock Island, the next bit of soil back up toward the mainland.

Be that as it may, it would be appropriate for the Conch Republic to have an ambassador, a Conch ambassador.  I volunteered;  I own a trumpet.  But no, they chose instead a local gentleman known as Bishop Albert Kee.

That’s him, in the flesh….  Well no, he’s dead.  But that’s him, in bronze.  Bishop Kee died in 2003, but before he did that, he stationed himself on this southern of all intersections, Whitehead and South Streets.  Here he sold fish and shells and welcomed thousands of visitors to this geographically special place.  Kee was a premier “conch honker,” one who advocated and advanced the art of blowing into conch shells to produce what was usually a monotone, although the best conch honkers could play a tune.

What about this conch?  First, its spelling may fool you into saying, “konsh,” but pronouncing it, “konsh” would be incorrect.  We pronounce it, “konk.”

Next, a conch is a gastropod, a type of mollusk.  The actual conch critters are removed from their shells and it is the shell that conch honkers, or conch ambassadors, blow into to make music.

A Native or resident of Key West might sometimes, disparagingly, be called a “Conch” by outsiders, but Conchs themselves use the term as one of belonging.  Behold the subtleties…

Conch — any resident of Key West

Salt Water Conch — a person born in Key West

Fresh Water Conch — a resident of Key West but not a native.

When a baby is born in Key West, sometimes the family will place a conch on a pole in front of their house.  A baby Conch!

All hail the Conch Republic!  You can get T-shirts and everything.

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