Just why Key West has called itself the Conch Republic is another one of those wonderful, quirky, Key West stories.
First, let’s get the pronunciation straight. Down here in the Conch Republic, the “ch” is hard – like “Konk”. Grab a margarita and relax while the story unfolds.
In April 1982, the Key West world was rocked. The United States Border Patrol set up a checkpoint at the Last Chance Saloon in Florida City, cutting off the Florida Keys at the confluence of the only two roads out. They began checking all of the cars leaving the Keys for the mainland, ostensibly for illegal immigrant passengers.
People were puzzled at why the Border Patrol was seeking these passengers under their front seats, in their glove boxes and trunks. It soon became obvious that they were looking for drugs. It was unprecedented for the Border Patrol to set up a border checkpoint within the United States.
A 17-mile traffic jam quickly ensued. News of the problem went global and hotels began to empty. Deliveries were delayed or stopped and all of the attractions, bars and restaurants in the Keys were begging for customers. Tourism in the Keys was paralyzed.
The Key West City Council met and decided to ask for a court injunction to force the Border Patrol to lift the roadblock. Mayor Wardlow and a few other officials flew to the Federal Court in Miami to make their case.
On April 22, the court ruled against them, and refused to issue an injunction. As they were leaving the courthouse, reporters asked what the city would do next. City Council member Edwin Smith whispered to the Mayor, “Tell them we are gonna secede from the US.”
Mayor Wardlow announced to the reporters,
“We are going to go home and secede. Tomorrow at noon the Florida Keys will secede from the Union!”
The story flew around the country. Key West city government gathered at Clinton Square, in front of the old customs building, at noon on April 23, 1982 to formally announce their secession. They were surrounded by reporters from across the US as well as Federal Agents who stuck out in their blue suits and earphones.
Mayor Wardlow stood on the back of a flatbed truck and announced that, since the US Government was already treating the Keys as a foreign country and had already declared that the “border” be the Last Chance Saloon, Key West might as well BE a foreign country.
Now granted the title of “Prime Minister”, Wardlow unfurled the Conch flag — a blue field with stars and a horse conch on a tropical sun — and read from a prepared declaration of independence.
“I declare that Key West shall now be known as the Conch Republic . . . We serve notice on the Government in Washington to remove the roadblock, or get ready to put up a permanent border to a new foreign land. We as a people may have suffered in the past, but we have no intention of suffering in the future at the hands of fools and bureaucrats.
We’re not going to beg, to beseech the nation of the United States for help. We’re not going to ask for something we should naturally have as citizens–simple equality. If we are not equal, we’ll get out. It’s as simple as that.”
The “Prime Minister” then formally declared war on the United States of America, and for one full minute, the citizens of the new Conch Republic “attacked” the US Navy and Coast Guard officials who were present, and some of the Federal agents too, by pelting them with stale Cuban bread.
At the end of one minute, Prime Minister Wardlow formally surrendered to a nearby US Navy officer. He then announced that the Conch Republic would seek one billion dollars in foreign aid and war damages from the US. Four decades later, the Conch Republic is still waiting for that foreign aid!
The political theater was carried by every major newspaper in the country, and achieved the desired effect. Within days, the Border patrol lifted its roadblock, and the free flow of traffic into and out of the Keys was resumed.
April 23 was declared Conch Republic Independence Day and became an annual celebration in Key West. The Conch Republic began issuing novelty passports and visas, referred to the upper Keys as “the Northern Territories” and adopted the official motto: “We seceded where others failed.”
Many have been appointed officers of the Conch Republic. A willingness to serve in the mayhem seems to be the only qualification, save for the man who seems to have been born to become the Secretary General, the Honorable Peter Anderson. Anderson recently passed away, but under his guidance, the Conch Republic Celebration bloomed into the great event it is today.
Over the years, there have been many other occasions when the Conch Republic has issued calls to action. The most famous occurred when the Conch Navy and the Conch Republic Army arose in 1995 to combat the affront to the Conch Republic by the US who failed to tell the Conch Republic about Federal Naval activities scheduled to take place.
The US Navy and Coast Guard were attacked by the Conch Navy (a rag-taggle band of fireboats and private vessels), pelting the feds with water hoses, water balloons and volleys of stale Cuban bread and Conch fritters. Over 200 locals were prepared to battle any Feds crossing the Cow Key Channel Bridge. The standoff ended peacefully and the Army sent a letter saying that they, “in no way meant to challenge or impugn the sovereignty of the Conch Republic.”
This incident is known as The Bloody Battle and it is celebrated every year during Conch Republic Days by participants both on land, at Mallory Square, and at sea. One used to be able to toss eggs and bread from the shore, but these days, if you want to get in on that action, you must book passage on one of the many Key West boats that is joining the fray.
Other great activities are the famous bed races down Duval Street, the Drag Races, a Conch Republic Art Show on Duval, a Beachcomber Hat Contest, the Conch Republic “Worlds Longest Parade (from the Atlantic to the Gulf and then onto a party at Schooner Wharf), a Pirate’s Ball and Costume Contest, and the Conch Republic Celebration Regatta to Cuba. You can check out all of the events at the Conch Republic website.
Old Town Manor & Rose Lane Villas are right in the heart of all of the activities. Check our availability here.
Read more concierge tips and accounts on all things Key West on our blog.