ANYWHERE ELSE IN OUR great nation, it’s not uncommon to see the red, white and blue of Old Glory flapping over white picket fences that surround perfectly manicured lawns bordered by hedges of hydrangeas in blues and purples. Here at the end of the road, you’re far more likely to see our own brand of banner blowing amongst the palm fronds, bright blue fabric emblazoned with a burning yellow sun with a conch shell at its center. That image is the visual representation of the Conch Republic, the micro-nation created when Key West “seceded” from the United States back in the early 1980s.
Never heard of the Conch Republic or just unaware of the fact that we actively tried to declare our otherness? Let’s review a little Key West history.
Ask any true Conch — no, not those pink sea snails traversing the ocean floor, those are conchs; a Conch refers to any person born in Key West — to tell the story of Key West’s Battle of The Conch Republic, and they may go a little misty-eyed at the memory. It was April 23, 1982, when the US Border Patrol, in an effort to stave off narcotics trafficking and illegal immigration, set up a checkpoint roadblock to search for illegal contraband on U.S. 1, the only road connecting the Keys to the mainland. A massive traffic jam resulted, angering both residents and visitors. Though the checkpoint was not on an international border, visitors exiting the island were nevertheless made to verify their citizenship and submit to a vehicle search in an effort to prevent undocumented immigrants from entering the U.S. through the Keys. Tourism slowed, businesses suffered, and the Key West City Commission’s complaints and injunction requests to the U.S. federal government had resulted in nothing but a sea of paperwork. Incensed and frustrated, then-Mayor Dennis Wardlow took matters into his own hands. He rationalized that the roadblock was easily as cumbersome as an international border station and argued that if the U.S. government were to insist on treating Key West as a foreign nation, well, then Key West might as well formalize things.
And so, with a bit of tongue-in-cheek bravado, Mayor Wardlow and a small group of Conchs flew to Miami, where, on the steps of the federal district courthouse, they announced their tiny island’s intention to secede from the Union the following day. Federal agents followed Wardlow and his band of rebels back to Key West. As promised, Wardlow stood in the middle of Mallory Square the next morning and read aloud the Conch Republic Proclamation of Secession, stating:
“… Here is our flag we so proudly fly. It has a conch shell, sunburst and stars of the Southern Cross and Big Dipper. We secede from the United States. We have raised our flag, given our notice and named our new government. We call upon the world to recognize us as the Conch Republic.”
Wardlow ordered the lowering of the U.S. flag from the central flagpole and the raising of the new Conch Republic’s flag in its place. He then declared war on the U.S., demanding that they remove the roadblock or face dire consequences, and broke a stale loaf of Cuban bread over the head of a man dressed in naval officer’s uniform in symbolic violence. Navy sailors, Coast Guard members, and the federal agents from Miami were subsequently pelted with stale bread and conch fritters by the boisterous crowd. Wardlow waited a whopping 60 seconds, then surrendered immediately to a Naval officer present and requested $1 billion of foreign aid as war restitution.
Incredibly, not long after, the roadblock was removed from U.S. 1, and the Conch Republic cried victory.
Sir Peter Anderson, then the newly appointed secretary-general of the Conch Republic, began issuing passports so realistic looking that many claim to have successfully used them to pass through immigration abroad. Indeed, Anderson, who resumed the running of the Conch Republic souvenir business and the official Conch Republic Days festival until his death in 2014, was subjected to an FBI inquiry after reports surfaced that one of the 9/11 hijackers, Mohammad Atta, might have used a Conch Republic passport to enter the United States.
The passports have gotten slightly less realistic-looking, and yet as recently as 2015, a jury voted to convict a 42-year-old man guilty of impersonating a foreign diplomat, after he was caught claiming to be a Conch Republic dignitary and was therefore immune to traffic tickets and other U.S. laws.
After that fateful day of April 23, 1982, news spread of the faux-secession and Key West tourism improved. Various U.S. politicians and celebrities proved they were game to play along over the years, and in 1994, Conch Republic officials received an invitation to represent their nation at the Summit of the Americas. Sir Peter Anderson arrived at the event with a conch shell horn in hand to pay homage to his home nation.
The following year, the Conch Republic defended its borders once more when a local radio station reported that an army exercise “meant to simulate a mock invasion and occupation of an island” was to take place in Key West the following day; forces from the 478th Civil Affairs Battalion of the United States Army Reserve were scheduled to land on Key West by land and sea, and act as though the island were a foreign nation — which, according to Conch Republic officials, it already was. The Conchs took the Army’s failure to notify them personally. After publicly notifying then-President Bill Clinton and the U.S. armed forces that they opposed the plan for such an “invasion,” self-described members of the Conch Republic Navy sent out a call for residents to “defend their nation.” Once again, the U.S. Army “intruders” were bombarded with water cannons, stale Cuban bread, conch fritters and water balloons in the middle of Key West Harbor while, across town, volunteers borrowed a leaf from the U.S.’s handbook, forming a blockade to stop U.S. tanks from entering the island via the U.S. 1 highway. It was a spectacle that created a firestorm of publicity, and the U.S. Army gamely played along with the protestors’ cheeky demands, issuing a letter claiming that “the exercises in no way meant to challenge or impugn the sovereignty of the Conch Republic.”
Celebrating the incredible legacy of the Conch Republic offers participants the chance to engage in something truly historic and certainly unique. Here’s the breakdown of the Conch Republic Independence Celebration’s upcoming events:
FRIDAY, APRIL 20
Conventional wisdom dictates that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Key West conventional wisdom dictates that you can’t day drink if you don’t start in the morning. Why not combine the two and drink your breakfast with members of the Conch Republic High Command, Founding Fathers, VIPs and Dignitaries at Two Friends Patio Restaurant? $20 includes non-alcoholic beverages (a deficiency easily remedied with extra champagne or vodka) and the shuttle to Fort Zachary Taylor, where you’ll be in prime position to witness the Raising of the Colors at noon.
Feel free to spend your day lounging on the beach, because that evening, you’ve got two choices: take a step back in time and relive the glorious age of sailing and seafaring adventure with Conch Republic Supreme Commander and First Sea Lord Admiral Finbar Gittleman on the Schooner WOLF, flagship of the Conch Republic Navy, or you can head over to the kickoff party at Schooner Warf Bar, this year’s official headquarters for the Conch Republic Independence Celebration. Now home to the largest fleet of schooners south of Mystic Seaport, the Schooner Warf Bar has lined up an evening of Conch Republic-revering events, including live music with reggae/calypso/funk/soul outfit Cayo Ritmo and a conch shell blowing contest that will award prizes in longest blow and most musical. Better start practicing!
SATURDAY, APRIL 21
Feeling chipper and altruistic this morning? Head to Higgs Beach at 9 a.m. and help the Conch Republic CIA (Cuties in Action), the 82nd Aubornes and Keep Key West Beautiful clean debris from our beautiful shores. After you pick up some butts, you can feel justified in parking yours at Saluté for its Bloody Mary Happy Hour from 11 a.m. until noon. Unwind from all that strenuous cleaning with tunes by Shan- ty Hounds and recycle your beach booty into a fabulous beach bonnet — Best Hat wines a $50 gift certificate to Saluté! Feeling chipper but less altruistic? Check out the Conch Republic Art & Craft Fair on Duval Street between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. and grab goods handmade by local artists and craftsmen.
Starting at noon, head on down to the brand-new Key West Amphitheater for the Conch Republic Community Unity Concert. Featuring the Key West High School Jazz Band, The Bahama Village Music Program’s Steel Drum Band, local legend Coffee Butler and more local favorite performers, this event will be a lovely way to pass the afternoon. Rumor has it Mo the Sloth of the Monroe County Sherriff’s Office Animal Farm will be on hand, solidifying his status as the unofficial mascot of our great micro-nation.
Next up, the Conch Republic Drag Race begins at 2 p.m., one of the island’s most iconic races (and we’ve got quite a few). Watch Key West’s most daring drag queens (both professional and very much less so) don their most fabulous outfits and race down Duval on staggeringly high heels. Be sure to rest up afterward, because the Green Parrot will be hosting the official after-party for the Community Unity Concert with the Spam Allstars from 9 p.m. until late.
SUNDAY, APRIL 22nd
Mercifully, events on Sunday don’t begin until 2 p.m. when the Green Parrot (mere hours after closing its doors post-Spam All-stars) hosts the Vinyl Record Fair. Vinyl collectors and crate-diggers are invited to come buy, sell and trade their new and vintage albums while DJ Le Spam of the Spam Allstars spins records from his own collection all afternoon. The event is sponsored by Dogfish Head Brewery and benefits the Bahama Village Music Program.
If you missed out on the sunset sail on the Schooner WOLF on Friday night, you have another chance to catch the boat on Sunday at 5 p.m. Not feeling particularly seaworthy after a late night celebrating the Conch Republic? Head to Rick’s/Durty Harry’s for the Conch Republic Royal Family Election & Investiture Party and throw your hat into the ring to become a royal in your own right.
Or if you’re more interested in exploring the Key West/Cuba connection, hit the Hot Havana Night Party at Turtle Kraals beginning at 7 p.m. Dance the night away to music by Miami’s Mojito Hot Salsa Band, enjoy a Cuban dance show and compete for authentic Cuban treasure at the silent auction. General admission is $25 in advance and $35 at the door and gets you a mojito, a Cuban snack tray, a raffle ticket for a Cuban-made humidor and other surprises.
MONDAY, APRIL 23
Did you hit those mojitos a little hard? We understand and, mercifully, so does the Blue Macaw. Enjoy a special Monday brunch in honor of the Conch Republic on the patio of this popular Bahama Village eatery that pairs an expansive bloody Mary bar with classic island fare and inventive menu options.
Have a furry friend? Hit the Barks & Brews Block Party hosted by Mary Ellen’s on Appelrouth Lane. from 2-6 p.m. Dress up your fur baby in his or her Monday finest and raise a frosty beverage in honor of the Conch Republic while you raise money for the SPCA. Awards will be given for Cutest, Ugliest, Youngest, Oldest and Best Superhero dogs.
If you’re a little boozed out after the weekend’s festivities, we understand. There are a handful of booze-optional events for you this evening (we know, we’re shocked too). At 4 p.m. and 9 p.m., the Key West Theater will host screenings of the world premiere of “Old Man & The Sea: Return to Cuba,” the moving story of Admiral Finbar Gittleman and the Schooner WOLF. In between the two screenings, catch one of Key West’s legendary sunsets at Mallory Square during the Conch Republic Independence Day Sunset Ceremony, which will also feature a proclamation by the prime minister of the Conch Republic, a Conch Republic Military 21-Gun Salute and a 21-Conch Shell Horn-Blowing Salute. (Now may be the time to invest in a good pair of earplugs.)
TUESDAY, APRIL 24
At the risk of sullying the celebratory nature of the last week’s events by bringing you back to reality, if politics has got you considering a move to Canada, might we suggest you renounce your U.S. citizenship and join our little island nation instead? Just head over to the Conch Republic Military Muster & Cocktail Party, hosted by the Gardens Hotel. Beginning at 6 p.m., you’ll rub elbows with officers like Admiral Finbar, First Sealord, and enjoy drinks and dancing to the patriotic stylings of the Conch Republic Military Brass. Just be aware that anyone contemplating participation in the Bloody Battle on April 27 will need to scoot over to a mandatory captain’s meeting held at 9 p.m. at Schooner Warf Bar.
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 25th
Humpday isn’t typically associated with wholesome behavior, but let your inner Boy Scout run wild at the Conch Spirit Pinewood Derby hosted by the Porch beginning at 4 p.m. The island is populated with all manner of artistically decorated Conch cars, so show your local love by decorating your derby car with Conch-themed creativity. Awards will be given for Fastest and Best in Show.
We may have seceded where others failed, but that doesn’t mean we don’t know how to throw a hell of a party (or a week’s worth). And the events don’t end on April 25. Be sure to check back next week for a whole new schedule of Conch Republic Independence Celebration battle re-enactments, parties, fritter eating contests, bar crawls and costume balls. And remember: the official purpose, according to Secretary General Anderson, of the Conch Republic Days is to bring more “humor, warmth and respect” to a world in dire need of all three, so take this opportunity to secede from reality and to do as the Conchs do eat, drink and be merry. ¦