The micronation at the end of the road that seceded where others failed continues its 37th annual Conch Republic Independence Celebration this week, with a varied schedule of festivities memorializing Key West’s tongue-in-cheek declaration of war against, subsequent secession from and nearly immediate rejoinder of the United States in 1982.
If you’re new to the story, let’s recap: Back in the early 1980s, the U.S. Border Patrol set up a roadblock on U.S. 1 — the only highway connecting the Florida Keys to the mainland — in front of the Last Chance Saloon in Florida City. Although cars leaving the Keys weren’t technically crossing an international border, they were nevertheless subjected to a search by border agents, who required passengers to provide proof of citizenship before they were allowed to pass through — ostensibly to crack down on illegal immigration and narcotics smuggling.
A 19-mile traffic jam immediately formed along the only road in and out of the Keys, and soon the Key West City Council became understandably concerned that the island’s tourism-based economy would suffer irreparable damage as a result of the literal barrier to entry to the island chain. Along with then-mayor Dennis Wardlow, the City Council filed a series of complaints and petitions to remove the roadblock.
Eventually, the group headed to court in Miami to file an official injunction. When their injunction attempt failed, Wardlow ran out of patience. Standing on the front steps of Miami’s District Court, the mayor and a few of his fellow Conchs (the term for someone born in Key West) declared the island’s intent to secede from the U.S., the logic being that since the federal government — in establishing what was, essentially, the equivalent of a border station at the mouth of the Florida Keys — insisted on treating Key West as a foreign country, the island might as well go ahead and make things official.
Swapping out his mayoral title for that of Prime Minister, Wardlow and his comrades quickly assembled a new government, which included designations for official Conch Republic Naval and Air Force officers and a shiny new coach emblazoned flag (a conch being the only reasonable mascot, really).
On April 23, 1982, Wardlow raised his minuscule country’s new flag over Key West City hall and declared war on the U.S. by symbolically breaking a loaf of stale Cuban bread over the head of a costumed naval officer. Federal agents, sent down to monitor the situation, found themselves accosted by a crowd wielding conch fritter projectiles and crusty bread missiles, while out at Key West Harbor the Schooner Western Union lobbed water balloons at the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Diligence, which fought back with fire hoses.
After 60 seconds (which, we assume, is how long it took the Key West contingent to exhaust its supply of Cuban bread, conch fritters and water balloons), Wardlow announced the Conch Republic’s surrender and requested $1 billion in foreign aid as reparation for the lengthy federal siege.
Not long after, the road block was quietly removed and Key West’s tourism economy got the added bonus of a newly monetized secession story, selling Conch Republic flags and passports to tourists who sympathized with the plight of the Conchs.
Never ones to pass up an opportunity to party, the residents of Key West have opted to celebrate their semi-success at seceding by hosting a series of wonderfully bizarre parties, races, faux naval battles and concerts as a part of the Conch Republic Independence Celebration — which brings us back full circle to the goings-on this week.
On Thursday, April 25, those who feel like a 5K sounds like 2.1 miles too long will want to lace up for the Duval Street Mile, a 7 p.m. fun run spanning the length of Key West’s most infamous street. (Visit www.southernmostrunners.com for more information.)
Runners should make sure to save enough energy to stroll in The World’s Longest Parade (so-called because it runs shore to shore, from the Atlantic Ocean down Duval Street to the Gulf of Mexico), which kicks off at 8 p.m. A ragtag amalgamation of impromptu floats, drunken pirates, decorated bicycles, marching drum lines, painted Conch cars and random stragglers swept up by the moving mass will sashay its way across town Mardi Gras-style, winding upattheSchoonerWharfBarfora9p.m. after party.
Post-parade festivities include an awards ceremony for parade costume categories like Best “Conchcept,” Most Original and Most Creative, with prizes including gift certificates for snorkel trips and sunset sails. The fun also includes dancing to the Caribbean stylings of The Cool Coconuts Band, an outfit peddling its unique combination of reggae, ska, soca and calypso. It goes without saying in Key West, but costumes are enthusiastically encouraged.
Friday, April 26, presents the event we’ve all been waiting for: The Great Bloody Sea Battle. Starting at 6 p.m., an official shoreside viewing party will kick off at Mallory Square. The battle itself begins at 7 p.m. sharp, at which point U.S. Coast Guard representatives — with what should be acknowledged as an extremely generous amount of good humor — will weather the fierce naval assault of the Conch Republic’s Armed Forces. Any and all able bodies are instructed to don their best battle fatigues (foul weather gear is suggested, although I’m sure we’ll see a tutu or two out there) and load up on ammunition (Cuban bread, water balloons, leftover conch fritters) in the name of protecting the Conch Republic against the Coast Guard’s advancing troops in Key West Harbor.
Back at Schooner Warf Bar, the Surrender Ceremony and Victory Party will host Conch legends like Supreme Commander and First Sea Lord Admiral
Finbar Gittelman of the Conch Republic Navy’s Flagship Schooner WOLF who, along with dignitaries of the Republic, will accept “surrender” from local representatives of the U.S. Coast Guard.
Then it’s back to dancing and drinking until dawn, though a cat nap is certainly in order for those intending to participate in the Conch Crawl, Rum Salute, Bar & Distillery Stroll on Saturday morning, April 27. (Let’s not even pretend we’re shocked — we all know it wouldn’t be a Key West festival without a bar crawl.)
Beginning at 11 a.m., you can crawl your way from the Key West Legal Rum Distillery (105 Simonton St.) to Tiki House, Smokin’ Tuna Saloon, Tattoos & Scars Saloon, General Horseplay, Mary Ellen’s, Willie T’s, Bourbon St. Pub, 801 Bourbon Bar and Southernmost Beach Resort in an ultimately very tipsy display of Conch Republic patriotism.
We know you’re exhausted from all of the battling and parading and strolling, but make sure you’ve got your pantaloons and faux parrots lined up before you hit the hay, because the Pirates’ Ball & Costume Competition begins promptly at 7 p.m. at Schooner Wharf Bar. Prizes will be awarded across categories that include Best Buccaneer, Best Wench, Best Bustier and Cutthroat Surprise (your guess is as good as ours). There will be a live swashbuckling swordplay performance from Key West’s own Conch Republic Privateers.
Dubbed one of the 10 best bars in the world by National Geographic, Schooner Wharf Bar has long been favored as a hangout for old salts who trade in tall tales (and landlubbers who want to pretend for the evening) looking to sling back some grog amongst fellow buccaneer enthusiasts and reminisce on the old days when Key West was the richest town in the country thanks to a burgeoning shipwrecking industry.
If you’ve made it to Sunday, April 28, and you’re still standing, we highly recommend you take a moment to assess your mental and physical well-being.
We highly recommend you do as we’re going to do and hit up the 13th annual Chicken & Waffles Jazz Brunch and Fats Navarro Tribute kicking off at 1 p.m. at the Green Parrot with a performance by The Green Parrot Jazz Allstars, featuring local legend Robert Albury, Key West’s King of Soul. The Green Parrot’s annual tribute to seminal bebop jazz trumpeter and Key West native Theodore “Fats” Navarro follows at 3 p.m., with all brunch proceeds going to benefit The Bahama Village Music Program.
Then it’s back to Conch Republic Independence Celebration headquarters at Schooner Wharf Bar for the
Race Series Finale, as the last in the series of one-way races gets underway. Captains and their crew race to the reef to claim
“booty” in a reenactment of Key West’s historical wrecking industry, after which competitors will assemble for an awards party and ceremony where winners will be gifted with Pussers Rum, bar tabs, race swag and trophies. You can watch the race from shore or hop aboard one of the many charter boats heading out into the harbor for an up-close look.
Though you need to have been born in Key West to call yourself an official Conch, it goes without saying that participation in the Conch Republic Independence Celebration makes you a Conch Republic sympathizer, and that’s good enough for us. Many who call Key West home made the choice to transition from tourist to local due to our island’s reputation as a masquerade-loving Mecca for the weird and wonderful.
We are, in many ways, an island of misfit toys, a collection of deeply opinionated, passionate strangers-turned-family. We are the survivors of a 60-second siege who jump at the opportunity to shimmy into a tutu and throw conch fritters at people, and who remain patiently waiting for that billion dollars of relief money. However briefly, we truly seceded where others failed. ¦