HERE AT THE END OF THE ROAD, we believe that everyone should be free to let their freak flag fly. And we’ve taken that ethos quite literally, creating our own brand of banner that blows amongst the fronds bright blue fabric emblazoned with a burning yellow sun, a shining conch shell at its center. That image is the visual representation of the Conch Republic, the micronation created when Key West “seceded” from the United States back in the early 1980s.
Never heard of the Conch Republic or about that time we actively tried to assert our otherness? Let’s review a little Key West history.
Ask any true Conch — no, not the 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 he or she might go a little misty-eyed at the memory.
It was April 23, 1982, when the U.S. 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 its foreignness.
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 it remove the roadblock or face dire consequences, and broke a stale loaf of Cuban bread over the head of a man dressed in a 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. Surprisingly, 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 U.S.
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 19
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 (512 Front St.)? Order the Key Lime Stuffed French Toast, have a famous Two Friends bloody mary and let the Conch Republic representatives regale you with tales of their daring (or just drunken) escapades.
Make sure you cash out by 11:30 a.m. so you can make it to Fort Zachary Taylor, where you can jockey for a 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 a couple of activities to explore.
You can take a step back in time and relive the glorious age of sailing and seafaring adventure with Conch Republic Supreme Commander & First Sea Lord Admiral Finbar Gittleman on the Schooner WOLF, flagship of the Conch Republic Navy. The WOLF is docked at Safe Harbour Marina, at 6810 Front St. on Stock Island. The boat boards 25 minutes prior to its 6:30 p.m. departure. Tickets are $65 for adults and $30 for kids under 12 and can be purchased by calling 305-296-9653 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Schooner WOLF Capt. Finbar
In the alternative, you can head over to the kickoff party at Schooner Wharf Bar (202 William St.), 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 Wharf has lined up an evening of Conch Republicrevering events, including live music with the Last Mangoes Band, playing classic and current favorites with an islandy steel drum twist, and a conch shell blowing contest that will award prizes in categories like longest blow and most musical. Better start practicing!
Saturday, April 20
Feeling chipper and altruistic this morning? Head to Higgs Beach at 9:30 a.m. and help the Conch Republic CIA (Cuties in Action), the 82nd Auborne 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 Salute! On the Beach (1000 Atlantic Ave.) for Bloody Mary Happy Hour from 11 a.m. until noon. Unwind with island tunes by Billy the Squid and the Sea Cow Drifters and recycle your beach treasures into a fabulous beach bonnet. Best hat wins a $50 gift certificate to Salute!
Feeling chipper but less altruistic? Check out the Conch Republic Art & Craft Fair on Duval Street (between Greene and Eaton streets) between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. and grab goods handmade by local artists and craftsmen.
Starting at 11 a.m., head down to the Key West First Legal Rum Distillery (105 Simonton St.) for the Conch Crawl, Rum Salute, Bar & Distillery Stroll. Sponsored by First Legal Rum Distillery and Revolucion Tequila, the stroll stops at Tiki House, Smokin’ Tuna Saloon, Tattoos & Scars, Mary Ellen’s, General Horseplay, Southernmost Beach Resort, Willie T’s and 801 Bourbon Bar. Your entry fee of $30 ($35 on the day of the stroll) gets you a free Conch Crawl T-shirt and one drink at each stop.
Next up, the Conch Republic Drag Races, one of the island’s most iconic races (and we’ve got quite a few), begin at 3 p.m. Watch Key West’s most daring drag queens (both professional and very much less so — anyone in womenswear and heels can enter) don their most fabulous outfits and race down Duval Street on staggeringly high heels.
After you’ve watched your favorite drag queens dodge and duck various obstacles, celebrate 420 Fest at 4:20 p.m. at The Green Room and Tree House (505 Greene St.) or hit the 420 After Burner Party at Tattoos & Scars Saloon (512 Greene St.).
If you missed out on the sunset sail on the Schooner WOLF on Friday night, you have another chance to catch the boat on Saturday, at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Not feeling particularly seaworthy after a late night celebrating the Conch Republic? Head to the Southernmost House Hotel (1400 Duval St.) for the Conch Republic Royal Family Election & Investiture Party and throw your hat into the ring to become a royal in your own right. Votes cost $1 and 100% of the proceeds benefit the CR Foster Children’s Fund for Wesley House.
Sunday, April 21
Have you always wanted to sashay down the runway? Can you turn the look out? Do you think you can slay the competition? Prove it on Sunday night, when Queen Mother XXXV Jessica Deveraux, DJ Kyd and Mangoes present The Conch Republic Runway Competition at Mangoes Restaurant (700 Duval St).
Strut, prance, twirl and vogue your way down the runway, or cheer on your favorite contestant, to win fabulous prizes in categories like Tutu Realness (showcase your most glamorous tutu), Fem & Butch Queen Realness (bring your best gender bending fashion to the runway), Glow (light up the night with your glow sticks and neon war paint) and One Night in Havana (bring your Cuban flair to represent the passion and vivaciousness of Cuba). Proceeds from the event go to benefit the Bahama Village Music Program.
Monday, April 22
Did you hit those Mangoes mojitos a little hard? We understand and, mercifully, so does Hank’s Hair of the Dog Saloon. Enjoy a special Monday brunch with your furry friend at the Barks & Brews Block Party hosted by Hank’s Hair of the Dog Saloon (409 Caroline St.) from 2 until 6 p.m. Dress up your furbaby in its 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 Cutiest, Ugliest, Youngest, Oldest and Best Superhero dogs.
Tuesday, April 23 (Secession Day)
Celebrate the Conch Republic’s Fourth of July/Bastille Day/Cinco de Mayo starting at 5 p.m. at the Key West Fire Department firehouse (Simonton and Angela streets) during the Conch Republic Independence Day Ceremony & Flag Raising. The momentous event will feature the raising of the Conch Republic flag, a proclamation by the Prime Ministers of the Conch Republic (a.k.a. founding Prime Minister Dennis Wardlow and Key West Mayor Teri Johnson), live music by Conchalele Bob and CW Colt and a Conch Shell Horn- Blowing Salute. (Now may be the time to invest in a good pair of earplugs.)
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, hosted by the Gardens Hotel (526 Angela St.). Beginning at 6 p.m., you’ll rub elbows with officers like Admiral Finbar and enjoy drinks and dancing. Just be aware that anyone contemplating participation in the Bloody Battle on April 26 will need to scoot over to a mandatory captain’s meeting held at 9 p.m. at Schooner Wharf Bar.
Wednesday, April 24
Hump day isn’t typically associated with wholesome behavior, so plan on hitting the Hot Havana Night Party at Turtle Kraals Bar & Restaurant (231
Margaret St.). Savor a waterfront sunset dinner, taste rums from the Hemingway Rum Company and Papa’s Pilar and dance the night away to music by Miami’s Mojito
Hot Salsa Band.
Purchase tickets at the door or online at www.keystix.com. Proceeds benefit the TREE Institute, an international nonprofit organization.
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 of them). And the events don’t end on April 24. 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 of the Conch
Republic Days, according to Secretary General Anderson, 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. ¦