Key West is certainly different from anywhere in the Mainland US. The clear blue waters, white sand beaches, and unspoiled nature of the island, variety of Things To Do, along with the city’s unique architecture, spicy blend of cultures, and fun-loving, slightly eccentric citizens all combine to set it apart. However, many people are not aware that Key West, along with the rest of the Keys, was formally set apart from the rest of America by an act and declaration of secession carried out in 1982 by Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow. The tale of the turbulent and revolutionary times surrounding the birth of the Conch Republic follows.
In early 1982, citing concerns over increased human and drug smuggling activity in the Florida Keys, the United States Border Patrol set up a blockade and check point on US Highway 1 at Florida City, the first major town on the Florida mainland north of the Keys. The agents began stopping cars, questioning drivers, and searching trunks, glove boxes, and under seats. The most immediate result produced was a seventeen-mile long traffic jam on the only road leading to and from the Keys.
Since the check point was located very near the Last Chance saloon, the final watering hole before entering the wilderness lying between Florida City and Key Largo to the south, Last Chance owner Skeeter Davis immediately put in a call to his old pal Mayor Wardlow to apprise him of the situation.
Meanwhile, the media was alerted, and the alarming news of a new type of border checkpoint located deep within United States’ territory began spreading across the nation and the world. The developing Keys tourist industry felt the first impacts as reservations were canceled, hotels in Key West emptied, deliveries delayed, and commerce and tourism in Key West effectively shut down.
Key West community leaders gathered with the Mayor to formulate a response to the threat to the island’s nascent tourist industry posed by the heavy-handed tyranny of the Federal Government. Key West is the south of course, as south as it gets in America, so secessionist tendencies quickly bubbled to the surface. However, cooler heads prevailed, and Mayor Wardlow, Commissioner Ed Swift, and Attorney David Paul Horan flew to Miami to visit the federal courthouse and file an injunction. The team met failure despite Horan’s brilliant argument, and the court refused to order the Border Patrol to cease roadblock operations.
Upon leaving the courthouse, the press descended on the Key Westers, demanding to know what Wardlow’s next response would be. On the advice of Counselor Horan, the Mayor announced that Key West would be seceding from the Union. The three men then returned to Key West, with the media in tow.
When announcements were made and preparations begun in Key West, the city was divided and emotions ran high. Many citizens were loath to see the American flag struck in favor of the new Conch Republic banner. Others were afraid of Central Government reaction. Sure enough, blue-suited Federal Agents poured into town. Fears of mass arrest and martial law were very real when Mayor Wardlow and several staunch Keys loyalists assembled on the back of a flatbed truck parked in front of the Old Customs building in Clinton square and delivered a Proclamation of Secession on April 23, 1982.
Following the Proclamation, the new Prime Minister and other members of the new government symbolically attacked the US by breaking a loaf of stale Cuban bread over the head of a US Navy sailor. After a one-minute rebellion, Prime Minister Wardlow surrendered to the Admiral in charge of the Key West Naval Station, and immediately demanded billions in foreign aid and war relief funding from the United States Government.
No official response to the secession was ever forthcoming from the central government in Washington DC, in terms of aid money or otherwise. Proud citizens of the Conch Republic continue to obtain passports and government information from the official Conch Republic web portal. More importantly, the week-long Conch Republic Independence Celebration held each year from April 18-27 is one of the best parties in the Keys!