Key West Culture & History
Meander around Key West, from its outskirts right into the center of Old Town, and you’ll quickly see that history and culture permeate the island. Just for starters, search out a towering red brick building with unique exhibitions, a sculpture garden featuring the busts of historic figures who shaped the Conch Republic and a cigar factory that’s keeping the island’s Cuban history alive. And don’t miss a trip into a colorful neighborhood filled with the architecture and food native to its first settlers, a visit to a historic cemetery to see early residents’ final resting places, a climb to the top of a lighthouse and a tour of a fort that served as a military training site.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, large numbers of Bahamians began immigrating to Key West, with many of them settling in what has become known as Bahama Village, a 16-block neighborhood in Old Town. Their colorful, lilting Bahamian English is still heard frequently on its streets today.
Aside from the churches of Bahama Village, some of the neighborhood’s most historic spots are the Lincoln Theatre, which today houses an art studio and gallery, and, next to it, the joint VFW Walter Mickens and William Weech American Legion Post. The latter is considered the gem of Bahama Village, having in its heyday hosted entertainers including B.B. King and James Brown, brought in by promoter Curtis Brown.
Native Bahamian foods are best tried at the most unconventional of places – Johnson’s Grocery Store. This little convenience store, run by a fifth-generation Bahama Village family, is a great gathering spot and place to sample authentic conch fritters and other delicacies. Wander the streets to find other Bahamian foods growing on trees: Spanish limes, sea grapes, sapodilla, soursop, hog plums, scarlet plums and Jamaican apples were all brought over by settlers.
History Lives at the Key West Cemetery
For a history lesson featuring those settlers who founded Bahama Village, head to the Key West Cemetery. Here, gravestones bear the native Bahamian names of founding families, including Butler, Johnson, Allen, Smith and Berrington.
In various sections of the 19-acre cemetery lie the graves of other historic figures. Two dozen soldiers are buried flanking the USS Maine Monument, dedicated to those who perished when their battleship exploded in Havana Harbor. The gate leading to the section where Cuban freedom fighters are buried reads “A los martires de Cuba.” Also buried here: “Sloppy” Joe Russell, a well-known bar owner (he founded Sloppy Joe’s) and fishing guide and a good friend of Ernest Hemingway in the 1930s. Naturally, it wouldn’t be the Key West Cemetery without some humor, most notably Gloria Russell’s gravestone, which reads “I’m just resting my eyes,” and the one of local hypochondriac B.P. “Pearl” Roberts, which states “I told you I was sick.”
Major Cultural Landmarks
The Key West Art & Historical Society manages several major cultural and historic sites including the Custom House, Fort East Martello and the Key West Lighthouse and Keeper’s Quarters.
Completed in 1891, the Custom House is an architectural wonder built of 917,000 bricks shipped from New York State and iron brought in from Pennsylvania. Located off Mallory Square, the bright red roof tiles and dark red bricks remain the iconic image of a structure that, over the course of its history has handled customs operations and housed a post office, a government center and Naval offices. Today it’s known as the Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House. The various rooms and walls feature the colorful wood paintings of folk artist Mario Sanchez, artifacts and historic photographs of Ernest Hemingway’s life in Key West and a recounting of the war with Spain and sinking of the USS Maine.
The Civil War-era Fort East Martello’s eight-foot-thick granite walls were never completed and never saw hostile action. They are now home to a vast collection of Key West artifacts, historical records and military memorabilia. Great reasons to visit the fort: the panoramic view of Key West’s Atlantic Coast from atop the central tower, collections of painted wood carvings and drawings by Mario Sanchez and the island’s eerie Robert the Doll.
The Key West Lighthouse, which dates back to 1847 and has seen many renovations since then, is the 15th oldest surviving lighthouse in the United States. Originally 46 feet tall, the tower was extended to 86 feet in 1894. Today, visitors climb 88 iron steps to take in the observation deck’s panoramic views. In 1886, the Keeper’s Quarters were torn down, and the current structure was built. The quarters, a clapboard bungalow, have been carefully restored; the museum within features historic furnishings and tells the stories of the hard-working keepers.
Many of the Cubans who helped shape Key West’s history are immortalized in the Key West Sculpture Garden by Mallory Square. Here, busts of Carlos M. DeCespedes and Eduardo Gato are displayed alongside other figures who influenced the island’s early history. DeCespedes, the son of the liberator who initiated the revolution at Bayamo, was elected mayor of Key West in 1876. His family’s role in Key West’s history is immortalized in the city’s San Carlos Institute, a Cuban heritage center.
Eduardo Gato emigrated from Cuba to New York and finally settled in Key West, bringing the cigar industry with him. Today, the Gato building on Simonton Street, which once served as a cigar factory, stands as a testament to his history.
For a glimpse into that cigar-rolling past, visit the Conch Republic Cigar Factory at 512 Greene Street, where an elderly Cuban woman rolls cigars near the window, allowing passersby to experience the lost art. At the Historic Cigar Alley at 1075 Duval Street, across the street from the historic Gato Factory, visitors can experience Key West’s largest humidor and learn about the history of cigars and cigar-making on the island.