Key West Mythbusters

Key West Mythbusters

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You already know that Key West is chock-a-block with bars, fine seafood and fishing expedition opportunities, but did you know that this eccentric, southernmost town is also brimming with history? Test your knowledge with these factual nuggets. Are you informed enough to decipher the truth among these Key West mythbusters? 1) The original name of Key West is "Bone Key."

TRUE. This is not an urban legend. Key West was first called "Cayo Hueso" or "Bone Key" by early Spanish explorers. Along the way, it was also called North Havana and Thompson's Island. The present name is said to be a corruption of the original Spanish designation, "key" being the Spanish term for "very small island."

2) Key West was once the richest city in the United States.

TRUE. This is not one of those urban myths Key West locals harp about in order to flatter themselves. From 1828 to the 1850s, the city was actually the richest in the country, per capita. The reefs surrounding Key West made for perilous voyages, and wrecking and salvage became "the" way of making a fortune in Key West. In the mid-1800s the business of recovering wrecks was in full swing, and the goods recouped from foundered ships were sold at auction. Salvagers received a hefty percentage of the profits, thereby skyrocketing living standards.

3) Smuggling, sponging and salt used to be mainstays of the economy in Key West.

TRUE. At various points in Key West's history, new industries arose alongside the old standbys. Contraband has always held a lucrative position, and during the Prohibition era, many Key Westers became rich from smuggling beer and rum from Cuba, as well as whiskey and rye from Britain, via its Caribbean ports.

Another niche that went boom and bust in the late 1800s was sponging. In addition, Key West was a major supplier of salt to the rest of the nation from 1830 through the Civil War.

4) Key West was once the gatekeeper and "Gibraltar" of the Americas.

TRUE. More than just a symbol of serenity, Key West has also been an important base of operations for the military. The Navy has had a long and illustrious tour of duty at Key West, where its southernmost vantage point and proximity to international ports of call made it a natural choice as a point of defense. In 1822, Navy Lieutenant Matthew Perry planted the American flag on the island, and shortly thereafter, he mobilized the Navy to tackle what was then a serious problem: piracy (and that is no urban legend). Since then, Key West has served in strategic campaigns during the Civil War, Spanish American War and World War II.

5) Hurricanes frequently batter Key West.

FALSE. Relative to other coastal cities, Key West does not have an extensive history of destructive damage by hurricanes. While it may be affected by them on average every 2.73 years, and directly hit every 7.32 years, in general the city has been spared the wrath of Mother Nature. The most devastating recent hurricanes were Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and Hurricane Georges in 1998.

6) "Pink gold" refers to the coral reef bordering the Keys.

FALSE. Although this statement seems a likely truth, as the reefs were indeed instrumental in the wrecking industry that was once the backbone of the Key West economy, it's definitely one of the city's urban myths. Key West visitors may find it hard to believe, but "pink gold" actually refers to the crustacean native to these waters. Discovered in 1949, this new type of commercial shrimp spurred an industry mad for "Key West Pinks."

7) Key West officially seceded from the United States, declaring itself the "Conch Republic."

TRUE. Believe it or not, Key West mythbusters, this is true. Although Florida seceded from the Union in 1861, Key West had its own secession in 1982. It was then that the city split from the rest of the US and declared itself a micro nation to protest against the roadblock imposed by the US Border Patrol.

This act of independence is still celebrated annually in a weeklong festival during late April.

8) Chickens run wild everywhere in Key West.

TRUE (for now). Although free-roaming chickens have been a part of life in Key West for nearly 200 years, only recently have citizens been up in arms over whether these birds should lord it up over town. While some may find the roosting critters quaint examples of "local color," others are disgruntled by their destructive habits and want them gone. Of particular concern is the wild "gypsy" chicken, a hybrid descendant of native chickens and those the Cubans brought with them to the area – in itself a sort of urban legend. Key West has yet to find a solution to the "chicken wars." Perhaps a special adoption program would be beneficial...

9) A "conch" is a word used to describe a native of Key West.

TRUE. Once a derogatory term used to refer to the Bahamians who came to Key West to work in the wrecking, sponging and turtling industries, this term has evolved to mean anyone who was born in Key West. Mythbusters should also know that the conch, or the snail that occupies the shell of the same name, is a much-loved delicacy here. It is a featured dish at many Key West restaurants, where it is used in chowders, salads and fritters.

10) Hemingway once owned a six-toed cat, and his Key West home is now populated with 60 of its descendants.

TRUE (give or take a cat). This urban myth's origin? Key West natives say that a sea captain gave Hemingway his six-toed cat before setting out for an indefinite voyage. Today, several of the cat's polydactyl descendants live on in Hemingway's home, which has now been converted in to a museum. You can find the felines among their master's original belongings on 907 Whitehead Street, open to visitors 365 days a year.

Ernest Hemmingway Home & Museum
907 Whitehead Street
Key West, FL 33040
(305) 294-1136
Adults $12, children $6, children under 6 free

11) Many of the characters in To Have and Have Not were based on the people Hemingway knew in Key West

TRUE. Hemingway had a close coterie of friends in Key West, dubbed "the Mob," with whom he fished and probably derived inspiration for his books. Although the novel, Hemingway's only work set in the United States, is about social relations in Key West during the 1930s, the movie version with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is set in Martinique. This is because the Office of Inter-American Affairs would not have allowed the filming of smuggling between the US and Cuba, as depicted in the book.
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