Except for the Naval Air Station at Boca Chica and Coast Guard installations in Key West, Marathon and Islamorada, most if not all economic activity in the Florida Keys comes from tourism. It’s no wonder then, that when the federal government shuts down the only road into town, the locals are going to get cranky.
On April 18, 1982, the Mariel boatlift was a mere two years in the past, and very much in the public memory. The United States still had a border in those days, or at least a federal government that tried to enforce it. Border Patrol set up a roadblock in front of Skeeter’s Last Chance Saloon in Florida City, blocking Rt.1, the only road into the Keys. Originally intended to intercept illegals entering the country, the roadblock soon morphed into a hunt for illegal drugs, as well.
Cars waited for hours, in lines that stretched for 19 miles. Predictably, the attitude of federal officials was one of towering indifference, but not so local business owners. Robert Kerstein wrote in his Key West on the Edge — Inventing the Conch Republic, “No one in Key West doubted that drugs were trafficked widely in the Keys by road and by boat. But tourism’s boosters had little tolerance for interruptions to their business.”
Dennis Wardlow, then-mayor of Key West, contacted the chief of police, the Monroe County sheriff, and his State Rep, as well as Governor Bob Graham, demanding the roadblock’s removal. With none of the above having any knowledge of the barrier and lacking the authority to pull it down, Wardlow contacted INS directly. When the Border Patrol told him it was “none of his business,” the Mayor’s response could best be summed up in the words of Bugs Bunny: “Of course you know, this means war!”
Suffering a blizzard of hotel cancellations, this “attack on Key West’s sovereignty” could not stand. On April 22, Mayor Wardlow, local attorney & pilot David Horan and Old Town Trolley Tours operator Ed Swift flew to Miami seeking legal relief. When District Court Judge C. Clyde Atkins failed to issue an injunction, the Key West delegation took to the courthouse steps.
“What are you going to do, Mr. Mayor”, asked the assembled media. Swift leaned over and whispered into the Mayor’s ear, “Tell them we are going to go home and secede” “We are going to go home and secede!”, said Wardlow, and that’s what they did.
Over the next 24 hours, a group of secessionist co-conspirators worked feverishly to form the new government, filling cabinet positions such as “Secretary of Underwater Affairs” and “Minister of Nutrition”.
On April 23, with federal agents on scene to monitor the proceedings, a crowd gathered before the old customs building. Mayor Wardlow and a gaggle of allies mounted the back of a flatbed truck to read the proclamation of secession. “We serve notice on the government in Washington”, it read, “to remove the roadblock or get ready to put up a permanent border to a new foreign land. We as a people, may have suffered in the past, but we have no intention of suffering in the future at the hands of fools and bureaucrats”.
With that, Mayor Wardlow declared “war” on the United States. The “Great Battle of the Conch Republic” broke out in the harbor, when the Schooner Western Union commanded by Captain John Kraus, attacked the Coast Guard Cutter Diligence with water balloons, Conch fritters and toilet paper. Diligence fought back with water hoses, as the new “Prime Minister” broke a loaf of stale Cuban bread over the head of a man dressed in a Navy uniform. Others launched stale bread and conch fritters at federal agents, Navy sailors and Coast Guard personnel in attendance.
One minute after declaring his “verbal shot” at the feds, Wardlow “surrendered” to a nearby naval officer, demanding a billion dollars in “foreign aid” in compensation for “the long federal siege.”
Apparently, that’s what it takes to get the attention of a federal bureaucrat. The roadblock lifted, and soon the restaurants, stores and hotels of the Keys were once again filled with smiling tourists. Key West never got their “foreign aid”, but they never received so much as a letter saying they couldn’t secede, either.
So it is that Key West celebrates its independence this day, April 23. The “Conch Republic’ issues its own passports, and sells t-shirts and bumper stickers with the slogan “We seceded where others failed”. And if the federal government ever comes back to mess with the micro-nation, they’d better be prepared to deal with the Conch Republic’s very own “Special Forces”, whose motto is “Sanctus Merda”. “Holy Shit”.
Tip of the hat to
“Conch Republic Military Forces
The Official Site of the Conch Republic Military”
for the “Conch Battle Hymn of the Republic”
words by First Sea Lord, Admiral Finbar Gittelman • October 14, 2012 © Finbar Gittelman
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the sunshine and the sea
Right here upon our islands, where we love to live so free
But in April 1982, the peace was not to be
And we went rolling on
Glory glory Conch Republic
Glory glory Conch Republic
Glory glory Conch Republic
From Key to shining Key
They were setting up a check point, tween the mainland and the Keys
They had put a US Border, where it shouldn’t ‘oughta’ be
So that’s when we seceded, and declared our sovereignty
And the fun had just begun
We went forth into the harbor and a cutter we did spy
And we sailed up along side her and we took her by surprise
We hoisted up our battle flag, so proudly and so high
And we went sailing on
The water and Conch fritters and the Cuban bread did fly
Our bombers, they were raining toilet paper from the sky
Our cannons they did thunder to proclaim our victory
And we fought bravely on
We have faced the silly forces of misguided zealotry
We have stood up to their foolishness for all the world to see
And we’ve showed the other nations what America can be From
Key to shining Key