Florida Keys History and Discovery Center
By Bonnie Gross
For a series of small islands, the Florida Keys have witnessed more than their share of colorful history – from shipwrecks, hurricanes, pirates, and sunken treasure to vacationing movie stars. It’s where presidents go to fish, where classic movies have been filmed and where the Key Lime pie first became a must-have regional specialty.
A new museum in Islamorada is telling those stories now, with an emphasis on all the drama that happened in the Florida Keys, particularly the Upper Keys.
The Florida Keys History & Discovery Center opened in 2014 and has completed about 40 percent of its permanent exhibits.
It’s located near the 1935 Hurricane Memorial in an area of Islamorada that is emerging as an arts and culture district with restaurants, galleries and a historic walking tour that ends with a beer at the first craft brewery in the Upper Keys.
The Florida Keys History & Discovery Center is not like a lot of local history museums – small dusty rooms inside a public library. It’s a two-story 7,500 square foot oceanfront museum with a state-of-the-art theater and exhibits designed by the same firm that did the interior of the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg.
The new museum is blessed with a $1 lease for 50 years for its space inside the Florida Keys Conference Center on the grounds of the Islander Resort, 82100 Overseas Highway. With grants from the Monroe County Tourist Development Council and the help from the community and many of the area’s pioneer families, the museum is busy collecting historic artifacts and completing its permanent exhibits.
“People think Key West is where all the Florida Keys history happened, but what they don’t realize is the incredible amount of history in the Upper Keys,” said Brad Bertelli, the museum’s curator and historian. “There are so many untold stories, things people don’t realize.”
For example, in the first quarter of 2016, the museum will open a new exhibit with a scale model of Indian Key at its heyday. The small island four miles south of the museum is a state park and ghost town accessible only by boat.
“In the 1830s, Indian Key was competing with Key West in the wrecking business,” Bertelli said. Wrecking, or salvaging goods from shipwrecks, was a legal and highly lucrative business. Indian Key prospered and even became the county seat of Dade County. An Indian massacre in 1840 ended its prosperity and its population dwindled until the island was abandoned a few decades later.
The museum will exhibit artifacts found during archaeological digs on Indian Key. Bertelli described the thrill of choosing from boxes of items housed in the state archives – Spanish gold coins, early American coins, ivory playing dice, lice combs and smoking pipes.
“The number of smoking pipes recovered is really remarkable – scores of them,” Bertelli said.
With the first floor devoted to permanent exhibits on topics like Indian Key, the original Native American people, sunken treasure fleets and the tradition of sport fishermen, the museum’s upstairs houses changing exhibits and the 35-seat surround-sound theater.
The theater plays a loop of historic documentaries and interviews. In one, the oldest living survivor of the great Labor Day hurricane of 1935 is interviewed at age 101 about his experience during the storm that killed more than 400 and blew away Henry Flagler’s Over Sea Railway. It was the strongest hurricane to ever make landfall in the United States or Caribbean. Ernest Hemingway came to Islamorada immediately after the storm and wrote the scathing expose “Who Killed the Vets” about the hundreds of WWI veterans who were washed to sea from their work camps.
Survivor Wilbur Jones talks about stumbling in high winds into an empty railroad box car, which is knocked on its side by a 17-foot wall of water, and then hacking his way out with an ax while the storm was still blowing around him.
Rotating exhibits in 2016 include:
- Florida Bay Forever, through Feb. 28, an exhibit of stunning photographs from the Everglades Foundation.
- The 50th annual juried show of the Art Guild of the Purple Isles, March 10-20.
- Photographer Clyde Butcher’s Natures’s Places, June 2 to Aug. 28
The museum also offers monthly lectures and monthly Midweek Matinees featuring movies filmed in the Keys.
The selection tells a lot about the fascinating history in this part of the keys: Feb. 3 is Arnold Schwarzenegger in “True Lies,” where the Old Seven Mile Bridge is famously blown up (via special effects.) March 2 is the classic Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn film “African Queen,” named for the boat in the movie that has been restored and takes visitors on tours in Key Largo. April 6 is the Bogart and Lauren Bacall movie “Key Largo.” It was actually filmed on a Hollywood studio lot, but its success prompted local officials to rename their post office from Rock Harbor to Key Largo. Each movie includes a talk about the film’s role in Keys history.
Each of these special programs brings in new people, said Executive Director Jill Miranda Baker. “People are starting to find us,” she said. “It’s easy to come to Islamorada for the day, have lunch and spend two or three hours here.”
The museum’s biggest challenge may be catching the eye of visiting tourists. Due to strict Islamorada sign ordinances, the only sign for the museum is a banner on a trailer next to the iconic mid-century-modern sign for the Islander resort. There is no signage on the Overseas Highway at this point.
Near the museum, the adjoining area is percolating with cultural developments too.
Museum Curator Bertelli takes his knowledge of history on the road with his Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours. Bertelli walks visitors around Indian Key and also conducts the Happy Hour History Tours, which begin at the hurricane monument and end at the Florida Keys Brewing Company with a local craft beer. (On the tours, Bertelli tells about the fascinating life of Fern Butters, who popularized key lime pie, even delivering them to President Harry Truman at his winter White House in Key West.)
The Florida Keys Brewing Company opened in 2015. Located in the developing Morada Arts District at 200 Morada Way, the taproom is decorated in a colorful Keys-worthy way — with mosaics made from thousands of bottle caps from breweries worldwide. It’s the only craft brewery in the Upper Keys and it’s a lively place, popular with residents.
If you go…
Florida Keys History & Discover Center, 82100 Overseas Highway, on the grounds of the Islander Resort, Islamorada. Hours: Thursday to Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $12 adults, $10 seniors and children 13 and under free.
Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours: Happy Hour History Tour, $18, including first beer. Indian Key Tour: $13.
The Florida Keys Brewing Company , 200 Morada Way, Islamorada, 300 yards east of Mile Marker 81.6 oceanside. Open noon to 10 p.m. daily.
Photos by Bonnie Gross for VISIT FLORIDA