Loaves of stale Cuban bread, a governmental border checkpoint, and a request for a billion dollars in foreign aid played major roles in the Florida Keys’ secession from the United States and the formation of the independent Conch Republic.
Recognized by international public law as “a sovereign state of mind,” the republic will mark its 39th birthday Friday through Sunday, April 16-25 — with the zany Conch Republic Independence Celebration.
The symbolic secession took place on April 23, 1982. It was prompted by the establishment of a U.S. Border Patrol blockade that virtually stopped traffic on the only road connecting the Keys to mainland Florida.
Federal agents were supposedly searching cars for drugs and illegal immigrants — but their roadblock created a massive multi-mile traffic jam of cars, irritating residents and visitors almost beyond bearing.
Figuring the Keys were being treated as a foreign country, local officials led by then-Mayor Dennis Wardlow protested by staging the secession and proclaiming the island chain the Conch Republic. (Dennis, FYI, became the republic’s first prime minister.)
“When Mayor Dennis Wardlow did that, I’m amazed that he had the nerve,” admitted Craig Cates, also a beloved former mayor of the island city.
After seceding, the band of “patriots” declared war on the United States — a good-natured insurrection that involved pelting a U.S. Navy officer with stale Cuban bread. They then surrendered and requested a billion dollars in foreign aid.
The outrageous strategy worked, gaining worldwide attention and a surprising measure of respect. It was even praised by Bob Graham, Florida’s governor at that time, as “deft and appropriate.”
Even more important, the Border Patrol checkpoint vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. And the fame of the Conch Republic, whose motto is We Seceded Where Others Failed, only increased over the years.
Today patriots throughout the Keys fly the royal blue flag of the little “nation,” and commemorate the secession’s anniversary each year with 10 days of lighthearted events.
Fans and friends of the Conch Republic can celebrate this year with activities that range from a pirate adventure and wine tastings to a sunset boat parade featuring floating Tikis, historic schooners and luxury catamarans.
The 2021 festival begins Friday, April 16, with a ceremonial breakfast and the raising of the colors at Key West’s landmark Mallory Square. From then on, everyone can get updates on daily events at the official welcome center at Conch Republic Seafood Company (631 Greene St.).
Of course, organizers are upholding coronavirus safety protocols, including mandatory masking and social distancing, throughout the festival.
Among the scheduled events are a tour and gathering on the historic USCGC Ingham, a floating maritime museum; sailing excursions and other adventures in the clear waters surrounding Key West; a fun and funky “wearable art” fundraising fashion show (with categories for both couture and costumes); a traditional shrimp boil in the Key West Historic Seaport; an artisan market and an “Art of Wine” gallery stroll.
There’s even a gourmet dinner and absinthe tasting — set on the grounds of the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum — that commemorates Hemingway’s fondness for the unusual libation.
The festival concludes Sunday, April 25, after an open-air jazz performance and a sailing race that recalls the Florida Keys’ seafaring heritage.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Conch Republic never received the billion dollars in foreign aid that was requested after the 1982 secession (although some optimistic citizens are still waiting for it).
But that hasn’t dampened the irreverent spirit of the “nation,” or lessened the recognition it continues to receive.
And while this year’s festival will be a treat, don’t worry if you can’t join the fun in April — because whenever you do arrive, you’ll be warmly welcomed in the Conch Republic.