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 34th birthday Friday through Sunday, April 22 through May 1 — with the zany and irreverent Conch Republic Independence Celebration.
The historic secession took place on April 23, 1982. It was prompted by a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint set up without warning on the Overseas Highway, the only road into and out of the Florida Keys. Federal agents were supposedly searching cars for drugs and illegal immigrants — but their roadblock created a massive multi-mile traffic jam of cars leaving the Keys, 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 current Key West Mayor Craig Cates, a former high-speed powerboat racer who has plenty of nerve of his own.
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.”
Not long afterward, 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 celebrate the secession’s anniversary each year with 10 days of lighthearted events.
Among the quirkiest is the Great Conch Republic Drag Race — this year set for 2 p.m. Saturday, April 23, in the 700 block of Key West’s Duval Street. Instead of traditional hot rods, the race features a gaggle of big-haired drag queens, dressed in over-the-top costumes, sprinting down the pavement in staggeringly high heels.
Subsequent festival events include a Conch Republic military muster, pirates’ ball and pig roast, waterfront parties, a sailing race that recalls the Keys’ historic shipwreck salvage tradition, the so-called world’s longest parade (because it proceeds down Duval Street from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico), and the Great Battle for the Conch Republic.
During the latter, the Conch Republic Navy’s sea dogs and wenches board tall ships and other vessels to mount an on-the-water skirmish against the “evil federal forces.” Coordinated by the republic’s flagship schooner Wolf, it features weapons ranging from water cannons to flying Cuban bread and vegetables — ensuring that the battle is non-lethal but uniquely messy. And it’s not a coincidence that the republic always wins.
The independence celebration’s oldest highlight is the Conch Republic Red Ribbon Bed Race set for Saturday, April 30. The charity race, featuring teams propelling decorated beds along Duval Street, is billed as “the most fun you can have in bed with your clothes on.”
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 spirit of the “nation,” or lessened the national and international recognition it continues to receive. And this April, Conch Republic patriots (and aspiring citizens) are heartily encouraged to come down and be part of the gutsy little republic’s 34th birthday celebration.