Whether you’re pining for a Keys vacation but can’t get away quite yet, or are prepping for an upcoming trip to the island chain, you’ll want to watch “The Florida Keys: 200 Years of Paradise,” slated to debut this spring on Public Broadcasting Service channels across the U.S.
The Florida Keys Over-Sea Railroad, completed in 1912, carried passengers from mainland Florida throughout the Keys to Key West.
The fascinating 60-minute TV documentary explores the culture and history of the Keys from the early 1800s to the present. It was produced by South Florida PBS for broadcast during the island chain’s bicentennial year — this year — that commemorates the Florida Legislature’s establishment of Monroe County on July 3, 1823.
The program (partially underwritten by the Keys tourism council) takes you on a journey through the region’s dramatic history, seen through the eyes of residents who live and interpret that history every day.
Topics include the Florida Keys’ booms and busts, cultural and artistic expression, sport fishing and community leaders, industries like shipwreck salvage, natural disasters and renewal, environmental conservation and the legacy of Black pioneers.
The story of Art “Silver Bar” McKee is told in a fascinating exhibit at Islamorada’s History of Diving Museum.
Comments from Keys historians and others introduce viewers to the human side of the island chain’s two centuries of history — giving the story a deeply personal flavor.
“The Florida Keys: 200 Years of Paradise” is to be distributed nationally by American Public Television beginning March 1, and it’s expected to air on some 249 public television stations around the country. So check your local listings for scheduled airtimes to make sure you don’t miss it.
Meanwhile, three events are slated in Key West that showcase different elements of the Keys’ intriguing two-century cultural heritage.
Presidents in Paradise. Descendants of former president Harry S. Truman and five other U.S. commanders in chief will discuss their famous relatives and American bipartisanship Saturday, Feb. 18, at Key West’s Harry S. Truman Little White House.
The Presidential Family Forum is the centerpiece of Presidents Day weekend activities at the 111 Front St. residence — the place where Truman spent 11 working vacations during his 1945-1953 administration. Today the property is Florida’s only presidential museum.
Actor Clifton Truman Daniel portrays his grandfather, President Harry S. Truman, in the stage production “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!” in Key West. The one-man show is a highlight of Presidents Day weekend activities at the Harry S. Truman Little White House. (Photo by Carol Tedesco, Florida Keys News Bureau)
In addition, Clifton Truman Daniel (former President Truman’s oldest grandson) will star as his grandfather in the one-man play “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry!” Sunday and Monday, Feb. 19-20. A seasoned actor and author, Clifton is the first direct descendant to portray a presidential ancestor in a stage production — and this one is absolutely unforgettable.
A Conch-Centric Celebration. Join several dozen other people and attempt to “blow your own horn” in Key West Saturday, March 4, during a celebration of the Florida Keys’ rich history known as the Conch Shell Blowing Contest.
In the 19th century, when Key West’s economy was largely based on salvaging cargoes from sinking ships, seafarers used the conch’s fluted pink-lined shells as signaling devices — blowing piercing blasts to attract attention. Today native-born residents refer to themselves as Conchs and the Florida Keys island chain is often called the Conch Republic.
The “conch honk” challenge is presented each spring by the Old Island Restoration Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the architectural and cultural heritage of Key West. In the lush garden of the island’s Oldest House Museum, 322 Duval St., entrants vie to see who can coax the most impressive sounds from their “instrument.”
Kids and adults competing in a previous Conch Shell Blowing Contest gather for a “group toot” in Key West. (Photo by Rob O’Neal, Florida Keys News Bureau)
Remembering Tennessee. Internationally renowned playwright Tennessee Williams, who lived in Key West for more than 30 years, once said of his chosen home, “I work everywhere, but I work best here.” Explore his writing and life in the island city during the Tennessee Williams Birthday Celebration, with events scheduled throughout March.
Expected highlights include guided curator tours of the Tennessee Williams Museum, located at 513 Truman Ave. Birthday month activities also include screenings of films based on Williams’ plays, a walking tour of the playwright’s Key West, a lecture and readings, a theater production and a commemoration of the 112th anniversary of Williams’ March 26 birth.
What else is going on in Key West and the Keys over the next few months? Just check here — and then catch the PBS documentary and begin planning your next visit.