When the United States Border Patrol set up a check point at the Last Chance Saloon in Florida City effectively cutting off the Florida Keys at the confluence of the only two roads out; Last Chance owner, Skeeter Davis, was immediately on the phone to his old pal Mayor Dennis Wardlow of Key West.
Meanwhile a seventeen mile traffic jam ensued while the Border Patrol stopped every car leaving the Keys supposedly searching for illegal aliens attempting to enter the mainland United States. Residents and visitors attempting to leave the Keys were puzzled about what illegal aliens could be hiding under their front seats, in their glove compartments, and in their trunks. The media starting reporting on the unprecedented action of the Border Patrol in setting up a border checkpoint within the United States, itself. As the stories of the traffic jam poured out across the nation and the world, visitors started canceling reservations to come to the keys. The hotels began to empty, deliveries were delayed or stopped, attractions in the Keys went begging for customers; the Key were paralyzed.
Community leaders started to gather around the Mayor to decide what to do. William E. Smith, Townsend Kieffer, John Magliola, Dennis Bitner, Jimmy Mira, Edwin 0. Swift III, David Paul Horan, and many others were very concerned. The very lifeblood of a budding tourism industry was threatened. Secessionist talk was bubbling up in each discussion. At the urging of Dave Horan, the legal route was chosen as the first alternative. Dave filed an injunction against the governmentâ€™s action in Federal Court in Miami. Mayor Wardlow and Ed Swift piled into Daveâ€™s airplane, and off to court they flew. Dave argued brilliantly, but the Court essentially refused to enjoin the Border patrol from treating the Keys like a foreign country. Leaving the courthouse, the delegation from Key West was met by a gaggle of the world press. “What are you going to do, Mr. Mayor”, they screamed. Ed leaned over and whispered to Dennis, “Tell them we are going to go home and secede!” So…that is exactly what Dennis told them…”We are going to go home and secede”.
Naturally, the press followed Dennis back to Key West. As the news of the Mayorâ€™s intentions hit the newspapers and the airwaves, the community splintered. When the rumor flew that the American flag was to be lowered, and the Conch Republic flag raised in its place, a number of people were very upset. The calls came pouring in to the Mayor. A compromise was reached, the American flag would stay. The Conch flag would be raised underneath it.
Meanwhile, federal agents started pouring into town. Very conspicuous in the blue suits, shirt cuff microphone, and flesh colored earphones in this island community of Guyabara shirts, cutoffs, and sandals; the federal agents were intimidating in their presence. What would happen? Would everyone involved be arrested? Would the Keys be placed under martial law?
Fear was real. The community was deeply divided. On April 23rd, 1982, Mayor Wardlow surrounded by his loyal cohorts mounted the back of a flatbed truck in Clinton Square in front of the Old Customs building and delivered the following Proclamation to the assembled crowd (including a number of very vocal protesters):
Following the reading of the Proclamation, the new Prime Minister declared war on the United States, whereupon members of the new government “beat” the federal agents in attendance with stale Cuban bread. The Prime Minister then surrendered, and demanded foreign aid from the United States. We are still waiting for the foreign aid.
Thus, the plucky little Conch Republic was born. Amazingly, the United States government, although they immediately removed the roadblock, never bothered to react to the secession. They never sent even the littlest letter informing the Mayor that they objected to the secession, or “…while this was quite funny, you must realize you cannot be a real country…” Nothing, zip, zero, nothing by way of response…
Meanwhile, the Conch Republic continued to celebrate its independence, annually, in a public and notorious manner The flags flew, passports were issued and traveled on, visas were issued to visitors, the government “functioned”; in short, all the trappings of nationhood were observed while the U.S. said nada.
In 1990, the powers that be in the tourism industry decided that “Conch Republic Days”, as the annual celebration of our independence was called, would be no more. “Not enough â€˜heads-on-bedsâ€™”, they said.
It was no wonder…visitors didnâ€™t understand the Conch Republic, and the high price parties at various destination resorts were not affordable to locals beginning to feel the pinch of high costs of housing and practically everything else.
Into the breach leapt the Second Sealord, Fleet Commander, and Owner/Captain of the Conch Republic Navyâ€™s Flagship Schooner WOLF; the venerable Rear Admiral Finbar. Dismayed that our. eighth anniversary would go uncelebrated, The Rear Admiral rallied Paul and Evalena Worthington of the Schooner Wharf Bar, and this writer (destined to become Secretary General) to the cause. The Conch Republic Independence Celebration was born.
An excellent three day event was put together. The landmark “Last Tango On Tank Island” party was held. The Republic endured.
In recognition of the efforts of this writer on behalf of the Republic as coordinator of the event; then Prime Minister Captain Tony Tarracino appointed a new position, Secretary General of the Conch Republic…our chief bureaucrat, as it were.
As Secretary General, and armed with letters of introduction, Conch Republic Navy Captain Dean Rollings and myself traveled to the Bahamas aboard the CRNS NEPENTHE. Amazingly, we obtained an interview with the Permanent Secretary to the Foreign Minister of the government of the Bahamas, the Honorable Ms. Mary Sweetnum in February of 1991.
What follows is the Report to the Nation on this historic meeting: Visiting Our Roots