Text and photos
By ROD KING
Roosters can be heard crowing throughout the length and breadth of Key West, Fla., at all times of the day and night. The colorful birds frolic on the sidewalks and chase each other across Duval Street, the town’s busiest street. They’ll strut right into an open-air restaurant just like they had a reservation. They fit right in with the millions of tourists coming to the island town, but they’re protected.
The whole chicken thing goes back to the early 1800s when a revolution in Cuba sent Cubans fleeing to Key West by the thousands. They brought their cigar-making skills with them, plus their love of cock fighting. Key West’s government frowned on the “sport” and outlawed it. So, the Cubans turned them all loose and they’ve been roaming free ever since.
They’re as famous as the six-toed cats inhabiting the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum. The famous author was given a white, six-toed (polydactyl) cat by a boat captain. Kittens of Snow White all had extra toes and were extremely good mousers. Today, nearly 60 live at the house and are cared for by local veterinarians. When outside cats wander in, they’re unceremoniously chased off by the resident felines. Hemingway bought the house in 1931. The next decade turned out to be his most prolific writing period. Tours of the home and gardens are available.
Sloppy Joe’s Bar, Hemingway’s favorite watering hole, was opened in 1933 as the Blind Pig. It was Hemingway who convinced owner Joe Russell to change the name of his establishment to Sloppy Joe’s after a bar they frequented in Havana, Cuba. In 1938, Russell got into an argument with his landlord over a $1-a-month raise in his rent, closed down the bar and moved it lock, stock and barrel a half-a-block away to its present location on Duval Street.
Also on Duval Street is the late, great Jimmy Buffett’s very first Margaritaville Bar and Restaurant. He opened it more than 30 years ago and people have been flocking to it searching for that ‘lost jigger of salt’ ever since.
President Harry S. Truman’s Little White House is a must-see. He and his family came here to work and enjoy the warm Florida temperatures during winter months. The home, which is open for tours, was built by the U.S. Navy in 1890 and is full of Truman’s original furniture and memorabilia.
Mallory Square, which is just a few blocks north of the Little White House, is a hopping place every afternoon around 5 p.m. when street vendors and performers appear suddenly out of nowhere to entertain huge crowds gathered to watch the spectacular sunsets.
Key West’s original residents were Calusa Indians, who fished the surrounding waters. It was occupied by transient Cuban fishermen in the late 1700s.
In 1821, the Florida territory was annexed, along with Key West, from Spain by the United States in reparations for war debts. It became the seventh city in Florida in 1828. Three years later, political unrest in Cuba caused William Wall to relocate his cigar factory there and opened the floodgates to Cuban migrants seeking freedom and employment. The island was long a mecca for salvagers, who brought up treasures from ships sunk by powerful storms.