I am not a Conch and was thirty-something by the time I began calling the Florida Keys home. The fact has proven both advantageous and disadvantageous. On the one hand, after nearly 17 years, many consider me an outsider, still. On the other hand, I did not relocate for the history. I came to sip rum, play with words, and finish my novel.
Most everything I knew about these islands had been imparted via Joy Williams’ brilliant conceptualization of a history-flavored travel guide, The Florida Keys. Since getting into the history game, I have learned a thing or two. One of those things is that histories passed down over time, what I like to call Grandpa’s stories, often propagate more of a mythological rather than a factual history. Because my grandfathers lived in Southern California, I grew up hearing about smog, strawberries and horse racing. I imagine, were I able to go back and examine some of their stories, I would see that those stories too, had a life of their own.
While I cannot jump back in time and explore the tales my grandfathers told me, I can delve deeper into some local Grandpa’s stories. They can prove gold and precious memories. Unfortunately, and with no fault beyond that of human nature, with each retelling these stories can begin to stray further and further from their original set of circumstances. Sit 10 people in a circle, whisper a story in one person’s ear, and by the time that whispered story travels through 10 peoples’ ears it will surely have changed.
A perfect example of one of Grandpa’s stories taking on a life of its own is the story of Pickles Reef. As a side note, it was the Pickles Reef story that first got my history taste buds salivating. The relatively shallow spur and groove reef formation is found southeast of Key Largo (24 59.26N/080 24.84W). This metaphorical Grandpa’s story tells a good yarn, but gets the facts wrong and misses out on the most amazing part of the story.
Unfortunately, Grandpa’s version of the Pickles Reef story, repeated over and over for decades, has been woven into the fabric of the local history, passed on by dive captains, written about in countless guide books, and ensconced as the truth in that bastion of source material, Wikipedia: “The name comes from cement-filled pickle barrels sunk here during the Civil War.”
As the story goes, a Civil War era barge carrying a load of cement in large wooden barrels, the kind of barrels that might also accommodate pickles, wrecked at the reef, and inspired the place name Pickles Reef. During the event, the load of barrels sank to the Atlantic floor where the concrete mixed with the water and hardened. Over the course of time, the barrels’ wooden staves rotted away leaving only the barrel-shaped forms behind. It is a plausible story. There are as many as 50 concrete barrels found at and around the reef.
Archaeologists suspect the concrete barrels can be dated much later than the 1860s. It has been suggested the concrete had been destined for construction projects associated with the building of the Over-Sea Railway after turn of the century. It has also been posited that the barrels of cement were to have been used in construction of what would become the Red Cross or hurricane houses built after the 1935 Labor Day storm. Not that, in the end, it matters when the concrete barrels wrecked overboard and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic.
The shame in Grandpa’s story, in this particular case, is that not only does it disregard the facts, but it completely discounts the series of events necessary to create the Pickles Reef story. First, the name of the shallow spur and groove reef southeast of Key Largo predates the Civil War by decades. In fact, the name Pickles Reef began showing up in maritime records dating as far back as the late 1820s.
How did the reef actually come upon its seemingly peculiar name? No one seems to know for sure, yet. It may have been the name of a ship that wrecked at the site, or the name of the captain piloting the vessel. What can be said is that once upon a time this reef was home to large stands of a kind of hard coral called pillar coral. Pillar coral grows upward toward the surface like elongated formations that could be considered pickle-shaped. One possibility behind the name is that perhaps early mariners gazing down at this shallow reef through the crystal clear water felt the corals resembled massive pickles and the observation stuck.
The second, more important fact, however, what is truly mind-blowing about the name Pickles Reef is that out of the thousands of individual coral reefs encapsulated within the Florida Reef system, the odds of a bunch of barrels that may or may not have once held pickles, sinking at a reef already called Pickles Reef, has to be staggering.
Brad Bertelli is an Upper Keys historian and curator of the Keys History & Discovery Center. The author of five books on Florida and Florida Keys history, his column appears every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.