It was the morning of Sept. 28, 1929 when the eye of a Category 3 hurricane roared across the island of Key Largo. Wind gusts were reported to have reached 150 miles per hour. It was fortunate that only three deaths were attributed to the storm, one of which could have been prevented if not for the stubborn refusal of one man to abandon his property after officials begged and pleaded with him to do so.
The island of Key Largo suffered physical damage as a result of the hurricane. Fruit crops were destroyed; roads, bridges, and buildings were damaged — including damage to Ed and Fern Butters’ The Key Inn. The Butters’ property occupied a 24-by-90-square foot parcel that bordered the first road to connect mainland Florida to the Sunshine State’s southernmost archipelago, a roadway once dubbed the “fishing route.” Before moving to Florida from South Dakota in 1926, Ed had promised to build Fern, “that sandwich and pie shop you wanted,” and Fern saw that it was done.
Ed built more than a dinette, The Key Inn was also a small motel located approximately five miles south of where the Card Sound Bridge ends today. While their business had proved successful and Fern’s cooking had developed a local fan base that included the inventor of the phonograph and electric light bulb, Thomas Edison, after the 1929 hurricane the Butters decided to sell The Key Inn.
The property was sold to Mabel Harris, a transplant from Chicago who declared the business Mabel’s Place. Harris not only changed the name of the establishment, but the very nature of its business. Mabel’s Place offered lodging and food, including conch chowder and fresh crawfish dinners, but also allegedly offered gambling and prostitution. In the prohibition years, Mabel’s Place was also a tea room — “tea room” was the commonly used phrase to indicate that a locale offered beverages harder than the law allowed.
What is important to note is that the Butters had not been scared out of the Florida Keys by the powerful forces of the 1929 hurricane. Instead they packed up their belongings and moved south to Upper Matecumbe Key. The island was also home to the Russell Arms Hotel. Like The Key Inn, the Russell Arms was one of the early roadside motels and restaurants to be constructed in the Upper Keys.
The two-story structure was built and owned by Doddridge and Burnell Russell of Key West. A print advertisement published Aug. 11, 1927 in the Miami News stated: “The Russell Arms Hotel, Matecumbe Key, Fl. Home of the Bone-Fish. A modern 27 room hotel built near what is now the temporary terminus of the Oversea Highway. Sand beach bathing– deep sea fishing. Up-to-date dining room service—sea food a specialty. Ideally located for week-end patrons from Miami and Homestead. Summer Rates: $5.50 a day; $33.50 a week.”
When the Butters learned that the owners of the Russell Arms were interested in selling their property, Ed and Fern became interested in buying it. However it took the support of their family and friends to cement the deal, along with every nickel and dime they could scrape together as the selling price was $80,000 — a pretty hefty price-tag in 1931 considering the 1930s was the decade of the Great Depression.
After the transaction, the Butters changed the name of the business to the Matecumbe Hotel. The hotel remained a popular spot for fishermen looking for a place to stay. It also became a popular place to stop for a slice of Fern’s key lime pie, a local delicacy raved about by the likes of Thomas Edison, Arthur Godfrey and President and Mrs. Harry Truman.
It was during one of Truman’s visits to Key West that Fern Butters personally introduced her key lime pie to the President. After baking it especially for the occasion and toasting the meringue just so, she entrusted the confection to Ed with orders to drive it all the way to Key West himself and deliver it by hand. A good husband, Ed placed the pie on the bench inside his truck and drove as carefully as he could to Key West.
After successfully completing the trek to Key West, Ed hand delivered Fern’s key lime pie to the President and his wife. Mrs. Truman sent Ed back to the Matecumbe Hotel with a handwritten thank you note which Ed brought back to his wife. The note read, “Dear Mrs. Butters — You were very kind to send us this beautiful and delicious pie. This variety is a great treat to us mid-westerners. We deeply appreciate your generous thought of us. We are hoping to drop in someday soon for lunch. Sincerely, Bess Truman.”
Stayed tuned for more about the Butters, hurricanes, and Fern’s famous key lime pie!
Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.