Bike tour captures village's roots

A bicycle tour of historic Islamorada covers just a three-mile stretch of U.S. 1 but spans centuries of island history and lore.

"It's hard to get even a slice of it in," says tour guide Mark Terrill. "We could spend an hour within a few steps of the Hurricane Monument."

Terrill offers the two-hour Islamorada Bike History Tour at 10 a.m. most Saturdays and Sundays — and some holidays — as a benefit for a youth-sports club. Call him at 879-0390 to reserve a spot.

In leading groups from Matecumbe United Methodist Church to within sight of Indian Key and back, Terrill's narration covers everything from the Calusas to Ponce deLeon, the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, and contemporary tales of drug runners and celebrities.

A South Florida resident since 1994, Terrill prepared by plunging into local history, attending seminars, reading records and accounts, and interviewing members of Florida Keys pioneer families.

"I find the whole way of the early island life and business, from about 1890, intriguing," Terrill said. "The residents were here with no fresh water, air conditioning or storm warnings. They all were survivors in a sense."

Six months of serious research compiled thick files of background material. "The most frustrating thing is that there's so much," he said. "How do you decide what to leave out?"

His tour begins at the Methodist Church, adjacent to the Hurricane Monument at mile marker 81.8. He points out a stained-glass window, made by church members, that depicts Islamorada's first church, a waterfront structure washed away by a hurricane. The church was rebuilt on the site of the current building.

"At one point there were about 100 residents on Upper Matecumbe and 94 were church members," Terrill said. "The men were all fishermen who didn't smoke or cuss. They lived near the beach so the ocean breeze would keep them cool and keep the mosquitoes bearable."He tells the story of the 1935 storm that killed hundreds of local residents and World War 1 veterans here to work on the Overseas Highway.

Their bodies were cremated on the grounds of the nearby Green Turtle Inn (then the Rustic Inn), prompting witness Ernest Hemingway to write a screed about missteps that led to the deaths.

The victims' remains were interred near the lodge until they were moved to the monument, completed in 1937.

"Islamorada had about 700 residents before the storm," Terrill said. "Afterward, it was 130."He points to the Kaiyo restaurant, the first Islamorada house rebuilt after the storm as a residence for the Parker family.

The federal Works Progress Administration and the Red Cross assisted survivors by building the steel-reinforced concrete "hurricane houses," with walls a foot thick and doorways elevated above flood level.

The size of the 19 homes depended on the number of family members who would live there. "They're still pretty cramped," Terrill said. "I've always had a fascination with the hurricane houses and the local architecture."

The Islamorada branch library started as a two-room concrete schoolhouse.

One post-storm structure not built of concrete is the Sweeting House, now the Island Villa office building. It held two apartments and a general store.

Terrill leads the tour down shaded side streets past several remaining hurricane houses.

Following the bike path as much as possible for safety reasons, the tour makes nine stops to discuss aspects of Keys history. Many are at sites established by the Matecumbe Historical Trust group.

"I try to lighten it up with some of the humorous things that have happened here, like the night John Belushi was at the Green Turtle," Terrill recounted. "It was busy and they were short staffed, so Belushi started answering the phone and taking reservations. He did it for about three hours and had the whole place roaring in laughter."

The tour continues down the Old Highway to Papa Joe's, where a ferry carried motorists on the Overseas Highway to Long Key.

"People think the 1935 hurricane killed Henry Flagler's Overseas Railroad, but the truth is that it was already dying because of the automobile," Terrill said.

The tour group stops partway across Indian Key Fill, where Tea Table Key served as a critical spot for early Spanish explorers and a base for military units fighting the Second Seminole War (1835-42).

Terrill points out Indian Key, once the county seat for Dade County, which then covered half of Florida. Indian Key kept that status until the deadly 1840 raid that killed famed botanist Henry Perrine and doomed notorious wrecker Jacob Housman's commercial empire, which was headquartered on Indian Key.

More contemporary stories include tales of Cuban rafters and modern-day pirates who traffic in narcotics.

The tour -- the only biking history tour in the Keys outside of Key West - covers about 6.5 miles and lasts two hours. People taking the tour should bring their own bicycles, drink and sun screen.

Terrill, a former state high school wrestling champion and a national junior-college champion, accepts donations on behalf of the Islamorada Wrestling Club, which mentors student athletes in fifth- through 12th-grade.