A place for history

The Jerry Wilkinson Research Library at the Keys History & Discovery Center will be home to Monroe County’s single largest resource of Upper Keys history, including bound editions of The Reporter newspaper.
The Jerry Wilkinson Research Library at the Keys History & Discovery Center will be home to Monroe County’s single largest resource of Upper Keys history, including bound editions of The Reporter newspaper.

According to the Florida Department of State, the first registered historical society founded in the Upper Keys was the Historic Preservation Society of the Upper Keys, recognized from this point forward as HPSUK.

According to state records, HPSUK incorporated as a not-for-profit entity on July 27, 1976. Darlene Brown was named HPSUK’s first president. Because of America’s bicentennial celebration, there had been a push nationwide to develop historical societies.

To contribute to the bicentennial celebration, on June 10, 1976, The Reporter announced that Islamorada’s Chamber of Commerce, in cooperation with HPSUK, planned to hold a re-enactment of the Indian Key “massacre” of 1840. “Upper Keys Jaycees will act as guides and Irving Eyster, associated with the Archaeology Society of the Museum of Science and Natural History of Miami, will lecture.”

What people might not realize is that the late Irving Eyster was originally a member of the HPSUK family. In fact, his book Indian Key was not only co-written by Eyster and Brown, but it was dedicated to HPSUK. It would be nearly two decades before the Matecumbe Historical Trust, recognized from this point forward as MHT, organized. The MHT first formed as the Matecumbe Historical Board, created by Monroe County Commissioners on July 11, 1990. The Matecumbe Historical Board would later reorganize as the MHT and incorporate with the state as a not-for-profit on October 3, 1994. Irving Eyster was listed as president.

Based on events and the animus that still simmers between the two groups, Eyster’s split from HPSUK was not entirely amicable and ended in the destruction of an Indian canoe. Because the two parties could not agree on who it belonged to, the artifact was cut in two. MHT’s Shirley Faye Albury and HPSUK’s Jerry Wilkinson both acknowledge the incident. No one either knows what became of the canoe halves, or seems willing to talk about it.

When I moved to Plantation Key in 2001, my intention was to sip rum and finish my novel. I did not know what a HPSUK or a MHT was and would not have been able to identify Jerry Wilkinson, HPSUK’s long time president, or Irving Eyster had the two been standing in a group of three. However, circa 2007, I did become engaged in the local history. More and more I began devoting time to reading and writing about the Florida Keys in general and the Upper Keys in particular.

In 2008 I reached out with my new found enthusiasm to both MHT and HPSUK. As a result, Wilkinson welcomed my inquiry and began sharing his knowledge and resources. MHT did not. Little did I realize then the amount of baggage that had accrued between the two groups. Because I appeared on the scene long after the accumulation had occurred, I found it interesting that my learning about the area’s history from one group would lead to sideways glances from the other. I also found it interesting when, just a year or so ago, one Islamorada gentleman sent me repeated emails declaring Irving Eyster “the only true Florida Keys historian.”

While Eyster is perhaps beloved, he served as one of several historians to have studied, documented, and protected the history of the Florida Keys. Some came before him and others will come after. A short list includes, but is not limited to, John Goggin, Tom Hambright, John Viele, Dan Gallagher, Jim Clupper, Gail Swanson and Jerry Wilkinson. Frankly, the more people studying a subject the more can be learned as most historians develop a particular bent. Eyster loved Indian Key, Clupper Indians, and Wilkinson the railroad.

When I began my tenure as curator of the Keys History & Discovery Center, I realized that in addition to working to promote and provide historical content, part of my job would require bridge building. People would be skeptical of the museum and its curator. Some efforts have proved more fruitful than others with the friendship that developed with Jim Clupper among my personal highlights. The best I can do, the best the museum can do, is continue to welcome all who wish to share in a community effort to create a facility everyone can be proud to share with their family, friends, and visitors.

We have grown in surprising ways over the course of the last three years. The museum was recently gifted a $1-million donation from Ken and Dee Meeks that will provide the necessary stability to not just finish what we have started, but to ensure the community that the museum has been firmly settled on solid ground.

Additionally, bolstered by a successful fund raising campaign, over $30,000 was raised for the Jerry Wilkinson Research Library. A vault has been constructed within the library, the floors cleaned, walls painted, and furniture and bookshelves installed! When the library opens this summer, it will become home to Monroe County’s single largest resource of Upper Keys history.

In addition to the library, plans for the completion of the museum’s first floor are well underway with three additional permanent exhibits on the drawing board. The exhibits will incorporate Florida Bay and the Florida Reef, endangered and invasive species, as well as a reworking of the first permanent exhibit developed by the museum, Legends of the Line.

The Keys History & Discovery Center, Proudly Presented by Ken and Dee Meeks, will continue to deliver an amazing array of content regarding both the history and ecology of this special string of islands. I will continue to develop the museum, write my column, work on a new book or two, and venture out into the community to give presentations whenever I am invited to speak.

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