Observational Therapy

The poster for the film ‘Key Largo.’ Every scene from the 1948 classic was shot in California.
The poster for the film ‘Key Largo.’ Every scene from the 1948 classic was shot in California.

I grew up caging reptiles in small aquariums and watching them rub their noses raw against the glass as they struggled to escape. While some would hang on for dear life, for years on rare occasions, there were no survivors.

It is fortunate that it did not take long to figure out that my thrill with their species was in their discovery and not their containment.

I was still in high school when I figured out I was just as happy photographing snakes and lizards in their natural environment than caging them. More than three decades later, whenever seated at my desk at the Sioux Street office, it is a mesmerizing thrill knowing that at any given moment, right outside the window immediately to my right, I might see a black racer, corn snake, a selection of geckos, a variety of indigenous and non-indigenous anoles, green iguana, or even the scourge of the yard, a dreaded curly-tailed lizard.

I cannot single out the reptile, or even amphibian, that first hooked me on the Reptilia classification. I do recall, however, that as a child, when my mother would come in and read to me before bed, I would ask her to read the chapters from a book about animals given to me by my grandmother in 1971, on my sixth birthday. I would ask her to read the chapter on amphibians, the frogs, newts, and salamanders, and then the chapter on the snakes, lizards, and turtles.

It was also while I was still in high school, at 16 or 17, that I started fooling around with words. At first, I fancied myself a poet. Poetry, however, was never my gig. The form was conducive to the evocation of feelings, but I was never able to negotiate the formal structures. The more expanded prose better suited my proclivities when it came to the written word.

After the life reflection and journaling phase, I went straight to fiction, to writing long-winded short stories filled with over-wrought metaphors. While any desire to create poetry had been exhausted decades prior to my arrival at the University of Miami, where I attended graduate school. UM seemed a fitting destination considering that, according to my own family lore, I share a twig from the family tree of the celebrated American poet Robert Frost. A statue of Frost stands outside the English Department at UM.

When I moved to Plantation Key in 2001, I fully intended to continue work on the novel I had been crafting in graduate school. Roads fork, sometimes thankfully. The whole history thing was a monumental shift as I arrived in the Keys to pursue a career based in fiction. While the freedom writing fiction provides can be liberating, I find the structure history provides soothing. For almost 10 years now I have been writing nothing but history, history, history. It has been a phenomenal journey connecting me with some really great people. However, beyond the occasional late night ramble, I don’t think I’ve written anything fictional in nearly a decade.

One of the comforting things about writing history is that a set of facts presents an inherent structure. Everyone makes mistakes. I make mistakes, I have also been studying and working hard to rectify some of the sloppy histories that continue to be presented. With that in mind, here are some facts that might help dispel some local myths and legends.

It became possible to drive from the mainland to Key West in 1928. The trip required a 40-mile ride aboard an automobile ferry between Lower Matecumbe and No Name keys, but it was possible. When the highway reopened in 1938, the ferry system had been replaced by a series of bridges.

Speaking of building bridges, the eight coffin-looking structures in the shallows visible from the Channel 5 Bridge are not, in fact, coffins. “The Coffins,” as they are often referred to by local fishermen are actually bridge piers. In 1934 hundreds of World War I veterans arrived in the Upper Keys in order to build a series of bridges that would have paralleled the railroad tracks and eliminate need to the aforementioned automobile ferry system.

The Caribbean Club opened as a fish camp in 1940. It became world famous after the 1948 release of the Bogart and Bacall classic, Key Largo. While the movie was filmed entirely on California sound stages, the screenplay was penned at the hotel when director John Huston and screenwriter Richard Brooks stayed at the club to absorb some atmosphere.

The 1840 Indian Key “massacre” resulted in seven deaths. Speaking of Indian Key, when Dade County was created in 1836, Indian Key was named as the temporary County Seat. It was not the only island that served as the original County Seat, but shared the designation with Key Biscayne. Also, while Jacob Housman did help to grow the Indian Key community, by the time he physically purchased property on the island in 1830, it was already the second largest community outside of Key West with a population of approximately 50, two general stores, and a hotel with its own 9-pin bowling alley.

And, for clarification, the Russell family, the first to homestead 160 acres on Upper Matecumbe, did not arrive on the island in 1803, but circa 1853, by way of the Bahamas, Key West, and Key Vaca.

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