Cunningham: Law of the land was community

When Ralph Cunningham, founder of the first law firm in Marathon, arrived in the Middle Keys in 1953, there wasn’t an attorney practicing between Homestead and Key West. And, according to Cunningham, that’s the way some of the locals wanted it.

“I headed down to the sundry store where locals would gather on rocking chairs to swap stories and gossip,” Cunningham said. “I went with the intention of introducing myself to some of the regulars and got a decidedly mixed reception. The first man I spoke to said, ‘Son, we don’t need any damn attorneys in this town.’ ”

That would daunt most people, but not Cunningham. Fresh out of law school, he saw real opportunity in the sleepy fishing village of 700 people and decided to stick it out. His gamble paid off handsomely, as the firm he founded became the most successful in the Middle Keys.

He set up shop the same week that the Keynoter started, in February 1953.

“I was sworn in on Feb. 13, 1953, and the first issue of the paper came out that Thursday,” he said. “I was featured in the second edition. They were right across the street from my office, and back in those days there wasn’t much traffic, so we could go back and forth across the street and talk.”

How slow was the traffic?

“Traffic was so slow that locals would actually set up a tennis court right on U.S. 1 on Sundays around 1:30 p.m. and play on the road,” he said. “They took a couple of tires and put pipes in it to support the net. It really surprised the few tourists who came through.”

But the town was starting to grow. Duck Key and Key Colony Beach were being built, and Stanley Switlik had just purchased the Sombrero Beach area. All of that construction indicated to Cunningham that there was a great deal of potential — and potential legal work — here.

In fact, his first client turned out to be the same Stanley Switlik.

“He came to me and said that he was going to be doing a great deal of construction and would be needing a lawyer,” Cunningham said. “It just took off from there.”

Cunningham had many wonderful memories of those early years in Marathon. For instance, he recalled that in front of where Kennedy Studios now sits, there was store called Ye Ole Feshin’ Hole. Inside that building was a room where they showed movies on Friday and Saturday nights. On Sundays, they converted the space into a place where Catholics could celebrate the Mass.

“It was pretty rough. All they had were 8-by-12s on concrete blocks,” he said. “People who went there regularly had the sense to bring pillows. I learned that after the first movie I went to.”

He also recalled Handley’s Restaurant, which had gambling upstairs. Cunningham said that Handley was careful to only allow out-of-towners in to gamble. “If you were from Marathon,” Cunningham remembered, “he wouldn’t let you in.”

Marathon really began to come into its own in the late 1950s. By then, many of the small motels that still dot the island had been constructed and the main areas of development were well under way. In addition, the county had begun to spray for mosquitoes.

“Our original mosquito control consisted of people burning tar paper in barrels,” Cunningham said. “Those fires generated a lot of smoke and did help to keep mosquitoes away. Later, they started spraying with DDT, and it was ghastly stuff. People here used to say they didn’t know whether it would kill the mosquitoes or kill them. We all closed our windows when the trucks came by.”

Air conditioning was also fairly rare and, because the cost of electricity was so high, few people had it. At that time, power was generated locally and it wasn’t until the electric cooperative constructed the power lines to the Keys that it became affordable.

He also fondly remembers the shrimp boats that used to work out of Marathon.

“That was the heyday of the shrimping industry, and you used to be able to go down to the docks and buy a bucket of shrimp for 50 cents,” Cunningham recollected. “I used to love to go down and see how they’d hang their nets out all day after they came in.”

Cunningham had decidedly mixed feelings about how Marathon has developed.

“It’s gotten very difficult for middle-class families to buy houses and settle here,” he said. “There’s no easy answer to this problem, but back when we all settled here, very few people were wealthy. We bought CBS houses for eight or nine hundred dollars then.”

It was the fishermen who had all the money then. They were the millionaires. How times have changed.