Generations define the Middle Keys

There wasn’t much to the Middle Keys in the 19th Century, but that all changed at the turn of the century.

From 1906 through 1916, Marathon was a construction town, populated by the rough workers who built the Florida East Coast Railway Extension. Upon completion of the extension, they departed, leaving a number of buildings for the next generation of Marathon residents — the commercial fishermen who moved into town in the late 1920s.

They built the infrastructure to process and pack fish products. These were hardy settlers, living with mosquitoes and no electricity. Despite the 1935 hurricane and World War II, these early settlers stayed. They saw the pipeline bring water in 1942 and enjoyed electric power when it came to Marathon in 1946. There were about 400 people in town at that time. They read the Key West Citizen.

After the war, a new generation of settlers moved to Marathon.

In 1948, there were 40 youths at Sue Moore School. By 1956 there would be 435. The town grew dramatically. This new group of people bought the first edition of the Keynoter — the initial issue had a circulation of 500. What was this generation like? Who were they?

Most of the newcomers were entrepreneurs of one kind of another. There were no established industries or professional positions. The postwar pioneers came because they saw opportunities to build motels, restaurants, stores, newspapers and other businesses common to most towns in the U.S. Visionaries like Stanley Switlik and Phil Sadowski saw opportunities to build whole communities, to develop projects — to make money.

Many of the new arrivals were disenchanted with mainstream America and found a free and easy lifestyle in the Middle Keys. There were professional photographers such as Ed Swift Jr., who towed a trailer down from St. Louis with his wife and infant son, intent on finding a new way to live outside the rat race.

In Marathon, the Swifts met others of the same mind who were willing to give up the larger world for a chance to be free spirits. Many, such as the Brighams who built the Drop Ankr Restrunt, were educated professionals who wanted to change a gray flannel lifestyle for comfortable tennis shoes and shorts. Misfits like these found Marathon to be heaven.

Good fishing drew many to the town. It was a time when a professional captain could count on providing his charter with big fish and broken tackle. The fishing was better in the 1950s — marlin, sailfish, monster jewfish and grouper, trophy tarpon, and no regulations.

Some of the premier charter captains gave up jobs as engineers and businessmen so they could fish every day and have their customers pay the bill. Locals could count on stopping on the Seven Mile Bridge, catching enough fish for dinner in a few minutes, and then driving home. Then, like now, fishing was part of the culture.

Of course some came for the weather and the beauty of the Keys.

Ruth Alice Campbell and her husband Tex first came to the Keys in April 1947 on their honeymoon. It was love at first sight — the water, flowery trees, clouds, sunset and tropical weather made them leave promising careers in New York. They, like others in the new wave, scratched out an income by doing multiple jobs — driving trucks, painting the Seven Mile Bridge, running a motel and starting a vending machine company.

Most of the locals were jacks of all trades, doing whatever necessary to survive in the Keys.

Marathon was a wild and wide open town in many respects. Many of this generation were addicted to alcohol and cigarettes. Marathon was a town of bars, and drinking was no sin. There were abstainers and non-smokers, of course, but no one held that against them.

There are stories that every five years, everyone divorced to marry someone else’s spouse, and that there was a moderate infidelity rate in town. Maybe that was because many of the early Keynoter readers were fresh from winning the greatest war of all times, had flown monster bombers over foreign lands, and sailed under the seas in submarines. They had guts, high hopes and infinite belief in their own immortality.

The wild bunch did not run the town. There were a core of new and old Marathon residents who saw that the future should include a country club, yacht club, more churches, a hospital and better schools. These people worked for their dreams and achieved them, improving the town for themselves, their children and the party people.

We see names on dedication plaques honoring these people throughout Marathon today: Parrish, Tingler, BuShea, Zetterower, Goggin, Greenman, Ivins, Schmitt, Eisenbarth, Cunningham, Bateman, Puto and many more.

These were the people who read the Keynoter in 1953 and put together the social and economic infrastructure that we enjoy 50 years later.