Despite a lifetime of Florida Keys adventures, native-born Joe Pinder knows exactly what was happening in his life in February 1953.
It had nothing to do with hurricanes, although he survived both the deadly Labor Day storm in 1935 and Hurricane Donna in 1960.
A half-century ago, it was all about Bobby, soon to be his wife. Finding a good woman in the Upper Keys had not been easy.
“All the girls were kin to me!” said Pinder, from an island pioneer family seemingly related to all the Parkers, the Alburys, the Russells and the rest.
When Bobby visited her grandparents on Lower Matecumbe Key, it was news.
“When a new girl came down, the guys would fight to see who got the first date,” Pinder said.
They married Feb. 7, 1953. All three of their grown sons — Jack, Henry and Buddy — still live locally. Joe Pinder supported his family with a series of careers, including six years as the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office’s only Upper Keys deputy.
“My territory was from the county line to the west end of Long Key Bridge. One day a week, I had Marathon, too,” he said. “We worked 10 hours a day and were on call the other 14.”
But times were different.
“There weren’t very many people here,” Pinder said. “We didn’t have many problems, compared to the way it is now.... The Sheriff’s Office is a whole lot bigger, but I wouldn’t want to put up with the things these guys have to put up with.”
Most of the calls he answered from 1954 to 1960 were “accidents, drunk drivers and a domestic disturbances.”
“You took a lot of the drunks home and put them to bed,” Pinder said. “Not to be nice, but if you arrested them, you had to drive them to jail — in Key West. That made you think twice.”
Much of his time as a deputy was spent taking suspects to Key West, until the Plantation Key substation opened in 1956. He put up to 75,000 miles a year on his police cruiser — which he had to buy and maintain.
“The salary was $420 a month, and another $120 for the car,” he said. “The department supplied the gas and oil, but you had to buy and maintain the car.”
A 1960 Ford Police Interceptor cost $3,000 new, he remembered. “It would go 160 mph, but got nine miles to the gallon.”
There were not many cars to chase. After an armed robbery at the Gulf gas station at Venetian Shores, police in Florida City set up a roadblock. “The second car they stopped were the guys,” said Pinder.
Oh, the hurricanes
In 1960, Hurricane Donna took aim at the Keys. Pinder took his wife and sons to Miami, then returned to the Plantation Key substation to ride out the storm.
“We arrested two guys from Fort Lauderdale who were out driving around in a Thunderbird,” he said. “After the storm, they told us that they probably would have been killed if we hadn’t taken them in. We had an inch and a half of water in the substation.”
The storm washed out most of the Upper Keys bridges (a barge smashed into Tea Table Bridge), so the men were ferried across Tavernier Creek and sent home.
The Thunderbird stayed, and was put into duty as a temporary police car.
“There was stuff all over the road so you couldn’t drive without getting a flat tire. My patrol car got four flat tires, so we started using the Thunderbird. By the time they towed it north, it had three flat tires, too.”
It took the area months to recover. Pinder could not reach his Lower Matecumbe home — flooded by several feet of water — for weeks, until he hitched a ride on a military helicopter. The National Guard distributed food from Coral Shores High School.
While Donna was harrowing, it was nothing compared to 1935, when his family was washed out of their home as the structure collapsed in the wind and surge of a hurricane that took hundreds of lives in the Upper Keys. The 5-year-old Joe clung to a floating mattress with his father.
“The rain came down so hard, it took the skin off your head in that spot behind your ears,” he said.
A building crashed onto his mother, causing injuries that kept her bedridden for six months before she recovered fully.
Joe Pinder was born in Key West in 1930 to a family that came to the Florida Keys as homesteaders in 1870.
He remembers going to work at age 10, at the AB Fish House in Islamorada (near where Morada Bay stands now). “It was nothing to cook up 10,000 to 12,000 pounds of crawfish to ship out,” he said.
In his youth, he also worked his own string of 15 lobster traps. “We were paid 10 cents a pound, but could make $30 to $40 a week, good money for the time,” Pinder said. “Grunts sold for 3 to 5 cents a pound. Yellowtail was about 10 cents a pound.”
He also shoveled rock and sand for construction projects at 50 cents an hour, and studied in high school to learn about appliances and the relatively new science of air-conditioning. After leaving law enforcement, he joined the maintenance staff at Cheeca Lodge, and later opened his own appliance business.
“It’s nothing like it used to be in the Keys,” he said. “I told my sons: You don’t have fun like I used to, and your sons won’t have fun like you did.... We’d go to the beach, where Port Antigua is, for swim parties on hot days. We’d relax and cook hot dogs, if the mosquitoes didn’t run us off.”
As part of his law-enforcement duties, Pinder often drove then-state Rep. Bernie Papy and County Commissioner Harry Harris to meetings or events.
Both Harris and Papy played large roles in the history of the Keys, although some cite them as perfect examples of Monroe County’s “Bubba System.”
“I know a lot of people don’t like Bernie Papy, but I thought he was great,” said Pinder. “He worked for Monroe County up in Tallahassee, just like Harry Harris was one of the first to work for the Upper Keys on the County Commission.”
Pinder entered Keys politics in the late 1970s, when he was nominated by then-state Rep. Joe Allen to fill a vacancy on the Monroe County Mosquito Control Board.
He filled out the term and went on to win his own elections during 17 years on the district board.
“The Keynoter always backed my opponent,” he pointed out with a smile, “but I always won. I tried to treat people right and keep the budget down.... But my name helped. Back then, no one named Pinder would lose an election in Key West.”