Puto: Food, faith got us by

It’s been said that most women who came to live in Marathon in the 1950s hated the place and that many, if not most, left. Not Sylvia Puto.

She loved it from the moment that she and her late husband John moved here from Detroit by way of Pensacola and Miami.

“I never thought it wasn’t great,” Puto said. “We lived on snapper, and Michael [her son] walked down the street to fish. If the kids wanted to play in the sand or go shelling, they could — all year round.”

Sylvia is the daughter of Phil Sadowski, one of the primary developers of Marathon, including an area called Key Colony, Little Venice and Key Colony Beach. She and John helped develop the area between 107th and 108th streets. This includes what are now the Dog House and Specialty Hardware.

But most of all, she and John were a team, a business team. Sylvia handled the details including bookkeeping, secretarial tasks and other behind-the-scenes jobs.

Among the businesses that she and John ran was the restaurant in the Key Motel and Coffee Shop called the Key Lounge. Her father Phil built and owned the motel, which is now the Driftwood Lounge.

Running a restaurant in those days was a real challenge.

“Delivery trucks didn’t come down to Marathon then, so we had to go to Miami every week and pick up fresh vegetables and other food for the restaurant,” Puto remembered. “During the mosquito season, you had to keep your windows rolled up during the drive or they’d swarm in the window. It was terrible.”

According to Puto, the restaurant was one of the real hot spots in town with people lined up outside the door, waiting to get in.

She drove to get food for her family as well as for the restaurant. While there were two small grocery stores in town — the Cash and Carry and another owned by the Elwell family — Sylvia and a friend would pile into her green Mercury station wagon and head down to the A&P in Key West, where the prices were a little lower and the selection better.

Sylvia and John were also quite involved with the local Catholic community, helping to start both a church and a parochial school system in town.

“We raised money through a thrift shop, selling secondhand clothes to benefit the school,” she said. “Alan Schmitt donated space in an office building for the store. We never paid a dollar in rent.”

She repaired clothing, washed items that needed it, and even kept buttons and zippers from items that had seen better days. These were used later to repair other items. All of the proceeds from this hard work went to the church.

Sylvia and John joined 34 others — many of whom were tourists — at the first Mass in the Fenton Clothing Store. Each parishioner had to pay $2.50 toward the use of a wooden folding chair. Later, the congregation moved to quarters in the Ye Ole Feshin’ Hole store.

The space was used as the movie theater on Fridays and Saturdays, and the church on Sundays. Those who attended no longer sat on wooden chairs but on long wooden benches supported by concrete blocks.

Later, Phil Sadowski donated the property on which the current San Pablo Catholic Church now sits on 122nd Street. Puto lives right down the street and has since right after Hurricane Donna struck in 1960.

Unfortunately, the group couldn’t keep the school going because of a shortage of teachers.

“We just couldn’t get the nuns to come down and teach any more,” Puto remarked.

While some have said there wasn’t much to do in Marathon in those days, Puto disputes that notion. She cites the bowling alley they had, the movie theater, and, of course, the natural environment where her father loved to fish.

Puto looks upon Marathon now as the fulfillment of the dream that her father and others like him had in the early days.

“It’s hard to believe that all those seeds they planted grew so much,” she said. “It’s wonderful how the town has grown and prospered.”

She and her husband John were certainly integral to that growth and helped make Marathon what it is today.