The Keys History & Discovery Center: off and running

The Keys History & Discovery Center
The Keys History & Discovery Center

One of the great things about working at the restaurant was being able to clock in and clock out. After a night of describing that wonderful Lazy Days hogfish, coated in Japanese breadcrumbs, cooked until golden brown, topped with fresh diced tomatoes and scallions, sprinkled with parmesan cheese and finished with key lime butter, I was done. 

As curator of the Keys History & Discovery Center, I have not managed to work out that detail yet. I understand why. Figuring out the best way to tell the story of the Florida Keys in general and the Upper Keys in particular is a big job. Now, whether it was destiny, serendipity, or good old-fashioned fortuity, I developed a friendship with Upper Keys history guru Jerry Wilkinson back in 2009. 

Without the generosity of Jerry and the Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys much of the history of these islands would still be a mystery — at least to me. Jerry’s dedication to the preservation of the history of the Florida Keys and that of the Upper Keys in particular has been an incredible gift to our community. In fact, the next time you see him out and about, shake his hand and tell him thank you. The Discovery Center is thrilled to have him as an emeritus member on its board of directors.

In the meantime, over at the Keys History & Discovery Center we have unveiled our first permanent exhibit, “Legends of the Line.” In addition to a pretty cool collection of historic photographs, the exhibit features fishing poles used by President Bush, Sr. and his grandson during one of his many fishing trips to the area. The exhibit also includes a 46-inch touchscreen monitor where visitors can navigate their way through a list of the legendary captains, characters and locales that helped the Upper Keys develop into the sportfishing capital of the world.

The list includes but is hardly limited to Zane Grey, Ted Williams, President Herbert Hoover, as well as legendary fishing guides like Captain Bill Smith (the first ever to catch a bonefish on a fly rod), Bonefish Bonnie Smith, Jimmie Albright, Rodney Albury (whose first client was FDR), George Hommell, Jr. and Billy Pate.

In addition to the legends, the exhibit explores how fishing developed into a new industry in the Florida Keys, tourism. Ultimately this is only one of two exhibits that will explore the fishing industry. By the end of 2015, the plan is to have the first floor of the facility completed with a dozen permanent exhibitions installed. Future permanent exhibits will include, but not be limited to: Hurricanes and the Upper Keys; The Rails and The Road; First People; Spanish Treasure Fleets; Founding Families; Early Communities; Pirates, Wreckers, Farmers; and The Florida Reef. 

Why was Legends of the Line the first permanent exhibit unveiled at the Discovery Center? I had to start somewhere, and fishing does seem pretty popular in these parts. As for a calendar of exhibits scheduled for the rest of 2014, opening Aug. 28 will be “The Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.” The exhibit will present a series of stunning and sometimes startling photographs depicting the wrath of the most powerful hurricane to ever strike North America. Also included will be the story of the Florida Keys Memorial and the construction of the Red Cross or hurricane houses. The exhibit will run through Nov. 9.  

Opening Nov. 13 will be “The Rails and The Road,” an exhibit that will explore the complicated construction of “Flagler’s Folly,” the Key West Extension of the Florida East Coast Railway as well as the subsequent development of the Overseas Highway. “The Rails and The Road” will run through Feb. 1.

Also, to begin celebrating the state-of-the-art 40-seat movie theater we hope to open in early 2015, I am developing an exhibit on the second floor of the Discovery Center that will celebrate the movies that have either been filmed on location or Keys locations featured in the movies. In addition to film posters, trivia about the films will also be displayed. Once construction of the theater space has been completed, we might even show one or two of them! We will also be showing interviews with people like Wilbur Jones who survived the 1935 hurricane inside the relief train. I had the honor of interviewing him in December, 2013 at his home in Tallahassee; he was 101 years old and sharp as a tack.

The Keys History & Discovery Center is managed by the Florida Keys History and Discovery Foundation, a not-for-profit founded in 2013 to build and manage a world-class history and discovery center. While we are located on the property of the Islander Resort, a Guy Harvey Outpost, we operate as a separate entity and enjoy a 50-year lease with Islander owner David Curry. 

Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. He is the curator of the Keys History and Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at