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A little Green Turtle and green turtle history

The Rustic Inn was only one of a few structures in Islamorada not completely destroyed by the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane.
The Rustic Inn was only one of a few structures in Islamorada not completely destroyed by the 1935 Labor Day Hurricane.

Berlin Felton moved to Upper Matecumbe in the early 1930s — all the way from Rock Harbor. When Felton struck up a business partnership with Alonzo Cothron, the two formed the A&B Company. Alonzo represented the A and Berlin the B. Among the list of A&B holdings was the A&B Docks compound home to the aforementioned docks as well as an icehouse, marine repair shop and the A&B Grocery. Today, that Upper Matecumbe locale has been completely revamped and currently houses the scenic Pierre’s and Morada Bay properties.

Another of the A&B ventures included the property that is now home to Theater of the Sea where, before Henry Flagler’s flooded railroad quarry housed bottlenose dolphin performing for enthralled crowds, it was used by Alonzo and Berlin to reportedly raise stone crabs. A plaque outside the Theater of the Sea entrance references their stone crab story. 

The A&B logo is still visible in the Florida Keys, though only at Key West’s Schooner Wharf where the men established the A&B Lobster House in 1947. Still in operation, the restaurant boasts not only Alonzo’s Oyster Bar, but Berlin’s Cocktail and Cigar Bar. The two men had other buildings, outside of what they built together. The building Cothron might best be remembered for is the one that houses the Tavernier Hotel today. As for Felton, while what might be considered his most iconic contribution has physically departed Upper Matecumbe Key, its spirit certainly thrives.

Felton built the building known in 1935 as the Rustic Inn, operated by O.D. King. King’s facility offered gas pumps, cold beverages and during the Prohibition years, stronger drinks, libations. The Rustic Inn would not have been the only business at the time operating covertly in the Florida Keys. The Tavernier Tea Room, built circa 1928, had the same reputation. That building, by the way, is still standing — right beside Cothron’s Tavernier Hotel. 

One of the unfortunate things about Felton’s building, the Rustic Inn, is there does not seem to be any images of the building prior to Labor Day, September 2, 1935 (though if someone in the community has one I would sure love to see it). Thankfully, especially for the Parker family, the Rustic Inn proved one of only a handful of structures not completely obliterated when the Category 5 1935 Labor Day Hurricane practically scrubbed the Matecumbe keys clean. 

Edna and Edny Parker (along with their children) who had lived south of the Rustic Inn prior to the storm, were particularly thankful to find shelter in the twisted remains of the building (even while standing in ankle-deep water) after their home was destroyed and they were left exposed.  

The Rustic Inn was rebuilt after the storm and, in 1947, the same year the A&B Lobster House was established, Sid and Roxy Siderius opened what would become one of the most iconic businesses to ever line the Overseas Highway. Sid and Roxy bought the property formerly known as the Rustic Inn and opened the Green Turtle. The Florida Keys Weekly News commemorated the event on October 25 when they announced, “Sid and Roxy Siderius who previously operated the Seabreeze Bar and Restaurant will have the formal opening of the Green Turtle at Islamorada, Saturday evening, October 25th. Free drinks and eats from 7 to 9. The public is cordially invited.”

As for the restaurant side of the business, standouts on the Green Turtle menu were the obvious, turtle steaks, stews and chowders. To the unfortunate distinction of the green turtle, the species became recognized as the turtle that rendered the tastiest stock for the soup that grew to attain worldwide popularity. Interestingly enough, the green turtle is not named for the color of its shell, flippers or scales, but for the color of the layer of fat found beneath its shell. 

When Sid and Roxie purchased the Rustic Inn, it included not only the restaurant structure, but a few small cabins that could be rented to fishermen or other tourists. They also acquired a turtle cannery incorporated as Sid & Roxie’s Seafood Cannery. The cannery had been located on the opposite side of the road, on the bayside of the Overseas Highway—where the Islamorada Fish Company property is today. In any case, back in the day when the cannery was operating in full-swing, between 200-500 live green turtles were trucked weekly up the highway from Key West and delivered to Sid and Roxie’s.

The Key West restaurant, Turtle Kraals, has the historic distinction of being located on the grounds of what was once one of Key West’s historic turtle canneries, the first of which opened in 1849. While several canneries operated at the locale over time, it seems to have been Armand Granday who found the first real success. “At the time the industry was first started, Mr. Granday secured his turtles from the water about Key West, but they become so scarce in these waters that the turtles used in the manufacture of the soup are now caught in the Caribbean Sea along the Gulf of Mexico, with some from the coast of Nicaragua” (Norberg Thompson, 1914, The New and Greater Key West told in picture and story). 

As demand for turtle meat grew, the marine reptiles became harder and harder to find —especially green turtles. When the U.S. Department of the Interior created a list of 60 “possibly endangered species” in 1964, the green turtle made the list. An already declining turtle industry was coming to a stop. The first catch restrictions were implemented in 1971. The industry ended once and for all, at least in the United States, when all marine turtles fell under the protective umbrella of the Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973. 

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 WhyPanic@aol.com.

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